This is a transcript of an interview conducted with Catherine Huber, Ed.D., superintendent of the Alexander Central School District, on May 15. It's taken us some time to prepare the transcript for publication. It's been lightly edited for clarity.
The interview came about following publication of a story published April 25, Group of Alexander parents express frustration at how the school is handling discipline, student safety. Shortly after publication, the attorney for ACSD, Jennifer Schwartzott, e-mailed The Batavian and demanded a retraction. The Batavian did not retract the story, and the school district eventually dropped its demand for a retraction and agreed to an interview with Huber.
Context for the interview also includes the stories: Five school districts in Genesee County restrict speech for board members and NYSSBA deputy director addresses confusion about free speech rights of school board members.
Huber became superintendent of Alexander in December 2016.
THE BATAVIAN: We've heard from several parents, especially after our story a few weeks ago, who express frustration with the school district. They feel they are not being heard and they're powerless. This is more than just a few disgruntled parents. Why is this so pervasive? How did it become this way, and what changes are you making sure the parents are empowered?
CATHERINE HUBER: I just want to respond to that we listen to all concerns, questions that are brought to our attention. When I say we, I mean me, I mean teachers, building administrators, and our Board of Education. We deal with every situation that's brought to our attention and while sometimes there might not seem to be a resolution or might not be a resolution that people have all the details about does not mean that we're not responding.
TB: Is there anything you need to review that parents aren't getting -- how can you help parents feel more empowered, that they are being listened to?
CH: Do you have a specific situation that you --.
TB: Well, we're not supposed to discuss specific situations --.
TB: And, you know, there was the parents with the two meetings that had come up and then after a story posted we got so much feedback and social media emailed to me of like, "right on, finally somebody standing up for us." So, there is definitely a feeling out there that parents don't feel empowered and don't feel like they're being listened to. So, I'm wondering if there is a self-reflection of anything, anything you can do differently?
CH: I can assure you that we're always reviewing our processes and reflecting on how we conduct our business.
TB: Does it concern you to have this pop up like this?
CH: So, one of the things that is so fantastic about Alexander is that this school is the heart of the community and there is nothing like this community. This community loves its schools and there are so many outstanding things that are happening in this school every day. We have students who are successful on the stage, on the field, academically. We have community members, faculty, and staff who are engaged in all sorts of processes around the school all to make sure that people know that they have a voice in this school.
CH: One of the things that I'm most proud of, and I know that you were privy to some of this during your budget presentation last week, is that we've set up a whole system of committees. They are open to anybody -- community members, faculty, staff. We have student representatives on our committees. Some of the committees that we're working on right now, we have a capital project committee, we have members of our community, We have people from our transportation department, our administrators, our teachers, our staff, we have a student representative, who are not only talking about what we're going to be doing moving forward with our next project -- and I think you walked in through our last project, our beautiful new foyer -- but we're also talking about what's our vision for what Alexander will be in the next five or 10 years and then how our facilities can match up with that.
CH: We have community members and faculty and staff and students involved and all our hiring committees so we're about to start hiring for two of our retirements and those committees are important things that we're doing. We have our safety committee that has community members on it as well. We have a wellness committee. Again, representatives from across our community. Tim and I actually once a month meet with the mayor and the town supervisor in Alexander, again, as an opportunity to reach out to the community and to make sure that we always stay focused on the fact that this school is the heart of the community.
CH: That's what I want us to be focusing on. Our practices and the way that we communicate, the way that we are available -- those are all things that as any good professional will do. We're reflecting on all the time but what I'd really love to do is to get back to the conversation about all the great things that are happening at Alexander.
TB: I appreciate that. If there is any parent out there who feels that they haven't been heard, what would you encourage them to do?
CH: I would encourage them to follow the chain of command and the chain of command would be that you start with the classroom teacher. You move to the building administrator. If you still don't feel satisfied, you would move to the superintendent. And then, as appropriate, I could refer that to the Board of Education. That's in our policy.
CH: Being heard is not the same necessarily as getting the answer that you expect. We all know that. But I can assure you that parents are heard. Community members are heard when they reach out.
TB: Moving on, why should the board speak with one voice?
CH: The board should speak with one voice for several different reasons. The board by policy designates a spokesperson for the school district. We have that policy for you and I know that you've gathered those policies from other school districts as well and the board by policy has designated the superintendent as the spokesperson. Our board has also gone a step further. Recently we did a board retreat and the board established norms, which you also probably saw on our website, and one of the norms that the board established was that they would speak with one voice. They would speak with one voice on matters related to the school district. Board members individually don't have power on their own. They have power and they come together around the board table. That is not the same as their inability to express an opinion. Anybody has the ability to express an opinion. But in terms of commenting on district business, the board members only can speak with that same one voice as a board and not as individuals and they've designated the superintendent, as they probably have in most school districts, as the spokesperson for the district.
TB: Before this whole issue came up, I never, in 30 years of journalism come across agencies that said we must speak as one voice, that individual people are not their own independent agents who are responsible to their constituents. What you describe sounds like the kind of thing we would expect in Communist China where we all must be on the same page, people aren't allowed to dissent.
CH: You have the policies and I know you have the policies from the other school districts as well.
TB: Do your members have a right to dissent?
CH: Absolutely, they do.
TB: So why are they not allowed to speak those opinions if asked?
JENNIFER SCHWARTZOTT: That isn't what she said. She didn't say --
TB: I'm asking this, this because this has been my experience. Nobody can speak their opinions individually, from my experience in dealing with this school district. So I don't know, why that is?
CH: Can you maybe use a different word than allowed? Where are you finding that nobody can speak?
TB: That's comes from your statements and her statements to me.
JS: That is certainly not my statements as we've -- I'm not part of this interview, so if you want to ask Dr. Huber what her statements are you certainly can but she can't speak for me --
(NOTE: Since this interview, The Batavian has twice emailed Schwartzott offering her an opportunity to clarify her position. She hasn't acknowledged the emails.)
TB: When the first time I tried to talk to you the clear message as we speak with only one voice.
TB: Which is negating dissent or individuals’ views.
CH: It's in keeping with our policy. An important thing to keep in mind, too, is that one of the central jobs of a Board of Education is that they get to approve a policy. So, Boards of Education approve the policy that talks about things like who is the spokesperson for the board.
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