Gretchen DiFante, a newcomer to the school board, has four children who are currently in the Batavia City School District and a daughter -- Lauren, age 19 -- in the Air Force. Her son John, 17, and daughter Nina, 15, both go to Batavia High School. Her two younger daughters -- Elena, 10, and Eva, 7 -- go to John Kennedy Elementary School.
Her children have attended all schools in the district except for the middle school (her three oldest children attended Robert Morris, and one of them switched to that school from Jackson Elementary School; all three attended St. Joseph School for grades six through eight); her daughter Elena will be attending the middle school next year.
DiFante is currently the executive director of a Penfield-based nonprofit called Agape Counseling Associates, which just opened up an office in Batavia. Before that, she was the executive vice president of P.W. Minor shoe company and the director of efficient customer support for Rich Products.
She has won awards for her work in marketing and communications. During Operation Desert Storm, she was part of an award-winning public affairs unit for the Air Force Reserves' 914th Tactical Airlift Group in Niagara Falls. Her wide range of experience includes customer relations, communication and conflict/stress management.
What experience do you have that makes you a valuable member of the school board, and how will your degree in Communications help?
My concentration was in Public Relations, but Communications is a pretty open field. It has given me the opportunity to work in advertising, marketing and public relations -- being a general degree, it has opened up a lot of doors and allowed me to use a lot of different skills. My experience with customer service allows me to be more savvy at looking at budgets and managing departments, processes and flows, and how they come together.
As far as the school board goes, I think that when your community has a need, and there is a piece of it that you believe is missing -- something that you can supplement with your particular set of skills -- then that's an opportunity for you to step forward. And I believe that the particular skill set that encourages open communication, knows how to communicate during a crisis, and knows how to manage change is absent on the board right now.
The board and administration do recognize (that they struggle with communication), and I appreciate that. I work with clients who work in places where people are in a crisis mode at work; it's normal for communication to shut down when you're in conflict, because you don't know what to say and you're trying to protect yourself. Not everybody needs to be crafting that communication. Sometimes if you speak without having the right knowledge or experience, it can bite you back. When GCC was putting together a leadership certificate program for our public employees and they asked if I'd do the PR part of it -- how to train people on what to say to the media and so forth -- I found that sometimes the biggest part of the job is getting people to know when not to say things to the media, because sometimes people just don't think. It takes practice, skill, and a certain type of knowledge.
I believe that my background in change management and crisis communication goes into the places that need to be fixed and that nobody really wants to take over. When I was working at Rich Products, they made me an interim department head because they were looking for a new vice president. That seems to be how things happen for me, and I enjoy that. I enjoy the challenge of going into places where there is a lot of change, people are stressed, and the customer communication is failing because people forget about how to do that during times of change and stress. I think my particular background and experience is only going to enhance what is needed right now.
People say business experience doesn't go a long way on school boards because school districts and New York State are so different from businesses in how they operate. How do you plan to translate your business experience into this completely different environment?
I have a very unusual business background. I got into working with different organizations when I was at Rich Products, because I was an "executive on loan." Mr. Rich would basically lend me out. He lent me out to one of the public schools, the Erie County Clerk's Office, the Saddle & Bridle Club...just whenever people needed help doing a strategic plan, a marketing plan, or communication (both within the company and between the company and the public).
I don't think translating my business experience to a school board is going to be a problem. Right now I'm the executive director of a small nonprofit, and that's a whole different ball game from being an executive vice president at P.W. Minor or running a $2 billion department at Rich Products. So I'm very flexible, and I have experience that's varied. I love learning, and I love trying to figure out what (a given) group needs at a particular place and time, and how I can help meet that need. Right now, the school board needs vision, strategy, structure, communication, and public relations, and I've brought those skills to every job I've had. Don't get me wrong, it's a big learning curve (being on the school board). But believe me, in the military you deal with a lot of federal mandates. Right now I'm running a nonprofit that has to do with medical work, and I deal with HIPAA laws and insurance companies. I'm used to complications.
What made you want to run for the school board in the first place?
(What made me want to run was) looking around and seeing the trust break down between the schools, teachers, parents and the community. It was painful to go to those public forums and to see all the (bad communication) on the Internet, at Tops, while jogging at the track...it's the most critical dilemma facing Batavia right now. I do strategic planning with the city, and to start that off I interviewed council members one-on-one. Even their constituents want to talk about what's going on with the schools. I looked at that and at what's missing (on the school board and in the district), and I knew I had the skills to fill in those missing links. And that's what being a good citizen is about.
Part of your platform is the fostering of creative community partnerships. Could you talk a bit more about that? What exactly do you have in mind?
I'm in a unique place, because I work with leaders in our community at a strategic level. I also do that with Genesee Community College, and they are a recipient of the "products" that we graduate from our schools. There definitely has to be a lot of collaboration between the SUNY schools and our high schools and middle schools. A lot of the problems GCC sees start way before high school or middle school. I've also been on the steering committee that formed Leadership Genesee. So my exposure to leadership is very high. And everybody complains about the same thing. They'll say, "If only this group of people or this organization would partner with us..." They are struggling to figure out the answer to their problems themselves, but I know there are other groups that are trying to figure out the same thing. So why can't we all just get together? Everyone generally agrees that we all need to come together, but who is taking the lead?
The school board is going to keep losing money. I don't think there's a plethora of surplus money that's going to come down from New York State or the federal government. We have to be realistic and plan for the future. We have to ask how, for example, we can supplement our ACE program with programs that GCC could offer, that Leadership Genesee could offer, etc. I would love to see our district have a mentorship program. We have a lot of dynamic, intelligent people in this community, and yet we don't have active mentorship programs that I'm aware of. On my website, I mentioned a grant for creativity training that GCC got, which is for students going into middle school. We could work with them and seek out grants that will supplement needs in the schools instead of just stumbling upon them. So I'm talking about a much different level of collaboration. I think there is so much opportunity and that we need to start sitting down and getting to know each other, finding out what's available, and figuring out how to create opportunities for our students. We cannot allow their education to suffer just because we're not getting what we need in order to fund the school district.
What are your thoughts on the proposed budget?
I do believe the budget needs to pass, because we have a lot of key programs that we had lost reinstated. If the budget doesn't pass and the contingency budget is adopted, the ACE program and the music programs that have been reinstated will go away. That's where the $300,000 savings will come from. I think it's important that the voters understand that.
I believe the proposed budget meets the needs of the consolidation. Obviously there are some things that are being taken away. And the consolidation is hard for me -- it's hard for everybody. My three oldest kids were students at Robert Morris Elementary School, and I have very fond memories. We're emotional about our schools. We have ties to them, but we have to let those go. We need to move toward whatever's next.
The problem is that we don't have "whatever's next" defined. We've got to do a better job of defining what the future looks like for us. I don't want to sit around and lament what we've lost, I want us to make sure we have the best district in the state of New York. I want people to benchmark it because we are doing such a great job providing this great, enriched, well-rounded education for our students and because they're going places...To me it's not so important what the school district looks like. What's important are the results.
Getting back to the budget, I think it's also important for people to understand that we are depleting our fund balance. At a couple of the public forums I attended, people said: "You know, you've got $1 million, why don't you just wait another year and let us figure this thing out?" But what people need to understand is that it's not "money-out, money-in," it's just money-out. So they've got to have a strategy now for what they're going to do when there is no more fund balance. I would hate to see us take a step back and not pass the budget. I would hate to see us automatically lose another $300,000 just because we don't pass our budget. That's one of the alternatives, and I don't want to take that chance.
You've talked about the possibility of having a third-party mediator at the district's public forums. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Well, first of all, I have certification in conflict mediation from the Litigation Center of Rochester, which I got when I started working in consulting. The reality is that healthy organizations allow themselves to face conflict using measures and smart processes to get through the conflicts and come out on the better end. People disagree because they have different ways of looking at the same situation. When you are trying to bring two sides of a conflict together, you never use anyone who represents either party to be the mediator. What I have seen at the public forums for the school district is that mediators who represented the board of education got defensive, which is natural. It's good to have an objective third party so that you can listen. The board needs to be listening, not getting involved in the conversation. And that was not what happened in those forums.
Somebody who understands communication and its dynamics needs to help. And believe me, I know 100 percent that I could find someone who would facilitate these forums for us and would not charge us. There are people who want to serve. We just need to recognize what we need, and then go out and ask.
Do you have any closing comments?
I want us to be proud of Batavia. I want us to be proud to send our kids to school here and of the opportunities available. Batavia is the 13th city I have lived in, and it's the city in which I've chosen to raise my family. We're here for the long haul, and we want to see it become the best school district in the state. Whatever it looks like, that's my vision. We can do this -- we have a lot of resources, a lot of potential. I'm amazed at the talent we have in our area. We just need to get talking to each other, to have a vision that people can rally around and move forward.
For more information on DiFante and her background and platform, visit difante4schoolboard.com.
Photo courtesy of David DiFante.