SBNC candidate Resnick-Ault seeks school board seat

Written By  NICHOLAS PERRONE

Appeared in Scarsdale Inquirer on May 3rd, 2021

Jessica Resnick-Ault sees herself as a journalism expert — a reporter who is capable of debriefing and synthesizing some of the most difficult situations to figure out what went wrong — and she’s hoping to bring those skills to work on the Scarsdale Board of Education.

As an energy reporter for 20 years, she’s covered some of America’s greatest disasters — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and hurricanes Katrina and Maria — and has interviewed sources, gathered data and talked with experts on all things energy. Her tenacity to jump into a topic on short notice and get all the data necessary, she believes, will make her a prime asset on the board of education.

“It’s hard to make a decision without having all the facts and I think it’s wrong to make a decision without having all the facts,” said Resnick-Ault, who has a daughter at Edgewood School. “My goal in running [for school board] really is to bring reporter chops to the board. To ask questions, to get the data, to help the board synthesize the data and reach a decision.”

Resnick-Ault, 40, joins James Dugan as a candidate on the School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC) slate in the May 18 election.

Current Scarsdale School Board Vice President Alison Singer is running for reelection as an independent candidate because the SBNC did not nominate her for a second term. Irin Israel, an outspoken critic of the board, is also running as an independent candidate.

With current board President Pamela Fuehrer’s term expiring in July, two seats are open on the school board.

Hailing from Brookline, Massachusetts, Resnick-Ault’s parents were both university professors (her father later became a lawyer). She became interested in journalism after she took a class on crime while attending Brown University in Rhode Island. After delving into journalism studies, she started her career at the Providence Journal where she covered school board meetings and the rollout of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act.

While also covering breaking news, she caught wind of a controversial liquefied natural gas facility slated to be built in Rhode Island, and she became an expert on the subject. Her energy reporting garnered attention and she was eventually offered a position at The Wall Street Journal to cover energy full time. Later on, she took a position at Bloomberg and she now works at Reuters.

“As a wire service journalist, I juggle. I’m always working on daily market reports and on longer-term cases,” said Resnick-Ault. “I think I’m someone that has the ability to operate on two planes; the current moment crisis: ‘Oh my gosh, a refinery is on fire’ [to the] long term: ‘Hey, climate change is happening and it’s impacting our energy infrastructure system, we better write about that, too.’ I don’t ever have only one thing on my plate.”

Resnick-Ault co-wrote a book on Leon Hess, the famed oil baron who was well known for popularizing Hess toy truck collectibles.

After living for a time in Jersey City, she and her husband Peter, now deceased, decided to move to Scarsdale. Moving a bit closer to family, the couple was enticed to move to the village for its school district and welcoming community. They were also able to find a house that was wheelchair accessible, as Pete had Duchenne muscular dystrophy and the couple were asked fewer questions and didn’t face the same roadblocks they experienced while looking for houses in other places.

When choosing a school district she made a spreadsheet comparing various districts in the area, and chose Scarsdale for its unique classes and engaging curriculum.

She also has been involved locally, volunteering at Bake Back America, and has been an active class parent, serving as the chair of Edgewood PTA’s Community Service Committee.

“I love being in the classroom and learning about what’s going on in there,” she said.

She knew she made the right decision to move to Scarsdale when in 2017 Resnick-Ault’s husband Peter died of complications related to muscular dystrophy. Resnick-Ault’s daughter still wanted to attend school the day he died and the Edgewood staff stepped up to help facilitate a discussion of what had happened.

“I believe that Scarsdale does have a great capacity to deal with the grief that kids have dealt with this year. Whether it’s grief over lost sports, whether it’s grief over lost grandparents, whether it’s grief over not having the senior year they expected,” she said. “I have seen some of those resources firsthand and while … there are plans to ramp them up next year in the budget, I think that that is an area in which we have proven we have triumphed.”

Though she has professional experience in breaking down situations and figuring out what went wrong, Resnick-Ault said if elected to the board she doesn’t want to get caught up in analyzing the past and instead wants to focus on the future, especially since much of the board and district’s focus over the past year has rightly been on responding to the pandemic.

She said she wants to come to the board with an open mind, support what the board is already doing, and bring a new voice to the discussions.

Resnick-Ault said she supports the board’s recently adopted $166.8 million budget. If she were on the board, she said she would want to make sure there was flexibility with budget since there are still unknowns for the coming school year.

“I will pay super close attention to the budget. I am familiar with municipal budgets [and] … with complex financial statements,” she said. “I will ask questions until I understand those documents in their entirety and vote for them when I feel that they are truly in the best interest of the community.”

In March, Irin Israel, who was not running as a candidate for the school board at the time, submitted a FOIL request for architectural information about district buildings and received a study by BBS Architects dated Jan. 8, which found that using a graphic method analysis, rather than a square footage analysis, 507 more occupants could theoretically be added to the elementary schools at 100% capacity. The presentation had been kept internal and wasn’t shared with the board, the district’s Restart Steering Committee or the public.

Resnick-Ault said she thought it was important that board members ask questions and understand what informs the educational professional’s and architectural space management professional’s decision.

“There were some meetings I attended or listened to where I thought perhaps more questions could’ve been asked,” she said, adding that she didn’t know if there had been private correspondence or other discussions, which could have given board members enough clarity. “You have to make sure you have as much information as you possibly can and that you understand what is informing the experts’ decision-making.”

Though she doesn’t want to get bogged down in everything that’s happened this year, when asked if the information related to the FOIL should’ve been publicly released, Resnick-Ault said that postmortems often conducted by municipalities and school districts for such events help the officials lay out the details and figure out how to do better in the future.

“As an excellent school district that’s what we need to do. The board needs to review who knew what, when, and whether there was some information that would’ve enabled them to do their job better,” said Resnick-Ault. “It’s really easy to Monday morning quarterback what happened in a room that I wasn’t in and I’m not going to do that.”

With many unknowns going into September and the future of virtual-only learning in flux, Resnick-Ault said she would want to attend a board meeting, listen to the experts and ask hard questions before coming to a decision on virtual learning. She said it was a topic where districtwide data needed to be collected before making a decision.

“As a journalist, I listen to the people who know the most about a topic,” she said, referencing the research she did for the book about Leon Hess. “This is a case where I need to learn, because I don’t think we have all the data necessarily. I personally, definitely, don’t have all the data and I think it’s important that really fact-based decisions are made.”

When it comes to improvements the board can make, Resnick-Ault said stakeholder coffees could be a great opportunity to help bring in some of the people who have felt disenfranchised or can’t attend board meetings because of the late hour.

“To make people feel that … they have a voice I think is very important,” she said. “I have friends who are teachers, I have friends who are parents, I have friends who are empty nesters and I think everyone has a different perspective on what they’d like to see,” and while it’s impossible to make everyone happy, Resnick-Ault said she thinks “everyone can feel listened to or feel that they had a forum to be listened to.”

Resnick-Ault said she thought it was important that the board has recognized there is a desire for greater community dialogue and said she is optimistic that there will be more community dialogue.

Moving into the new school year in September, Resnick-Ault said the district needs to address students’ mental and academic health with a clear plan and supports the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion policy even though there was some criticism about how well thought out and explicit the policy was.

“I think it is great if a proposal comes in fully formed, but I also think that part of being a board is to be able to ask for more details about a proposal to help format [and] to give some guidance — not to micromanage it — but to make sure that it is implementable and feasible,” she said.

Overall, Resnick-Ault said that, although she believes the Scarsdale School District did much better responding to the pandemic than other districts in Westchester, some community members felt disenfranchised by the process, and a more inclusive process could’ve fostered better community unity. Going forward, Resnick-Ault said the priority should be following through with the board’s strategic goals and mission and making sure that every child is receiving the emotional, academic and social opportunities they need regardless of obstacles that emerge.

“I want kids of all abilities to have great public school experiences,” said Resnick-Ault. “I’m willing to give a lot of my … time to make sure that happens.”

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