Introducing Journalist, Author, Community Volunteer and Candidate for Scarsdale School Board Jessica Resnick-Ault
Written By Joanne Wallenstein
Appeared in Scarsdale 10583 on April 22nd, 2021
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi! I'm Jessica Resnick-Ault, I'm the mom of a fifth grader at Edgewood, and have lived in Scarsdale since 2014, and in Westchester since 2012. I'm a journalist, editor and published author. I currently work for Reuters, covering energy policy and markets. For the past 20 years, I have covered broad ranging topics for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal and Providence Journal. I have covered everything from No Child Left Behind to municipal bonds to the Enron trial and Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2015, I wrote a book on Hess - the oil company best known for its toy trucks. I have done a wide variety of community service, particularly in education, over the past two decades, and come from a family of educators. My husband, Peter Gimbel, died in 2017 of complications from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and continues to be one of my biggest inspirations for his calm and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Why did you decide to run this year?
When I was approached and asked to submit an application to the board, I decided to go through the SBNC vetting process because I care deeply about the future of Scarsdale schools. Not just this school year and next, not only the recovery from COVID, but the health and growth of the schools over the next decade, and the ones after that. I believe that the excellence of our schools sets us apart from many communities, not just regionally, but nationally, and is a key part of what makes our village an attractive and welcoming one to live in. I am compelled to serve at a time when reopening in the wake of the pandemic is a critical mission, but it is not my sole focus. I believe that it is crucial to have a board that can simultaneously manage short term objectives and still consider big-picture vision and mission so that we have a system that is resilient and continues to evolve. Scarsdale deserves a district that stays at the forefront pedagogically and technologically and is prepared for ever-changing new challenges. Scarsdale also deserves a board that makes all stakeholders feel appreciated and listened to and is respectful of prismatic views.
How do you expect your skills as a journalist to inform your work on the Board of Education?
I am at my best as a journalist when I am on the phone or in person, talking to people to learn every side of an issue. Researching and reading enable me to stay informed, so that I can formulate questions that I know my readers want answered. For the board of education, that would translate into being able to have the pulse of what is important to the community and keep that in mind as I research upcoming policies, look at how they have been implemented elsewhere, and bring up questions that are pressing to the community before making a decision. As a journalist, I have carefully covered the post-mortem on events like Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon and others that disrupted municipal life. I am ready to look at the strengths and weaknesses that our district showed in the past year and help formulate a mission going forward so that we are stronger for the future.
You did considerable charitable work during the pandemic. Explain what you did and who you helped.
I have always been committed to community service, but when the pandemic hit, like many residents, I felt isolated and powerless in the face of uncertainty. Small efforts to help first responders ballooned as I joined with Bake Back America founder Melissa Subin to meet the needs of people across Westchester and New York. I realized there were opportunities to use Bake Back America's connections with non-profits to identify critical needs and source those items from families in Scarsdale, who were at a loss with where to donate as many local non-profits closed.
I started Bake Back America's Grant a Wishlist program, which delivered over 8,000 bags of needed clothes, blankets, and supplies to families in need across Westchester and the Bronx, teaming up with 45 different partner non-profit organizations. We have constantly grown and taken on new initiatives and a more educational bent. The organization offers over 250 hours a week of free tutoring to children in need, sponsors extra-curricular efforts for low-income families and has provided learning devices to children who would have been unable to attend virtual school otherwise. The efforts are now national with programs ranging from Massachusetts to Alaska, and we have even looped in international volunteers who help to fill certain language gaps. While the goal is to help our recipients, I have especially enjoyed working with our volunteers, who have tirelessly come together as families and communities to support those in need in a safe and socially-distanced way during what can otherwise be an isolating time. From first-graders to at least one 84-year-old, we have had volunteers from every age, race, and socioeconomic demographic, and I have been delighted to work with all of them and get to know everyone better.
I have also been the community service chair for the Edgewood PTA during this time. In this role, I have worked with an excellent committee and leadership to think about ways to engage students in service and new opportunities during a time when traditional efforts, like the holiday gift drive, were harder to execute due to changed traffic flow at schools. Despite these hurdles, we have engaged in new partnerships this year, and continued to grow the community service program.
Tell us about your experience as a union manager. What insights did that give you (if any) into the relationship between the teachers' union and the administration, especially this past year?
As a journalist, I have been both a union member, and a union manager. One of the greatest successes I have seen has come through the partnership committee in which a dozen managers and members meet routinely to discuss issues outside of contract bargaining. These sessions have been extremely valuable for hearing perspectives on crucial topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion, return protocols after COVID 19, corporate culture and employee retention. By separating these conversations from collective bargaining, creative solutions can emerge. I believe that having these types of meetings routinely can promote unity that persists even during difficult periods when contract negotiations are underway. Animosity between two entities like the union and school board or parents is counterproductive in recruiting the top pool of diverse teachers to Scarsdale, and so it is critical that we bring the community together in the coming years.
Do you think that the community’s expectations of the role of the Board of Education changed this year? If so, how?
Yes - this was evident from meetings early in the year, when parents who had never attended board meetings before became active, coming to the forefront with concerns and wanting a more robust platform for communicating with the board. I think parents who have counted on schools as a cornerstone of our community's strength were shaken to the core when schools shut, perhaps more than in some other districts, where schools have been less trusted entities. As a result, questions on process, transparency and technology all received scrutiny at a higher level than in the past. The community wanted more space to be heard, and the board has recently taken some good initial steps to set up coffees and other forums for more interaction going forward.
Looking back at the past year, it appeared that some parents were unhappy with the district’s decision making process, transparency and communications? How could these be improved down the line?
In a year with many unknowns, it was important for parents and community members to feel well informed about rapidly changing information, and to understand what was being taken into consideration as plans were made that profoundly impacted district children, families and educators. More open listening sessions at a variety of times to truly understand stakeholder positions could have been helpful, in hindsight. It is critical that we look at districts where the roll out of remote learning, hybrid programs, and ultimately in-person learning went more smoothly, because stakeholders felt included and had more room to voice their opinions. We can look to the districts as models for how stakeholders were made to feel they had a voice. The current board has already begun to take some steps to evaluate better forums for community participation in the future, such as holding informal coffees. Still, more opportunities are needed, particularly in times of crisis. I am open to hearing what would be most valuable to the community and incorporating more options.
In your view, what are some of the challenges the district could face next school year?
After the unexpected twists and turns of the past 13 months, I don't want to hazard any predictions. That said: the district must conduct a thorough review of how the events of the past year were handled, so that a robust and flexible plan for future crises is in place, so that we can replicate some of our strongest wins and reduce some of the most problematic concerns we faced. While the next challenge we face could be entirely different, it is critical that we are ready to face whatever lies ahead as a unified district, respectful of varying viewpoints.
This year, the SBNC did not re-nominate the current Vice President and two candidates are running independently. What do you think this indicates about community opinion and the School Board Nominating Committee process?
I think the SBNC had a number of candidates to consider, though obviously those exact proceedings are confidential. Speaking only for my own experience, I believe that the SBNC did a thorough job in checking my references and reviewing my record. I believe the SBNC picked two nominees with a record of service to the community, who have served as consensus builders on different boards, but are unafraid to ask questions or gather input from many stakeholders in the interest of providing every Scarsdale child with a top education.
What do you enjoy about living in Scarsdale? When you get a free minute, what do you do for fun?
First and foremost, I enjoy spending time with my daughter, friends and neighbors- within just a few blocks we have people from across the country and around the world and have made important and lasting friendships with them -- while my yard is small, I have been grateful to have had enough outdoor space to gather with a few others during the pandemic, to share s'mores and fire-pit time to fight off isolation. Over the years, as some neighbors have moved away to other cities or countries, I have been lucky to stay in touch with many, giving us a network of people who we plan to see in future post-pandemic travels. For fun, I also love biking in this area! I rarely rode a bike as a kid growing up in a densely populated exurb of Boston and have embraced biking since living in Scarsdale - my daughter and I often attend Bicycle Sundays and were glad they were more frequent during the pandemic. When it's not Sunday, we like the readily available county trail network, and even did 40 miles for my 40th birthday this past summer! I enjoy reading (most recent book: The Topeka School) and can't wait to see the new library space. Bronx River Bookstore is probably my favorite shop in our village - it's a great addition and I'm glad to stop in often.
Anything else you wish to add?
One thing that often doesn't get much attention is my general interest in education. My grandmother Helen, my biggest personal influence and my daughter's namesake, was a public school teacher in Brooklyn from the 1920s until the 1970s, and my parents, brother, aunt, uncle, cousins and sister-in-law are all educators at different levels. While my professional path took a different turn, I have always volunteered in education, working with significant barriers to learning (socioeconomic and biological) as well as students with more advantaged learning profiles.
I first became interested in educational policy while studying Public Policy at Brown University. As a result, I interned at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contributing to Dr. Jean Rhodes' work on the risks and rewards of mentoring youth.
After college, I spent my remaining two years in Rhode Island working as a reporter, covering school boards in an affluent community and a low-income one, and covering the roll out of No Child Left Behind in Massachusetts. During that time, I volunteered at the Rhode Island Training School for Youth, a locked detention facility, working specifically on issues pertaining to education of female inmates, who, at that time, had fewer learning opportunities than male inmates.
In 2004, I moved to Houston, Texas, where I did outreach and interviewing for Brown University, traveling on weekends to help students in rural areas surrounding Houston expand their knowledge of a broad range of out-of-state schools. During that time, I also became active in the Muscular Dystrophy Association, co-facilitating a Spanish language group for families with members with muscular dystrophy and co-facilitating a young-adult group for people with muscular dystrophy and their caregivers. This work inherently touched on access to education, as many of the families we worked with lacked knowledge of then-current policies around in-school accommodations.
In Scarsdale, I have served as a class parent at the Pre-K and elementary level, taken on volunteer roles such as offering classes in the young writer's workshop and volunteered with the PTA in myriad capacities, most recently as co-chair of the community service committee at Edgewood.