May 14, 2021
By NICHOLAS PERRONE
Early on in his high school career, Jim Dugan set his sights on becoming a lawyer. Neither of his parents was in the profession, but a relative who was practicing law took Dugan under his wing to show him the ropes. Dugan knew right away it would be something he’d enjoy. He loved language, writing and speaking, and spent time in college mastering his skills to become a litigator. Dugan had no interest in becoming a transactional lawyer. He wanted to draft briefs and go to court to argue his points because that, he said, “was where the fun was.”
Now a practicing lawyer for 26 years, Dugan wants to use his litigation chops to fill one of two open seats on the Scarsdale Board of Education. He is joined by Jessica Resnick-Ault as candidates endorsed by the School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC).
Current Scarsdale School Board Vice President Alison Singer is running for reelection as an independent candidate, as is Quaker Ridge resident Irin Israel. Two seats must be filled, as current board President Pamela Fuehrer completes her second and final term on the board June 30. The election is May 18.
As a youth in Bayside, Queens, Dugan attended both public and parochial schools. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Pennsylvania State University and his J.D. degree from Cornell Law School.
After clerking for a federal judge, Dugan, 52, joined a small law firm that specialized in white collar criminal defense and got started in his career focused on commercial litigation. He joined the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher of New York City in 2000 and became a partner in the firm in 2005.
While living in Brooklyn with his wife, the pair decided they would need more space if they wanted to start a family. Scarsdale, he said, was always on the top of the list of places he wanted to move to, having heard good things from people who grew up in the village.
“The people I knew who were from Scarsdale were very intelligent and well-educated people,” said Dugan. “They were good examples of what a good education system could bring forth.”
After looking at a few other communities, Dugan and his wife decided to settle in Fox Meadow 15 years ago, right before their first daughter was born. Since then, Dugan has been involved locally, serving as president of the Overhill Neighborhood Association, volunteering for the Citizens Nominating Committee and becoming a vestry member and Warden at St. James the Less Church. In 2011, Dugan and Art Rublin, who later served on the board of education, co-founded the Coalition for Scarsdale Schools to organize and oppose a district initiative to increase the number of students in classrooms.
“We opposed that proposal on the grounds that it would be worse for the educational experience of our children and it wasn’t a good reason to do it to save money,” said Dugan. “We put together a campaign, spoke at a lot of board meetings, wrote a lot of letters and ultimately the district did not implement that policy.”
Now as a candidate for the board of education, Dugan said he is looking to evaluate how the board is conducting its business, especially as it relates to collecting and acting upon community input.
“I’ve heard so many criticisms and I’ve seen firsthand practices which I question in terms of allowing board members to address the community … [and] recognizing different viewpoints at meetings,” said Dugan. “I think maybe the pendulum has swung too much in favor of present[ing] a united front to the community as opposed to listen[ing] to the community and respond[ing] to the community.”
Dugan surmised the board had differences of opinions throughout the pandemic, but that those differences weren’t always expressed, which he found to be “a concern.”
“I would like to be a voice for common sense and respectfulness and showing the community [members] that their opinion matters so that people don’t feel so frustrated,” he said, adding that he would like to allow individual board members to speak to members of the community without forcing the board to speak as one body.
Critical of the board’s approach to communication efforts during the pandemic, Dugan argued that the board “didn’t really show that it was listening to people” and that the board often provided “a canned response” when reacting to community input. He said he thinks that by eliminating the board’s intention to speak with one unified voice, the board would be able to divvy up responsibilities and respond more prudently to feedback.
Acknowledging that the board doesn’t like to commit to action without facilitating a board decision, Dugan said board members could communicate with individual community members by maintaining that they won’t be speaking for the board as a whole and would only discuss a matter as a parent or community member who serves on the board.
How the board handles community feedback was the subject of criticism in November after the board adopted an amendment to Policy 1230 to limit public speakers to three minutes and to cap the first public comment session at 90 minutes. The second public comment period, which occurs after the scheduled action items at board meetings, was not limited to 90 minutes, but speakers still had to adhere to the three-minute rule. For now, the amended policy is in effect for the duration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order from March 2020, which allowed, among other things, for virtual public meetings to take place. The policy however could revert or otherwise be revised by board action. Before the amendment was adopted, public comment during board meetings did not have time constraints.
Dugan said the amendment’s blanket rule “was overkill” and wasn’t a good way to manage relationships with community members. He said he was much more in favor of enacting limits on public comment on a meeting-by-meeting basis when necessary.
“I think the problem with the blanket rule is it just sets expectations and then no one thinks about it and then it becomes a reason not to listen,” he said.
Though he has criticisms of the board, Dugan hasn’t communicated his disagreements with the board during public comment periods.
At a virtual candidates’ forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale on May 2, candidate Irin Israel criticized other candidates running for the board of education for not speaking up in the last year of the pandemic during board meetings.
Dugan responded to Israel, saying that he was “good at speaking up” when he wanted to, when he felt it was important, and when it was necessary to do so.
When asked why he hadn’t shared his opinion with the board, Dugan told the Inquirer he is the type of person who likes to keep his ear to the ground and doesn’t necessarily need to be one of many people speaking on a similar issue.
“I felt that there was such a strong surge of multiple opinions that it kind of gets lost,” said Dugan. “To me, what I’m doing now is, I think, a much better way of letting my views be known than to be one of many voices at a meeting where you might not even have a chance to speak because the time runs out.”
Dugan added that he didn’t think it was a qualification for a board member to speak during the public comment portion of a meeting and that there was a difference between the roles of a parent and member of the board.
In March, 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 used a graphic method analysis, rather than a square footage analysis, to show that 507 more occupants could theoretically have been added to the elementary schools at 100% capacity. The presentation was kept for internal reference and wasn’t shared with the board, the district’s Restart Steering Committee or the public.
Dugan said there wasn’t a clear line of sight for the timing and benchmarks that needed to be met for a reopening of the schools and that even if those benchmarks couldn’t be met, it would’ve been helpful to communicate that, so the community was in the know.
“The board and the district really have a very difficult job of balancing public health and safety with educational goals and benchmarks,” said Dugan. “I would be hesitant to second guess the balancing decision that happens there. But I don’t hesitate to second guess the communication decision, or lack thereof, because that’s a different story.”
Dugan added that he didn’t know why the documents from the FOIL weren’t shared with the board, calling it “mystifying.”
“I am sure that lots of things happen at the district that they don’t share with the board, because otherwise it would be millions of pieces of paper that the board has to deal with,” he said. “But this one seems kind of important.”
In November, a debate broke out between elementary school parents and the administration about whether the district could reduce the 6-foot social distancing requirements by adding barriers, as outlined in guidance from the New York State Department of Health.
Dugan said, in his view, the guidance wasn’t all that confusing in order to get students back in school, but that the district’s thinking wasn’t clear to the broader community.
“That lack of clarity generated speculation and it wasn’t good,” said Dugan.
Dugan said his own daughters, an eighth-grader, a sixth-grader and a fourth-grader, have all had great elementary school experiences in Scarsdale. But when remote learning was instituted during the pandemic, he said his youngest daughter, who is in a 504 educational plan, wasn’t receiving the support and services she needed during the pandemic, and his sixth-grade daughter struggled with remote learning and keeping up with homework.
With so much still not known about the trajectory of the pandemic, the prevalence of variants and what guidance the state will provide in September, Dugan said the priority going into the fall should be to shift focus back to strengthening curriculum and the schools’ programs.
Though numbers are trending in the right direction right now, COVID-19 vaccination rates and variants are still a major concern moving into the new school year. Dugan said it is still too early to “take down the scaffolding,” as there could still be legitimate public health concerns about the number of kids attending school in person in September.
Dugan said he supports having an extra board meeting during the summer.
Besides the pandemic, which has dominated much of the board and district’s conversations in the last year, Dugan said the board’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative was going to be an important issue moving forward, and he said there was an “obligation and duty” to ensure that Scarsdale’s diverse communities are represented. All the candidates running for the school board are white and a majority of those currently serving on the board and in the administration are also white.
Though he thinks the board was well intentioned in its response to the pandemic and wanted to do the right thing, the board, he said, was “caught up in bureaucratic policies” about communicating with the public, which created problems that could have been avoided.
“When I had the opportunity to put my name in for school board, I recognized that this is going to be a big commitment,” said Dugan. “I’ve had some time away from being involved here. I think I can do this. I’ve recharged my batteries.”
The school board election and budget vote will be held at the Scarsdale Congregational Church on Heathcote Road on May 18. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Registered voters can cast their ballot in person or by absentee ballot.