Advocacy: A board member’s role
May 9, 2019 at 9:42 a.m.
“It’s not fun sitting on the board and making cuts. It’s not like you aspire to be on the Board of Education because you believe in students and schools, just to start cutting things,” Brakewood said. “That’s not where I want to be. I want to be on the Board of Education, but I want to be the voice for our students.”
Port Chester Schools, a high needs school district, constantly faces budget gaps. As a school board member, Brakewood has often said these gaps result from a lack of adequate state funding, and this year particularly she said she boosted her advocacy efforts.
Over the last few months, the incumbent described, she’s had several meetings with State Senator Shelley Mayer and Assemblyman Steve Otis to fuel them with facts and statistics about the district’s funding problem. Similarly, before the state budget passed, she brought a caravan of people to Albany for last minute activism.
“Advocacy is huge, and what I’m realizing now is the next level of advocacy has to happen now,” Brakewood said. “Because they have to do something bigger than give us state aid for the year. They have to change the formula. They have to somehow make a carve out for underfunded districts, to change the system so we’re not repeatedly in this position.”
Onofrio said she completely agrees and thinks advocacy efforts need to be ongoing. It can’t just be “in the 11th hour” during budget season, but a year-round push of hounding local legislators. She thinks the district should be sitting down with them and physically showing them the budget to illustrate the dire straits.
Brakewood said part of her efforts this year was acting as the “mouthpiece for Port Chester” with the Harmed Suburban Five, an Ossining-initiated advocacy group involving five school districts with similar financial struggles. The idea was teaming up with multiple high-needs districts would make a louder noise to the state.
Through her efforts with the Harmed Suburban Five, Brakewood said she’s made connections with people who can help struggling school districts move forward with the cause. Her work also caused traction by bringing attention to Port Chester on local, national and state-wide news outlets, she said.
While Onofrio said joining forces with other districts was a good idea, she thinks there are issues with the group.
“I don’t love the idea of the name ‘Harmed Suburban Five,’” Onofrio said. “I feel strongly as a Port Chester person that we strive to keep our public image positive and being associated with a group named the Harmed Suburban Five is not the best way to go about it. It concerns me with keeping people here and attracting people to come to Port Chester.”
In response, Brakewood said she did not come up with the name. But she doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad one. When urging that Port Chester needs more state support, she said they have to make the case that inadequate funding is hurting the school district.
“When you’re advocating, you have to spell out the truth; it’s a harsh reality,” she said. “I’m very proud of Port Chester and don’t want to turn people away from here. But I also think if we continue to cut every year, the reputation of our budget is more harmful.”
Community involvement in advocacy is a priority for Onofrio, she said while describing her own experience in Albany. In March, the King Street PTA hosted a district-wide student advocacy art competition, which encouraged students to create “Port Chester Pride” inspired drawings. Two pieces were selected and turned into postcards, and at an art show featuring all the pieces, community members signed more than 100 cards.
The next day, Onofrio and her family brought the postcards to Albany and hand-delivered them to Senator Mayer. It worked out perfectly because they already had an appointment with her, as they were there for Nephrotic Syndrome Day to support their daughter who is afflicted with the condition.
“My twin third-graders got to hand them to Shelley Mayer, who said she would personally see Cuomo got them,” Onofrio said. “For my own kids, it was a powerful experience to see government in action, to see their own advocacy efforts. I’d love to branch that out to more community members and take some of the burden off from a few people.”
“To me, this is the single biggest thing we can do to fix our budget woes going forward. Because if we don’t fix this, we will be cutting for the foreseeable future and we can’t sustain it,” Brakewood said. “Making the annual advocacy call is a lot to ask of parents. It takes a board member, somebody who will make this a full-time pursuit. We have to change the formula, and I have the information and impudence to lead that charge.”