Factions form as ICSD Board rebuilds

The final vote reelecting Sean Eversley Bradwell ICSD Board President (note Jill Tripp and Adam Krantweiss dissented.)

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch; July 2, 2024

Monday, July first, was a terrible day for Todd Fox to be out of town.  Fox, one of two, newly-elected Ithaca School Board members—and arguably its most conservative—couldn’t attend his first Board of Education meeting and be sworn into office.  Moreover, he couldn’t participate in the leadership elections and have his voice heard and his vote counted in the choice for Board President.  As it turned out, Fox could have altered the outcome, and probably would have.

Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, the two-year incumbent Board President, emerged from Monday’s lengthy session to serve as President for yet another year.  But Eversley Bradwell barely prevailed.  He only won on a third ballot, of sorts.  When the incumbent’s name was placed into nomination, the school board split down the middle, with five votes required, but only four votes secured.  Next, Jill Tripp’s name was placed into nomination.  It, too, produced a four-four split. 

Only when frustration took over did two Board members cross-over to support the incumbent President on his second attempt. 

Newly-elected, but questioned; Board President Eversley Bradwell

Similarly, deadlock befell the Board in its ballot for Vice-President.  Adam Krantweiss and Garrick Blalock, sitting side-by-side, competed for the honor.  First, a four-four tie for Krantweiss occurred; then the same for Blalock.  The Board considered postponing its decision until a later meeting, one when Fox could attend.  But instead, it voted again… and again.  Krantweiss eventually prevailed.

Such as it went Monday morning in Ithaca High School’s York Lecture Hall.  An organizational agenda, one 30 pages long, but customarily to be raced through at lightning speed, got drawn to a crawl by a leadership stalemate.  The meeting convened shortly after Nine AM, but didn’t adjourn until 20 minutes before Noon.

Still, what a keen observer found as this newly-reconstituted Board hammered out its business were incipient coalitions forming.  Whether those bonds will last, only time will tell.  But with taxpayers having what some would call a temper tantrum back in May, turning out two of the more progressive incumbents in a seven-way race for three Board seats, one senses new philosophical and attitudinal alliances taking hold; one forming on the Board’s traditional ideological Left, the other to the more taxpayer-friendly, pragmatic middle. 

Yes, had he been there, Todd Fox might have made a difference.  Dr. Jill Tripp, the newfound hero of some tax-conscious ICSD budget-cutters and a staunch advocate for spending compromises in recent months, might have been elected the Board of Education’s President had Fox attended.

“What’s the salary for this job?” Eversley Bradwell quipped, after newly-sworn Board member Emily Workman had peppered him with probing questions.  Workman quickly distinguished herself at the meeting’s outset as a particularly inquisitive newcomer.  (By the way, a seat on a Board of Education carries no compensation.)  Workman probed the management style of the incumbent President as if he was in a job interview.  Eversley Bradwell responded with what would later stand as the closest thing to an acceptance speech:

“I hope that I have demonstrated compassion, empathy, understanding, an ability to reach out to further having conversations, taking walks, having coffee, being yelled at, all those things,” Eversley Bradwell answered Workman and her colleagues.  “I hope that I maintain that level of… humanity and compassion for the community.”

The Board had not yet voted when Eversley Bradwell said those words.  The day’s awkward organizational agenda encouraged only one member’s name to be placed into nomination at a time.  Jill Tripp cried foul.

“It’s not feeling like a fair process,” Tripp complained when only the incumbent president’s name was moved, and no one else’s name invited.  “There’s clearly a huge advantage to going first,” Tripp said.

That’s when things changed.  The incumbent’s was still the only name on the floor, but the Board drew to nearly an hour the back-and-forth between competing candidates Eversley Bradwell and Tripp before casting its twin series of failed votes and then finally picking Eversley Bradwell as its choice.

“Do I want to be Board President?  Yes and no,” Tripp said bluntly. (She’s known to be blunt.)  “The ‘yes’ part,” Tripp said, involves communication within the Board itself and with District Administration.

“I’ve been watching and listening closely for two years,” Tripp added, “and I feel like all too often, lately every week the Board finds out about important decisions that have been made that we weren’t informed of.  This is a real concern to me.”

“This is the Board of Education.  This isn’t some satellite advisory board of a special interest.  It is the Board of Education,” Tripp emphasized.

“I’m who I am…. And I generally let people know what I’m thinking.” Rival for Board President, Jill Tripp.

A retired Ithaca Schools’ psychologist, Jill Tripp said she’s sat on five boards, and chaired some of them, during the past 30 years.  Yet she said she’d never before experienced  the “level of isolation” she feels sitting on the current school board nor the “disconnect between the Board and what’s going on.”

(By the way, Jill Tripp never got to the ‘no-side’ of her self-stated dilemma.)

With its first school budget roundly defeated in May, a revised budget approved one month later only after major reductions, a school superintendent declining a long-term contract extension, and two middle schools cited by New York State for their poor performance, one could see the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) in crisis.  Jill Tripp signaled Monday that her elevation to President could help turn the page.

“I think we’ve gotten a clear message that was a long time coming before it was expressed so cleanly on the Board’s first budget votes,” Tripp stated.  “I think to start fresh with someone not so clearly aligned with the current Administration would be an excellent path to take for this Board at this time.”

And what about management style?  As always, with Dr. Tripp, bluntness reigned.

“I’m who I am,” Tripp told those who might choose her.  “I’m pretty vocal.  And I generally let people know what I’m thinking.  And I would continue to do so as Board President.”

Eversley Bradwell acknowledged he’s held biweekly, one-on-one, agenda-setting meetings with Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.  Tripp would prefer Eversley Bradwell’s role clearly be defined in those meetings as that of Board President, and that members like her at least be provided the courtesy of an after-meeting report.

“I’ve been surprised way too often this year by decisions that have been made without any real Board discussion,” Tripp told the incumbent President.  “And I think that needs to change.”

Board member Katie Apker entered the debate:  “There were some times in the last year that I felt surprised by things,” the second-year Board member remarked.  “Did I miss a memo?  No.  Did I not read through everything? No,” Apker said she’d found herself asking.  To Apker, Eversley Bradwell’s precision and meeting efficiency has come at the price of “open dialogue.”

After a fashion, the roll was called.  Hands were raised.  Eversley-Bradwell lost on the first ballot, four-to-three, with Workman abstaining (an effective dissent).  Then Tripp’s name was raised.  The same four people who’d opposed Eversley Bradwell supported Tripp, and vice-versa.

With the Board at an impasse, Erin Croyle, an Eversley-Bradwell supporter, called for a revote.  She started with her favored candidate.  It broke the deadlock, six-to-two in Eversley Bradwell’s favor.  Jill Tripp and Adam Krantweiss remained in opposition.

Battered though victorious, Sean Eversley Bradwell called the hour’s conversation (maybe, grilling) “necessary and fruitful.”

But sandwiched between deadlock and decision flowed remarks well worth one’s taking note.

Emily Workman, to Sean Eversley Bradwell: “The biggest concern that I’ve heard about you being President is your relationship with the Superintendent…. What would you say to people who have a lot of concerns about the ability to be both objective and a friend to the person that you basically are the boss of?”

Fully-engaged and armed with many questions; Emily Workman, reading her oath of office Monday.

Sean Eversley Bradwell defended his independence and his ability to separate friendship from professional duty.

“I would not jeopardize my professional and community standing as if I’m not able to do what’s in the best interests of young people,” Eversley Bradwell insisted.  “And folks in the community can tell you, and I know Dr. Brown can tell you, that when he’s wrong, I am probably one of the first people to call him, hopefully not with cuss words, but to say ‘no, no.’

Erin Croyle, to the Board: “I think that there’s a fine line between people saying they don’t want—they want new Board representation and the color of someone’s skin.  Let’s be real here, Okay?” (Both Eversley Bradwell and Dr. Brown are African-American; Jill Tripp is white.) 

Croyle referenced recent hate messages and death threats received by the Board President and Superintendent following the recent, perceived racially-exclusive, Students of Color Summit at Ithaca’s schools. “My God, the stuff that they’ve had to hear and we’ve heard part of,” Croyle told colleagues.  “I have no idea how it is to walk in that world, but the hate that they get, and yet Sean still wants to do the job?” Croyle asked rhetorically.

Yes, a pair of coalitions glued together that Monday morning; alliances adhering based on Board members votes and statements:  The traditionally liberal-leaning Ithaca School Board spoke through President Eversley Bradwell, Erin Croyle, Karen Yearwood, and Garrick Blalock.  A more moderate faction, led by Tripp, drew in Adam Krantweiss, Katie Apker, and Emily Workman.  This latter group may view Board service as being more critical of the status quo.  Over time, those factions may hold.  Or maybe, they won’t.

More work had yet to be done.  Though she’d earlier expressed interest in serving as vice-president, Jill Tripp was never nominated for second in command.  Instead, Tripp advanced Adam Krantweiss for vice-president.  Like in the race for President, the Krantweiss nomination failed in a tie.  Garrick Blalock was nominated by the other faction.  Again, a tied vote ended in deadlock.

The Veepstakes: Adam Krantweiss (right) reads his oath after Garrick Blalock, sitting at his side, dropped out.

The vice-presidential “impromptu job interview” went quicker than its presidential forerunner.  Blalock at one point questioned whether a “difficult working dynamic” might arise with Krantweiss, a Tripp supporter, working with a Board President he’d opposed moments earlier. Blalock called it a “mix and match” kind of leadership.

Krantweiss allayed Blalock’s fears.  “I don’t feel that (my vote) was a referendum on me thinking that Sean is a bad actor and that I couldn’t work well with him,” Krantweiss replied.

A second round of voting for Vice-President ended the same way as did the first.  Discussion devolved.  Options got floated.   Could the Board have two vice presidents?   Could the vote for Veep be tabled until Todd Fox’s return?   But impasse ended at Garrick Blalock’s initiative.  He crossed over to nominate and vote for Krantweiss.  The resulting five-to-two vote (with Eversley Bradwell abstaining) finally put leadership matters to rest, after nearly two protracted hours that seemed all too long.

What was left of Monday’s reorganizational meeting avoided the indecision that had crippled what had preceded it. 

  • Almost routinely, the Board of Education authorized formation of a “Resource Exploration” committee.  Its primary objective, as Jill Tripp had proposed in late-May, is to squeeze up to $10 Million annually from Cornell University as payment to the Ithaca School District in lieu of taxes.
  • The Board delayed, probably futilely, the designation of The Ithaca Journal as its official newspaper for publishing legal notices.  As with other units of local government, ICSD members complained about the Gannett paper’s lack of local news coverage, and even its inability to mail its papers to residents on time.  State law may require the designation, nonetheless.
  • And the Board of Education continued for another year, but agreed to revisit within months, the long-standing, albeit controversial, policy of providing district-paid cell phones to select school employees.  “This has been kind of an annoyance to me for a while,” Jill Tripp complained.  “I believe that the cell phone expenditure in the district is unwarranted and redundant,” Tripp said.  Expect the policy to undergo review in committee this fall.