District's first, and only, black board member said she couldn't find more like her
May 05, 2003
By Sarah Layden
Linda Ervin's looming departure from the Jamesville-DeWitt school board leaves a void beyond the 12 years of experience she takes with her: Ervin also is the board's first and only African-American member.
It looks to stay that way, at least for next year. Nominating petitions for school board were turned in two weeks ago, with three white male candidates submitting the forms. Because the state legislature moved up the date of the budget vote to June 3, many districts now can accept petitions through today.
Ervin, who feels it's time to move on after 12 years as a board member, said she tried unsuccessfully to recruit candidates.
"I've been trying to find somebody to run who looks like me, and no one wants to do it because it's time-consuming," she said.
Someone who looks like her means a person of color, she said. She spent her time on the board, as well as her 22 years as a district resident, trying to emphasize the needs of students of color at J-D schools.
When her two children attended Jamesville Elementary School, Ervin said the school lacked any activity for Black History Month. She borrowed materials from some of her teacher friends in Syracuse, such as the "Color Me Black" coloring book, filled with famous black Americans.
"If I brought something,
they'd use it," she said.
She and her husband, Marion, live in Jamesville. Their children, Scott and Jessica, are now 25 and 23, respectively.
Ervin involved herself in Jamesville's Parent Teacher Group and later decided to run for the school board. After being elected, she thought she'd be able to bring change in a few years' time.
"I enjoyed it, but I never thought I'd be there forever," she said. "I thought I'd do it, make some changes and be out of there.
"Change is slow," she said.
Twelve years later, satisfied she made a difference on the board, she decided it was time for someone with new perspectives to take her place. Incumbents Deborah DiLorenzo, who spent nine years on the board and is the board's only other woman, and W. Paul Mooney, who served four years, also decided against running again.
Current board President Ben Levine has been on the board for 22 years. He said Ervin regularly attends all board and committee meetings, and ranks among the best board members he's seen.
"More important than that, she was pretty frank and straightforward," he said. "She spoke when she had something to say. And she could make a contribution no other board member can make: She's the first and only African American. She heightened and raised our awareness to the need for diversity, particularly in the faculty and support staff."
The most recent data, from the 2001-02 school year, shows 15 percent of district students are minorities, and 8.7 percent are black. The teaching staff is 3.5 percent minority. That's a slight growth from a 2000 district report, which cited a minority student population of almost 14 percent, and a 2.3 percent minority teaching staff.
In 2000, the district broadened the way it recruited and searched for teachers, hoping to gain more diversity. Superintendent Alice Kendrick said it was a direct effect of Ervin's advocacy.
"She calls us to continually focus on it," Kendrick said.
Ervin wants the staff to mirror the student population.
"This district is a very diverse district, and the student population is not reflected by the staff or the board," Ervin said. "It's not one of those things you think about, unless you're one of the students in a building where no one looks the way they look."
In the spring of 2000, the middle of Ervin's two years as board president, a fight DeWitt police described as racially motivated broke out in the J-D High School parking lot.
In the weeks that followed, the situation prompted crowds of parents to attend board meetings to discuss the school climate. After the furor evaporated, so did some of the parental interest.
"They brought up some good issues," Ervin said. "My disappointment was that they didn't stay and see them through."
The fight gave J-D unwanted media attention and put Ervin in the spotlight. It also opened a districtwide conversation not only about race, but diversity in general. Ervin arranged for a diversity trainer to work with the school board.
"In the end it was a good thing, because it changed a lot of perceptions," Ervin said. "That situation did get people to think a little differently than they had in the past."
A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis about a year and a half ago caused Ervin to stop work as a broker associate and buyer agent for ReMax Masters Realty. She's now able to do "reasonable activity," and continues to devote time to a long list of community service activities: national vice president of Lambda Kappa Mu, a business and professional women's sorority, and working with Jubilee Homes, Vivian Teal Howard Residential Health Care Facility and 314 Hudson Street Corp., a subsidized housing development.
Through her work at J-D, Ervin learned of the opportunity to be a court-appointed special adviser for youth. She mentors children informally and was a foster parent, and remains active in her church, Hopps Memorial CME Church, where she is treasurer.
She leaves the board with no regrets.
"I'm better for having been there 12 years, and I think the district's
better for having me there 12 years."
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