Schenectady voters to choose 4 of 9 school board candidates

After a year in which some of the top district administrators have been asked to leave and residents

After a year in which some of the top district administrators have been asked to leave and residents rebelled against the school budget, nine school board candidates have come forward to lead the district.

Only four will win seats on the board.

Two of the three incumbents who would have faced re-election decided not to run, leaving the field wide open.

Only Board of Education President Maxine Brisport is seeking another term.

She has argued that the district is turning the corner under her presidency, which began last summer. Until then, she said, former board President Jeff Janiszewski kept her from discussing problems publicly or taking action on them.

The district is grappling with improving a 52 percent graduation rate at the high school, which the state has also designated a persistently dangerous school.

The district is also facing accusations of secrecy at all levels. Some teachers and principals have said they are afraid to speak up, point out policy flaws or suggest solutions because they have been punished in the past for criticizing the district leadership.

Residents were incensed last year when the district tried to keep a suicide cluster secret, saying they feared that it could lead to other suicides and later contending at public forums that it was not a school district issue. Parents said they wanted to know that their children’s friends were killing themselves so they could arrange counseling or watch for warning signs in their own children.

Superintendent Eric Ely has also come under fire for his relationship with head utility worker Steven Raucci, who on April 1 was convicted of 18 criminal counts of arson and criminal mischief. He was found guilty of placing bombs on cars and homes and committing other acts of vandalism to intimidate district employees and others who crossed him and his friends.

According to e-mails entered into evidence at Raucci’s trial, Ely warned Raucci that police were investigating him, leading to widespread calls for his removal. All of the school board candidates have said they want to get rid of Ely.


Brisport wants the voters to return her to office so she can finish the job she started when she became president last summer.

She said staff members are starting to trust her and talk openly with her.

“The level of communication between the staff and myself has significantly increased,” she said, citing positive responses to a welcoming letter she sent at the beginning of the school year. But one of those writers told her he knew he wasn’t “supposed” to write to her — indicating there is still a long way to go to persuade the staff to talk to the board.

Based on complaints she heard during the campaign, she also wants to find inexpensive ways for students to take study materials home from school. There aren’t enough textbooks to go around, but Brisport doesn’t support buying more textbooks because they cost $80 to $100 each.

“Maybe we can send home information from online. We’re trying to invent ways to give children the information in the textbook without giving them the textbook,” she said.

Brisport, 46, is a psychologist in the Troy City School District. She has been on the school board for five years. Prior to that, she ran parent groups, was PTO president, and served on many district committees.

She is married with two children, one of whom is enrolled in the district. The other is in college. She has a bachelor’s in industrial psychology from Beirut College and a master’s in education, certified in school psychology, from Brooklyn College.


Robert Barnes wants to improve the district’s graduation rate, particularly by focusing on the ninth grade.

He often cites his son’s experiences in ninth grade, where he struggled amid bullying and drug dealing in his classrooms and witnessed a knifing.

“They don’t feel safe, and they don’t feel comfortable,” Barnes said. “My son asked me back in January to make the school district a better place. That’s why I’m running.”

Among his many suggestions for improvements is a simple change: staggering the bells so ninth-graders do not switch classes at the same time as the older students.

“That doesn’t cost any money. Not everything has to cost money,” he said.

He also pledged to improve communication with teachers by holding meetings at which they would be encouraged to talk openly.

“They can’t get their ideas out because there’s a wall between the administration and the teachers,” he said.

Barnes, 47, is a contract management specialist for the state comptroller’s office. He is also a retired Army captain. He spent 12 years in the military.

He is married with three children, two of whom are enrolled at the district; the third is a graduate. He has a bachelor’s in business from Norwich University.


Matthew Brockbank, the youngest candidate in the race, is trying to persuade voters that his age gives him an advantage in understanding how to motivate teenagers to stay in school through graduation.

He wants to focus on the “middle” students, noting that the lowest-performing have remedial specialists while the most talented have advanced classes.

“The middle students just sit there. They’re the ones who don’t come to school. They fall through the cracks,” he said.

He said the answer is to better connect those students with programs that capture their interest.

“We should cater to them to help them figure out what that thing is,” he said, adding that he thinks many of them would find their passion in the district’s vocational classes.

“We have a great VoTec program. We need to utilize it a little better,” he said. “If the children like the subject they’re learning, they’re more apt to do well and come to school.”

Brockbank, 22, is a culinary arts student at SCCC. He is a member of the district’s budget committee and graduated from Schenectady High School just five years ago.

He has a bachelor’s in sociology from Rutgers University but now aspires to become a chef. He is not married and has no children.


Andrew Chestnut wants to develop a new plan to improve the district’s graduation rate by contacting every recent student who did not graduate. He envisions a survey in which dropouts would explain why they left and what might have persuaded them to stay.

“Not one student’s answer will be the answer, but if you ask all of them, I think you’ll find some answers,” he said.

He also pledged to put an end to the board’s informal rule that only the board president can directly question the administration, saying that information must flow freely.

He added that although he was endorsed by SCOPE, he is not beholden to the grass-roots group that formed to select school board candidates this year. He also won’t fold in the face of administrative pressures, he said.

“I didn’t leave corporate life to have people tell me what to do. I know how to stand up to bullies,” he said.

Chestnut, 56, is a psychotherapist at Samaritan Counseling Center. But he spent 25 years in the corporate world, helping large, troubled organizations get on the right financial track.

He is married with two grown children. He has a bachelor’s in humanities and science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s in business from Columbia University and a master’s in social work from UAlbany. He also graduated from General Electric’s financial management program and worked as a GE auditor for three years.


Cathy Lewis, also endorsed by SCOPE, wants to improve the graduation rate by arranging informal internships with local businesses and increasing mentoring.

“Let’s get that graduation rate up. Working together can make that happen,” she said.

She has already started discussing the idea with business owners.

She was inspired by the partnership with Schenectady County Community College, she said.

“I am very encouraged with that program. Since I know many children did not make it [into the program], I’d like to see if there are other similar programs,” she said. “Business leaders seem willing to help.”

She also sees her childless status as a benefit. “This means I have no conflicts,” she said.

Her three biggest priorities, if elected, are to remove the superintendent to pave the way for better leadership, deal with the budget, and create a climate more conducive to open communication.

Lewis, 62, is a senior tax manager at GE. She is also on the board of directors for numerous agencies and nonprofits in the city and was a City Council member from 2002 to 2005.

She is married and has a bachelor’s in math and German from Ohio Wesleyan University and a master’s in business and a certificate of finance from Union College,. She is also a graduate of GE’s financial management program.


Ron Lindsay, also endorsed by SCOPE, wants to focus on the way eighth-graders are prepared for their high school career.

The transition process should start at the beginning of eighth grade, he said, and not just with tours of the high school. He wants to pair each student with a high schooler who shares the child’s interests. The tour should also be personalized to the student’s interests, he said.

That may help them take advantage of the many programs at the high school, which are so numerous that it becomes overwhelming, he said.

“The students have a wonderful opportunity at the high school. It’s something you begin to help them look at it and make decisions,” he said.

He also wants each school board member to regularly visit three schools, so that every school has an expert voice on the board.

“So they can see what needs to be done, and what’s working,” he said.

Lindsay, 68, is a retired school administrator. He spent his career at Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, which works with troubled children. He retired as regional director.

He was also on the school board from 1984-1991, serving two years as president. He has served on the district’s budget advisory group, audit committee and policy committee.

He is married with four grown children. He has a bachelor’s in psychology from Roberts Wesleyan College and a master’s in social work from the University of Illinois.


Barbara Metcalfe wants to attack the district’s low graduation rate by making sure high school students actually make it into the building.

“A lot of kids are walking away,” she said, calling the absenteeism a supervision problem.

“There’s a lot of things the district can do just by sheer numbers,” she said. “I don’t see one administrator in front of that building as the kids are coming in. Make them feel wanted, welcome.”

She also wants the district to provide textbooks.

“If your kid is struggling, and they can’t even get a textbook…” she said. “We really need to get textbooks.”

As for the graduation rate, she said she would start by talking to the students.

“We need to get them involved,” she said, adding that she wishes there was more time for instruction.

“New York State testing takes away from a lot of stuff,” she said.

Metcalfe, 46, is an accountant. She has worked on district PTOs for 11 years and serves as secretary of the PTO at Central Park International Magnet School.

She is married with two children, both of whom are enrolled in the district. She has a bachelor’s in political science from UAlbany.


Ann Reilly, also endorsed by SCOPE, wants to push the district to listen to its teachers and parents before making decisions.

“We have to have a more inclusive, deliberative process in decision-making,” she said.

As a parent, she listened to administrators present solutions that did not seem to apply to the main problems facing the students. Yet when she asked questions, she said, she learned the decisions had already been made.

“I was just so upset by how things were going. They shouldn’t treat us that way,” she said.

While campaigning, she said, teachers told her they were afraid to disagree with administrators.

“Some teachers feel very intimidated,” Reilly said. “How can anyone work under those circumstances? We have to change the culture. They’re with the kids all day. If the numbers don’t bear out a certain program, maybe we need to listen to them.”

Reilly, 48, is a stay-at-home mother who has served on many city and school groups. She’s a member of the school district’s fine arts committee, was on the district’s educational foundation board, and currently serves on the board of the city Industrial Development Agency while helping to run a youth rowing club and leading two Girl Scout troops.

She is married with four children, all of whom are enrolled in the district. She has a bachelor’s in social work from UAlbany.


Kennard Singh wants to improve the graduation rate by extending the school day with after-school and summer classes, especially for middle and high school students. He also wants more supervision at the high school to ensure that students get off the bus and actually walk into the school.

“I think that’s one of the reasons the students have such a low graduation rate, because the students are not there,” he said.

He believes the high school’s safety record could also be substantially improved if there was more supervision in the hallways.

“It’s more supervision than safety,” he said.

For those who are struggling, more time to learn is key, he added.

“We need to create more after-school or summer classes,” he said.

He also thinks the district is ignoring one big resource — its students’ parents.

“The schools should work more closely with the parents,” he said.

Singh, 49, is a real estate agent who has lived in Schenectady for eight years. He is a naturalized citizen who immigrated 20 years ago from Guyana, where he was a secondary school teacher. He taught the equivalent of 12th-grade economics.

He is married with three children, two of whom are enrolled in the district. The third is in college. He has an associate’s degree in economics from the University of Guyana.

Categories: Schenectady County

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