SARATOGA SPRINGS — The three Saratoga Springs school board candidates endorsed by a parent group pressing to rearm district grounds monitors are running a joint campaign with a shared campaign bank account and three-way approval of campaign spending.
The shared campaign account was set up by Saratoga parent Kara Rosettie after a Facebook page she created in October, called Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, flared into a full-fledged backlash to the school board’s October decision not to authorize district grounds monitors to carry guns. The monitors, former law enforcement officers, long carried guns without formal board authorization.
With the school board narrowly split over whether to rearm the grounds monitors, former police who work for the school district as security personnel, the slate and its backers hope the election will be enough to flip the board and lead to a rearming of the monitors. But opposing candidates have joined the race too, arguing education research, and district finances, don’t support armed monitors in schools and urging a focus on ongoing student mental health and social supports.
Connie Woytowich, Ed Cubanski and Dean Kolligian, the trio endorsed by the Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools in Februrary, last week said they planned to treat all contributions made to Saratoga Springs for Safer School as contributions intended to support their campaigns. Each of the three candidates said they will report the names of all individual contributors to Saratoga Parents for Safer School as contributors to their campaigns.
School board candidates are required under state education law, which governs school board races, to authorize all expenditures in excess of $25 made on behalf of their candidacy, and the trio has also agreed to jointly approve all spending decisions, including campaign literature and messaging, advertising purchases, events and other expenses.
More from this week: Our top stories March 9-15, 2019
The group has already paid for robocalls to reach thousands of Saratoga Springs residents, asking questions about the election, which Rosettie said cost $750. The group hosted a fundraiser for the candidates last month and said they sold at least 150 tickets for the $40-a-ticket event. A donate page on the group’s website include donation options of $10, $25, $50, $500 and $5,000.
“We will see every dollar that comes in for support, and we will approve and see every expense that goes out to take care of any expenses that happen based on the support of the campaign,” Kolligian said last week. “Make no mistake: The one thing we are going to do is make sure every I is dotted and every T is crossed, and we will be unequivocally transparent through every step of the process.”
The first look at how much the group has raised and what they have spent their money on will come about 30 days before the May 21 election. If candidates have spent or had spent on their behalf more than $500, they are required to file campaign expenditure statements 30 days before the election, five days before the election and within 20 days after the election.
Some of the other candidates in the race have criticized the slate as “PAC-supported,” but Rosettie and Rob Arrigo, who is helping to manage the slate’s joint campaign, said the group has never formally incorporated or organized as a political action committee. Rosettie started the Facebook page in October and eventually set up the bank account in the group’s name.
“We are literally a group of concerned parents,” Rosettie said. “There is no dark money. Every donor has to be listed, every dollar we raise has to be listed and it all has to be reported.”
Rosettie and Arrigo said they spent a significant amount of time working to figure out what kind of campaign structure was permissible under state education law and ultimately discussed with district officials how the candidates should report the shared contributions.
“The law requires candidates to report expenditures made by them or on their behalf,” district spokeswoman Maura Manny said in response to emailed questions about the candidate-expenditure reports. “Expenditures made by any contributor on behalf of multiple candidates is reported in total by each candidate individually.”
In other words, the $750 spent on polling should be listed on each of the three separate candidate filings. If a person writes a $100 check to Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, Woytowich, Cubanski and Kolligian will each report receiving $100 from that person.
“I have access to the bank account statements, spreadsheets and all financial data,” Woytowich said last week in response to questions about her campaign structure. “Everything is transparent and we all can see every donor and we approve and see every expenditure.”
One issue among many issues
The close-knit campaign structure, which leaders at the State School Boards Association said was not a campaign structure they had seen employed before, is unlikely to diffuse criticism from the slate’s opponents they are “one-issue” candidates focused solely on rearming monitors and “beholden” to the advocacy group supporting them.
“I don’t think that most people are giving money without expecting something in return, and I’m personally not beholden to anyone and I refuse to be beholden to people,” said Natalya Lakhtakia, a speech therapist who entered the race March 1 and opposes rearming grounds monitors. “[The slate candidates] are accepting money from a group that has a special interest, and that’s not what the school board is all about.”
John Brueggemann, a Skidmore College sociology professor who also joined the race March 1 and opposes rearming monitors, said the slate candidates’ reliance on Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools for financial and campaign support ties them to the group’s priority first and foremost.
“A couple of the candidates say they are running on broad issues, but I’ve only heard them talk about one issue,” he said of the push to rearm monitors. “If [Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools] control the money, then I don’t see how they are going to move off that one issue.”
But the candidates on the slate in favor of rearming monitors said they can both take the support of Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools and discuss, debate and consider the myriad issues that face a school board. The three candidates have all staked out issues besides school security they say are important to them and important to the community.
Woytowich, a science teacher at Colonie Central SChool District, has emphasized the importance of STEM education and professional development for teachers; last week, she volunteered to teach three sessions at the Maple Avenue Middle School Science Night.
Kolligian, a vice president of security and facilities at Adirondack Trust Company, highlighted his interests in facilities and infrastructure improvements, technology and extracurricular activities and sports.
Cubanski said if other groups formed to back issues and ideas he favored, he would also accept their support.
“Whatever group wants to come out there and endorse me, if they want to use my name, as long as we are all in agreement, I’m willing to take an endorsement from any groups,” Cubanski said. “I’m not about just rearming monitors – that’s one of a multitude of items.”
Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said it is not uncommon for groups of candidates to run as slates focused on a common issue set. But he said it was less common – if not novel – that a group of candidates joined their campaigns behind the support of a single group focused on raising money for the race. The School Boards Association’s general counsel Jay Worona also said he hadn’t come across a comparable campaign structure.
Kremer said it was possible a slate of the sort running in Saratoga Springs could be successful with strong candidates if their rallying issue, in this case rearming ground monitors, was the “issue du jour” in the community at the time of the election.
“A slate of that size, they want to become the majority of the board,” Kremer said. “This issue is certainly going to be their top priority, and they may have other issues they then want to affect.”
To raise or not to raise
Woytowich and Kolligian said they didn’t plan to raise their own money outside of the joint campaign effort, though Cubanski left the door open to doing so.
Brueggemann and Lakhtakia both said they are running independent campaigns – they have said they plan to vote for one another – and will raise money on their own if they do it at all. Sitting board member Heather Reynolds, who opposed rearming monitors, has also said in recent weeks she is running for another term on the board.
“I’m not going to fold up and play with no resources,” Brueggemann said of soliciting donations to his campaign. “But I will be raising [money] by myself and for myself.”
More from this week: Our top stories March 9-15, 2019