Niskayuna school board race focuses on mental health, budget

New members will consider capital improvements, grade reorganization in coming years
Five candidates are running for three slots this spring in Niskayuna school board elections.
Five candidates are running for three slots this spring in Niskayuna school board elections.

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Niskayuna voters next month will elect three school board members from five candidates, members that will likely be on the board as it considers a major capital project and whether to reconfigure school buildings.

The candidates include one sitting board member, board vice president Brian Backus, and a former board member, Patricia Lanotte, as well as other parents looking to win one of three, three-year seats on the seven-member board.

The other candidates are Greta Jansson, Kimberly Tully and Jonathan Vaillancourt.

Whoever wins the seats will join the board as district officials and board members dive into developing a plan for asking voters to approve a major capital project in fall 2020. Before developing the capital plan, the board will consider various options for shuffling how the district uses its buildings, potentially changing how the grades are distributed across the district.

While a consultant and committee of community members develops a report of options to send the board later this spring, the reorganization under consideration could mean dramatic changes to how the district educates youngsters. Or the district’s current approach could stay much the same – that’s what the board members elected May 21 will help decide.

Candidate Jonathan Vaillancourt could not be reached for an interview last week.

Here’s a look at the candidates:

Brian Backus

Backus recently retired from a 39-year military career that spanned all three branches and ended as commander of a medical evacuation unit at the local Air National Guard base.

After two years on the board, he is looking to get elected to his first full term. In 2017, Backus won a special election to fill out two years remaining on what was originally Lanotte’s second term, from which she resigned for personal reasons. Backus had previously run unsuccessfully.

He said he got involved after watching a dysfunctional board a few years ago. He emphasized the importance of board members building consensus and presenting a unified front as they move forward on district business.

“I still have a desire to do what’s best for kids and to be fiscally responsible for the community of Niskayuna,” Backus said.

Backus said as the district undertakes a capital project to meet projected enrollment growth, it is important to adjust to modern teaching and learning styles.

“I’m open to the options, truly, because teaching and learning is changing,” said Backus of a set of reconfiguration scenarios under development. “I believe we are going to transform away in some form or fashion from desks and rows and teachers in front of the class to collaborative learning and problem solving and kids coming up with critical thinking skills.”

Backus has three adult children who graduated from Saratoga Springs. His wife’s twins are students at Van Antwerp Middle School, which has drawn him back into school activities.

Backus has worked for the Capital Region BOCES in the past, assisting districts with safety and security plans. His wife serves as a superintendent of the Lake George Central School District, and his daughter works as an elementary school teacher in Las Vegas. He said that gives him a full view of different aspects of education.

“I’m the only one who is running that has a 360-degree view of education,” Backus said.

Backus highlighted ways to improve school safety by creating an environment in which students feel comfortable.

“If we focus more on social-emotional issues and mental health issues and make sure our schools are a place everyone feels comfortable, accepted and included, we will do more to reduce violence in our school than putting armed guards at every door,” Backus said.

Pat Lanotte

Lanotte, who has previously served four years on the board, is looking to win back a seat. She works in finance and project management at GE and said she would focus on the district budget and expanding mental health services.

Lanotte said she was pulled back into a school board race by her daughter, who raised concerns about the climate and culture at the high school. Lanotte said “there’s no comparison” of the level of stress and anxiety at the high school to when her son attended only a few years ago.

“(My daughter) feels there are things going on she’s never seen before — kids self medicating, the number of kids that are anxious,” Lanotte said. “That was really my impetus. She asked me to run.”

Lanotte emphasized the importance of investing more in mental health supports, like social workers and school counselors, and focusing on heading off social and mental issues in the earliest grades. During public comment sections of recent school board meetings, Lanotte urged the board and administration to go further in next year’s budget, staffing one social worker at each middle school.

“I would say we have not put enough boots on the ground,” Lanotte said.

She also contends district officials can plan budgets better, more closely monitoring spending and avoiding the levels of unspent funding at the end of school years.

“I’ve noticed the district has been rolling over millions of dollars year over year in surplus,” Lanotte said. “And at the same time they have been spurning priorities for kids in the classroom.”

She said a capital project represents a good opportunity to update the district’s broader education update and said the board will need to continue to solicit public comments along the way.

“This is not something we are going to just vote on without more time for public input,” she said.

Lanotte said the personal reasons that led her to resign a board seat after one year are no longer a factor and she promised to serve out the full term if elected – unless she was “six feet under.”

Kimberly Tully

Tully, who has lived in Niskayuna for 14 years, has three children in the district: a sixth grader at Iroquois Middle School and a third grader and first grader at Rosendale Elementary School.

She has volunteered at both the Rosendale and Iroquois schools’ parent-teacher organizations. As a certified teacher who has worked in schools throughout the region, she said she believes she would bring a different perspective to the board.

“I noticed that the board lacks an educator’s perspective,” Tully said. “Being a certified teacher, I would be the only teacher on the board if elected, and I would bring those experiences.”

She emphasized the importance of teacher training and said it was important to focus on how programs build upon one another.

She said she thinks the district’s math curriculum connects well from grade to grade but that other subjects should do so as well and suggested officials conduct more regular reviews of curriculum.

“Make sure that what a child is working on in elementary school translates to what they are working on in middle school and again to high school,” Tully said. “It should build upon one another, and I’m not sure that is being efficiently done.”

As the board considers reconfiguration options ahead of a capital project, Tully said she would focus on the financial implications of different options and how disruptive it would be for students. She said different options come with different trade-offs, all of which will need to be evaluated.

“As a board, we need to be armed with as much information as possible,” Tully said. “It would be silly to make a decision just on a whim.”

Greta Jansson

Jansson’s oldest child reached high school this year, which gave her a look at the last level of the district she had yet to experience. That experience was the final push she needed to join the board race.

“For me, I wanted to experience each level before I threw my hat in the ring,” Jansson said.

She also pointed to a series of lockdowns brought on by student threats and a racist incident at a high school girls soccer game as spurring her to run for the board.

“In everything I’ve been a part of and watched this year, I’ve thought I want to see how the decisions are actually made, and I want to help make them better,” she said.

Jansson, who has lived in the district for 12 years, said she has volunteered with Friends of Music and been involved in athletics and music with her three children.

Jansson said she was open to options to change how the district distributes grade levels, and highlighted the need to “evolve” new practices. She also focused on the close connection families have to their local elementary school and said that should guide decisions.

“We have to understand that we do have to evolve, we have to keep up with the future of education,” Jansson said. “That said, we do have a lot of people in our community who feel very strongly about their neighborhood schools. So, I think any changes we make have to keep that in consideration.”

She and her husband started and operate his neurology practice in Niskayuna. Jansson has worked on both the business and patient side of the operation.

Like the other candidates, Jansson emphasized the importance of mental health and connected it to the overall safety of students and buildings.

“By combating those things, maybe the need for security will lessen, because we’ll have less kids feel a need to leave a (threatening) note,” Jansson said.

Citing the incident at the soccer game, Jansson said focusing on diversity and equity are important for the district.

“I think we need to set up every student in our district to succeed in a diverse environment,” Jansson said. “I do think even for people who don’t think we have a racial problem in Niskayuna, it can’t hurt to prepare all of our kids to know how to live in economic and racial diversity.”

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