Sarah Rogerson, an immigration law professor at Albany Law School, started collecting signatures for the Niskayuna school board before the current closures. She then shifted to gathering the signatures through the mail, sending off petition forms for people to sign and send back in the mail. She had collected the qualifying number of signatures, she said, before the state suspended the requirement.
The exercise, though, allowed Rogerson to continue to engage with community members as she and her husband took up educating their two elementary school students from home.
While Rogerson said she has been considering running for local office since the 2016 presidential elections — motivated to get more engaged at a local level — she has only more recently felt more comfortable doing so as her kids have grown more independent and she gained more experience. Rogerson served on a district subcommittee focused on diversity and equity for the past two years.
Even though she set out running for the school board before the pandemic, she now has a better understanding of just how important the role is.
“The pandemic has really brought it home for me how important the role of board of education members will be for the foreseeable future,” Rogerson said, noting the need to navigate a safe return to school and the fiscal challenges of the state’s budget shortfall.
Rogerson has experience both as an educator — teaching law school for about a decade — and as an advocate of marginalized populations — representing refugees and undocumented immigrants in her legal work.
She said her experience helps her understand how vulnerable populations can be both served and harmed by large institutions and that in the midst of a crisis vulnerable groups are often the first and most impacted members of the community.
“We need people who are serving on the board who understand how public education is interconnected to a host of other social concerns and how poverty and inequality intersect,” Rogerson said. “Day to day, if you are not thinking about issues like English as a second language or reaching out to students who have different challenges … if you aren’t trained to look for vulnerabilities in a system, you can implement policies that inadvertently exclude others.”
Tim Brennan, an attorney specializing in construction and medical malpractice, is also running for a Niskayuna board seat. Brennan has four children in the district, including students at the elementary and high school levels. His wife works as a social worker in the district. Brennan said with kids across the district, with varied interests and skills, he understands a lot of the different ways families interact with the school system.
“I have a lot of perspectives having those four kids. … From APs to IEPs, we cover it all and are involved,” he said, noting his kids are in both advanced courses and special education. “Given the fact we have so much going on in our family with interests and needs, I have a lot of perspective to offer in terms of the people in the district and what they feel.”
Brennan also said his professional experience can serve the district as it potentially moves forward with a capital project and the board is tasked with the managing and oversight of tens of millions of dollars in school renovations. And he highlighted his family’s community work: he helped found a local flag football league and his wife founded Nisky NOW, a program that provides supplemental food to families of students in need.
“Five out of six people in my family go to the district,” he said of his wife and kids. “I think I’m really invested in what’s going on in the district, and I think I have a lot of perspectives that would make me an ideal person to make sure people’s views are heard.”
The two lawyers are running for two open board seats, including one currently held by Rosemarie Perez Jaquith, who isn’t seeking another term on the school board.
Jennifer Zhao, who is finishing up the three-year term she won in 2017, is running for reelection, seeking one of the two open seats.
Zhao said she has learned a lot during her time on the school board, noting her last two years on the policy committee and her growing understanding of school district finances. She highlighted the experience as an advantage, noting the relatively short collective experience of the current school board.
“I think that continuity is important and having that built up expertise, rather than always coming in and coming out,” Zhao said.
She said she never considered not running for another term on the board and also started collecting signatures in person before transitioning to collecting signatures remotely before the requirement was canceled.
Zhao, who has three young kids at home, said she has worked to reach district residents remotely, hosting a recent Facebook live event and plans to do more before the election and maybe beyond that.
Zhao said as the district moves forward, it may want to think about how to develop policies that would outline how to respond to future situations where students have to be taught remotely and how to ensure their privacy is protected. She also said the district needs to continue to move forward with long-term plans like a major capital project, noting that the current challenges can’t get in the way of building for the future.
“I don’t think we should let this dictate how we plan for the next three or five years,” she said.
The annual school budget vote and board election will be held June 9 by absentee ballot.