Niskayuna

Hear from the Niskayuna school board candidates; Four residents running for two open seats

Top Row: Grier, O'Shea, Saeed; Bottom: Schlossberg

Top Row: Grier, O'Shea, Saeed; Bottom: Schlossberg

Four candidates are running for two open seats on the Niskayuna school board, including two incumbents and two first-time candidates. District residents can vote for two board members on the May 18 school ballot, which also includes approval of the district budget and a proposal to increase board terms from three to four years, beginning with candidates running next year if approved. 

Your Niskayuna gave each of the candidates a chance to respond to the same questions, ranging from what lessons should be learned from the pandemic to how the district should invest nearly $6 million in direct federal aid. Here are their answers:

The candidates are: Noney M. Grier, Benjamin O’Shea, Aliya Saeed and Howard Schlossberg

 

 Name: Noney M. Grier

Occupation: Education and Training Specialist/Acting Domain Manager at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center

How long have you lived in the district: Since 2010, 11 years

Kids in the district: 1 graduate and a current 10th grader

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

Moving forward post-COVID, emotional health of our students, and supporting our faculty and staff throughout the process are the most important things to focus on, in my opinion. As we continue to reimagine learning and follow our moving forward plan, which includes stakeholders who have worked extremely hard, I believe the District will continue to do best by students, teachers, tax payers and all impacted by the pandemic and the many challenges posed. We are a resilient and involved community; we will overcome our challenges.

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

Having served a 3 year term on the Board, as well as a Board Audit committee member, Van Antwerp PTO liaison, District Safety Committee member, District Wellness Committee member, and Niskayuna Nurses Association liaison, I would seamlessly continue my roles. Additionally, my entire career has been community service with the Department of Veterans Affairs and service to our country while in the Navy. I have had the pleasure of many seats on governing bodies that work collaboratively. My biggest strengths are listening and my proven ability to work as a team. A board is not made up of one, a member is a voice for constituents that can work with all to find the best path to take.

How should the district utilize the nearly $6 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years? 

Six million sounds like a great amount, but not in terms of a school district of this size. This is a one time aid payment and I believe it should be spent on one time expenditures, as to not create a funding cliff. Any recurring expenditures or contractual agreements lead to an imbalance in future budgets. Niskayuna taxpayers do not deserve an imbalance looming or the crisis it creates.

How should the board provide oversight of the district capital project approved by voters earlier this year? And how should the district prepare the community for the planned change to grade configurations?

I believe Niskayuna should continue the current, well developed, plan. To date, stakeholders have been part of the process, every step of the way. This will not change, but hopefully grow. Based on empirical data, the District develops plans. Change is always challenging, but often for the better and not done haphazardly in Niskayuna. As a parent, I can say, Niskayuna has always elicited feedback, listened, enlisted the help of many experts, and made changes as needed. Education, like everything else in the world, shall advance and improve. That is why the middle school model should be reconfigured. Think back to your most awkward years; it was probably middle school. I wish there was a better transition for my kids, and even myself at that age. The oversight is from stakeholders and the preparation is in the transparency of board meetings, town halls and communications through the use of all available platforms. I believe that preparation should be based on the feedback of stakeholders with children it impacts, and I believe that will be the case.

What does equity mean to you and what would it look like in action in schools?

Equity to me is every student having the access to the education they rate; academic fairness. Some students need resources and others do not, but they should be available, no matter what those resources may be. Not every student is the same, but they all deserve an equitable education. Equity definition – fair and impartial. Fair and impartial treatment, everyone deserves this. It is the role of the leadership team, board, teachers, taxpayers, and all human beings, to provide this to every student who crosses our paths. These students are our future, we need to leave the world a better place than we found it.

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

We have learned more than we ever bargained for. From a nearly overnight change to a virtual life to mental health crises, it’s all been uncharted territory. I’m not sure there was a way to prepare this time around, but I believe there have been many lessons learned. Should we be in a similar situation, this year has equipped us with some critical thinking we never knew possible. If ever in a situation like this again, I have faith that we, as a strong and resilient community, would take our lessons learned this time, and improve how we manage in response to a pandemic.

 

Name: Benjamin O’Shea

Occupation: Director of Bands at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School

How long have you lived in the district? 10 years

Kids in the district? Liam, 7; Braden, 6 (both at Hillside Elementary)

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

Our district has lost its way. Nobody moved here to pay more in taxes and get less in programming and services. In its original form, the 2021-22 budget proposal sought to reduce our instructional and support staff by upwards of 15 positions in a year when our students will need familiar faces and connections the most. This is also in a year where we are receiving a historic increase in state aid, with an additional almost $6 million available to supplement and enhance rather than retract and take away. The district should be looking to recruit and retain quality staff to build connections with our community, starting with bringing our contracted student support/wellness staff in-house.

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

Without any members of the board that can point to professional experience with school district operations, finance, instruction and labor relations I feel as though we, the parents and taxpayers, will always be at a disadvantage. My experience as a veteran teacher, including the past three years as a union representative and contract negotiator, would immediately improve our ability as a governing body to understand what the true meaning and consequences of future proposals of all types would be.

How should the district utilize the nearly $6 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

Our district needs to stop pretending that there won’t be gaps in learning among our students as a result of the current school year and Spring 2020. The development of a comprehensive plan developed in partnership with teachers, parents, and students to assess and mitigate learning loss due to the pandemic is the only responsible way forward. Additionally, the reestablishment of all extracurricular activities, all levels of athletics, and the hiring of additional student wellness support positions are things that I identify as non-negotiable. 

How should the board provide oversight of the district capital project approved by voters earlier this year? And how should the district prepare the community for the planned change to grade configurations?

The Board’s primary responsibilities are unchanged by this, or any other capital project. It exists to ask appropriate questions when necessary, consider and respond to community inquiry in a respectful and professional manner, and to ensure that our district leaders are operating with the best interests of our students in mind at all times. With regard to any major initiative, the district must do a better job in getting out ahead of issues with facts (real facts, mind you) before rumors and speculation turn into community uproar and backlash.

What does equity mean to you and what would it look like in action in schools?

Equity, inclusion, and diversity are all critical areas of need in our district. Equity for each person to have a seat at the table, inclusion to be an active part of the conversation, and diversity to make sure our richly diverse community is genuinely reflected in our schools. By ensuring that every student has a voice and is in a position to utilize it, we will once again put our district in a position of leadership as we move into the future. 

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

Involve your educators and parents in the planning process. For 2020-21, somebody decided that it was best for the students to assign our most experienced Art/Music/PE teachers to work as pod/cooperating teachers in grade-level classrooms while their programs were shut down. I suppose there was some minimal amount to be saved by doing this, but it has completely demolished elementary Art/Music/PE. I am challenged to come up with an acceptable reason for not staffing these programs this year as it is certainly not what’s best for our youngest and most vulnerable learners, nor any other for that matter.

 

Name: Aliya Saeed

Occupation: Psychiatrist

How long have you lived in the district? We have lived in the Niskayuna School District since 2004.

Kids in the district? We have had 2 adult children in the district, as well as a current Niskayuna High School freshman.

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

1. Mental Health: Mental health and wellbeing of our school community as we emerge from COVID isolation is critical. Schools everywhere will need to enhance academic, social, and emotional supports to successfully return students to school full-time.

2. Budget Process Transparency and Low Staff Morale: In April, I presented my eight-point plan ( tinyurl.com/AliyaSaeedTransparency) for a more engaged budget process and transparency. I am happy to report that at least one of the points I raised was addressed by the school district two weeks ago.  We still need other steps outlined in the document like budget development meetings open to the public starting in the fall and enhancing the human resource department’s outreach to employees.

3. Taxes: Niskayuna School District residents, and especially those on fixed incomes, struggle with every tax increase. It’s important that the school board continues to approve budgets under the tax cap. With the upcoming state and federal infusion of cash, we should look for inventive ways to minimize tax increases. 

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

I have the temperament and compassion that are needed to be a productive and effective member of the school board. I’m also hard-working and fiercely independent. I’ve watched elected representatives who end up in echo chambers and have therefore prioritized going door to door to meet Niskayuna school district residents so that I can hear all perspectives, not just those that are loudest, most insistent, or in closest proximity. I have 23+ years of mental health experience as a practicing board-certified psychiatrist. I’ve taught seminars on the mental health aspects of issues like bullying and community resilience. In my years of working in various nonprofits,  I have learned to appreciate the value of transparency and sound financial management, as well as the requirement for an independent governing board. 

How should the district utilize the nearly $6 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

Federal funds have notoriously complicated rules. To receive the funds, Niskayuna schools must show a return to school plan, and spend at least some on programs that will counter loss-of-learning. This opens up great possibilities for how we can get our students back on track through district-wide initiatives that can range from increased mental health support to after-school and summer activities, to enhanced academic help. Isolation and months of limited interaction has disrupted the social fabric of student communities. If elected, I look forward to being a part of the team guiding decisions regarding how we invest federal aid. I will keep a trained eye on how we enhance wellness and mental health. 

How should the board provide oversight of the district capital project approved by voters earlier this year? And how should the district prepare the community for the planned change to grade configurations?

I’ve been the president of a board as it oversaw the completion of a multimillion-dollar capital project. Based on my knowledge and experience, and after walking and talking my way through the Niskayuna School District, I understand that different communities have their own desires and needs, and the capital project needs to be equitable in how each area benefits. The district will need to engage in intentional communications that show and tell parents, students, teachers, staff, and administrators about the benefits of change. Frequent communications, forums, formal and informal events will be needed to show and tell and gather feedback about the changes in as much detail as is possible. It is important to get district leaders involved in all of the buildings, as well as coaches, teachers, administrators, parents, and other community members. BOE members represent the communities that they serve and bring that knowledge to their oversight of the project.

 What does equity mean to you and what would it look like in action in schools?

I believe that equity is baked into all of our major decisions. We will need to be mindful of the equitable distribution of new and existing resources, and of being inclusive and intentional with all of our school communities. An example is that to date, our school district meetings have not been closed-captioned despite inexpensive closed-captioning services. The lack of captioning prevents members of our community from meaningful participation, including in the decision-making process. Inequity is not just a risk for students of color, it is also important to keep in mind for our students who receive special education, LBTQI students, and other minority groups. The district should continue to look for ways to best support students from households that are struggling economically. 

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

The Pandemic has been a portal, not just into our society’s inequities and weak spots, but also into our vibrant and interdependent community. Our well-being depends on striving for the common good that benefits us all. The Pandemic showcased the resilience and heroism of teachers and staff, the critical roles that parents play in a student’s education, and we saw clearly that school is not just about academics but also a critical provider of social, emotional, and mental health support. We also learned that there is not only one right way of doing things and that there is a lot of insight to be gained by trying new approaches and being flexible. I hope to be part of a school board that effectively carries all of these lessons into the future and learns from them. 

Name: Howard Schlossberg

Occupation: Physician

How long have you lived in the district? 16 years

Kids in the district? Two daughters, in middle school and high school

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

The biggest issue is stress. Students, teachers, and parents have always had some, but the pandemic has increased it significantly. Our student representatives regularly inform us this is their biggest issue, and the faculty says it as well. There are so many things on everyone’s minds, and so much pressure from within and without, it can be overwhelming for both adults and children. The District can help by lowering pressure – less homework, for example, and by providing more resources to help students and staff – social workers, psychologists, and programs that may help with coping and improving mood. Less stress is better for people both mentally and physically, it’s been a focus of mine since the beginning.

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

I’ve served on the BOE for the last six years, so I know the issues and how we are handling them. I have strong relationships built on trust with administration, staff, and the other Board members. I am also on the Board of Directors at New York Oncology Hematology, where I help to manage issues similar to what we see in education: our oncology practice is of a similar size, staff, and number of buildings; everything we do is heavily regulated by State and Federal agencies; and our mission is placed above profit. 

How should the district utilize the nearly $6 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

The American Rescue Plan funds, if granted, will offer the School District a unique opportunity at an incredibly critical time. Niskayuna, along with most other school districts in New York, faced challenging budgets before COVID-19. The pandemic brought additional fiscal challenges, and showed us areas of our infrastructure that were underinvested. The Rescue Plan funds will provide us a one-time opportunity (over some years) to make those investments, but we must be careful to use the funds in a way that will not require ongoing increased expenses that we cannot sustain. Some ideas I believe we should consider are curriculum updates, program design, technology, training, and equipment from tablets to tubas. We should also consider changes that complement investments we make with our use of increased NYS Foundation Aid, which could be used to sustain programmatic changes in the long-term with additional faculty and support professionals. 

How should the board provide oversight of the district capital project approved by voters earlier this year? And how should the district prepare the community for the planned change to grade configurations? 

The community has been involved for years, most of the decisions were made with their input – hundreds and hundreds of people. Our oversight role is to make sure the plan that was approved is implemented responsibly, and that tax dollars are used for what the taxpayers were told they would be used for. A few years ago, the District managed a smaller capital improvement project and, significantly, the State Comptroller applauded the District in the audit conducted after its completion. We have a good track record.

What does equity mean to you and what would it look like in action in schools?

Equity is a broad term and encompasses so many things, from providing extra support for kids who need it to being welcoming to all families and children into our school community. We need to work hard to make sure that kids have all the tools they need to succeed, and that includes feeling safe and supported in school. We know that bias exists in schools – this has been well-studied. Our new anti-racism policy will go a long way to making sure that we value diversity, equity and inclusion. 

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

The importance of being nimble but cautious. I think we have learned that we need to be ready to make changes quickly — such as the invention over a two-week period of entirely new methods of teaching last spring, and then again, just a few months later, reinventing instruction for the Fall. This is something our faculty and staff should be praised for, they are amazing. However, there were times when we needed to proceed with caution. Even now a year later sometimes conflicting information and guidance comes almost daily. Being cautious and allowing time for the new information to be confirmed, digested, and turned into policy before we jump – such as not immediately spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ionic air purifiers that were ineffective at best – is equally important. Being nimble but cautious is an important balanced approach.

Categories: News, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

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