SARATOGA COUNTY – When the debate over masking was at its height this school year, public comment at one Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Board of Education meeting stretched on for more than two hours, according to Superintendent of Schools Patrick McGrath. Now, that district’s school board race has eight candidates vying for two seats.
“It’s by far the most candidates that we’ve had in anyone’s recent memory,” said McGrath, who has been with the district for a decade.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake is not alone. In Saratoga County’s larger districts, school board elections are more hotly contested this year than in the past.
“We used to have to rattle the bushes a little bit,” said L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent of the Shenendehowa Central School District, where seven candidates are running for three seats.
Elsewhere in the county, five candidates are running for two seats on the Ballston Spa Board of Education and six candidates are running for three seats on the Saratoga Springs Board of Education. Boards for some smaller districts like Galway and Schuylerville are running uncontested races.
Nonetheless, in the county’s larger districts, school board races are seeing more packed fields. While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause, the crowded races follow a school year in which school board meetings’ public comment periods regularly drew large crowds. And like those public comment periods, some of the school board races have become equally bitter, with national politics infiltrating the conversation.
The optimistic take for the increased interest in districts’ school board positions is that it is a result of parents simply having more interest in their children’s schooling in general.
“A larger number than usual are seeking election,” said Francine Rodger, who co-chairs the Saratoga County’s League of Women Voters’s Vote411 Voter Guide. “That could be that it’s been a very strange two years, and people are connected to their children’s learning in a way that they haven’t been in the past. In the last two years, parents have been intimately connected to their children’s learning, and this may have spurred more interest.”
But the more pessimistic read is that parents are angrier and more divided than ever. Vitriol has spread to school board races across the region, including in Schenectady County, where four candidates are running for two seats on the Schenectady City School District Board of Education in an election that has become fiercely political.
Across the state, school board races – with elections next Tuesday, May 17 – are drawing a typical number of candidates, with about 1.4 candidates running per open seat, according to the New York State School Boards Association.
But what’s different this year is the amount of new candidates seeking office, according to David Albert, chief communications and marketing officer for the School Boards Association.
“A trend that we’re seeing this year is that a number of incumbents are not running for re-election,” Albert said, adding that one-third of incumbents have opted not to run for another term.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen more first-time candidates running than incumbents,” said Albert, who noted the association was not able to collect data last year due to the pandemic. In the state’s school board races this year, 53% of candidates running are new or first-time candidates, while 47% are incumbents, according to Albert.
Christopher Zeppieri is one of those newcomers. Zeppieri is one of five candidates running for two seats on the Ballston Spa Board of Education, where Superintendent Ken Slentz will be leaving this summer. Zeppieri said he first took an interest in school board meetings in August 2020 when he was looking for information on the district’s learning plan for the upcoming school year amid the pandemic.
Underwhelmed by the way the board presented information, Zeppieri, a 39-year-old with three kids in the district, ultimately decided to run for a school board seat this year. Zeppieri said his goal is to better bring the community into the conversation and make a point of clearly explaining the rationale behind decisions. Without clear explanation, he said falsehoods presented at meetings never get beaten back, and divides deepen.
“At the end of the day, it is giving parents the voice and making parents know that they’ve been heard. [As a board member you should say,] ‘you’re taking it into account, you thought about it and you made a thoughtful decision based on all of the facts in front of you,” Zeppieri said. “Give us the ‘why’ behind a decision.”
When it comes to the ‘why’ behind why a lot of people – and a lot of newcomers – are running in some districts: “There are a lot of possible explanations,” Albert said, with one possibility being that – in some districts – school board service has been especially challenging during the pandemic.
School boards have certainly received more attention during the pandemic, Albert said.
“School boards have been much more in the spotlight,” he said. “For the most part, they usually just go about their business. School boards are often dealing with a lot of day-to-day operational types of things. But what we’ve seen in the last couple years is that the role of school boards has become much more prominent in the national spotlight.”
That prominence started with conversations about masking and in-person learning. But it’s since led to local discussions about national debates over school curriculum and social-and-emotional learning, Albert said.
Superintendent McGrath echoed that sentiment, saying school board meetings are a venue where people feel safe discussing their views on major issues.
“When there are times when things are more tumultuous with the economy or the pandemic, they feel less control in their lives. I think they feel that they can have more control in their own community,” McGrath said. “It plays out at the board meeting, because I do feel it is a relatively safe space. People feel comfortable voicing their concerns.”
The added concern leads to a heightened interest in the board itself, Albert said.
“They went to express their views because that’s their local district,” Albert said. “I think that’s prompted more interest in races. Also, you do see a lot of the issues that are playing out nationally – issues about curriculum. People want a greater say in what is being taught, and that is motivating some folks to run, as well.”
Debates about school curriculum have been playing out in Saratoga Springs, where the group Excellence in Education for Saratoga has backed three candidates – including two newcomers.
Excellence in Education for Saratoga, which has a core team of about a dozen parents, is focused on the environment in schools and on transparency, which translates to concerns about school violence and issues with school curriculum, said Mark Crockett, a 69-year-old member of the group, who lives in Gansevoort. Crockett said he is concerned that an over-emphasis on diversity, sexuality and sexual identity at too young an age prevents kids from being kids and gets in the way of other learning. Crockett said he recently became worried when his elementary school-aged grandchildren in the Saratoga Springs school district expressed fears about a lack of clean air and about the war in Ukraine.
“I just think we’re introducing some of those things to innocent children and forcing them to think about adult topics when they are still children,” Crockett said.
Excellence in Education for Saratoga has endorsed Billie McCann, Edwin Spickler and Dean Kolligian. It has supported these candidates through yard signs and other marketing campaigns with local fundraising efforts, Crockett said.
But Pat Pipino, who has one child in high school and another in middle school in the district, isn’t buying it. Pipino, who owns Ben & Jerry’s of Saratoga and is married to a teacher who serves on the District Equity and Inclusion Committee, said he first became worried when he got a robocall from Excellence in Education for Saratoga.
“I recognized it as a slick ad campaign to promote a slate of candidates that align with their values,” said Pipino, who believes the group has ties to national conservative organizations.
He became more deeply concerned when he dug into Excellence in Education for Saratoga’s and Moving Saratoga Forward’s social media posts, which are rife with gripes about critical race theory and other hot-button issues and have attacked sitting school board members, including incumbent candidates John Brueggemann and Natalya Lakhtakia. Pipino says his family has been targeted by the groups, as well.
“I’m concerned for the district. There is so much animosity right now. It’s become a toxic environment, and that’s not good for anyone,” Pipino said.
Pipino recently published his own social media post in response to Moving Saratoga Forward’s and Excellence in Education for Saratoga’s messaging.
“I’m tired of them getting a free pass while they trash our excellent schools, fine city and hardworking civil servants,” Pipino wrote. “They’ll be the ones that attend school board meetings only to yell at the administrators, while not having the courtesy to remain for the balance of the meeting to hear what others have to say, or even the manners to keep from shouting out constantly while others are trying to speak…I’ve come to the conclusion that this small but vocal subset of our community are about three things: 1. Being outraged all the time; 2. Making people afraid of their boogeyman du jour; 3. Blaming everyone they perceive as “lefties” 100% of the time.”
Shenendehowa has experienced a widening chasm between community members as well, Superintendent Robinson said.
“I don’t think anyone would deny that during the COVID period there were gaping divides in the people who came to school board meetings to express their viewpoints,” Robinson said.
Especially during debates around masking, Robinson said, several people made comments about how they were going to run for school board seats because they were angry over masking in schools. (To be sure, masking in schools was a statewide mandate in New York.)
“Politics is playing a greater role in terms of people’s interest in school board service,” Robinson said.
Superintendents said they hope that candidates can learn to think broadly, even if a single issue was the impetus of their campaign.
“Some folks think about getting on the board because of a single issue, and they quickly find out that there is so much to this responsibility,” said Michael Patton, superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District, which is home to more than 6,000 students. “That’s a lot of responsibility, and our board members take that seriously.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.