In school board races that drew unusually crowded fields in Saratoga County’s larger districts, voters tended to favor incumbents and candidates who prioritized students’ social and emotional well-being over newcomer candidates who campaigned for increased curriculum transparency or against issues like mask mandates.
Voters also overwhelmingly supported passing budgets in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, the Saratoga Springs City School District, the Shenendehowa Central School District and the Ballston Spa Central School District.
In the Saratoga Springs City School District, unofficial results showed incumbents John Brueggemann, Natalya Lakhtakia and Dean Kolligian leading a race with six total candidates.
In a race for two seats on the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Board of Education, residents elected incumbent Jennifer Longtin to her fourth term along with David Mitchell to his first term. Longtin received 1,569 votes and Mitchell received 1,528 votes, beating out Michele Draves, 202; Emily Walsh, 565; David Barclay, 476; Ben Riehlman, 521; Tom Bird, 407; and Melissa Barone, 526.
Superintendent of Schools Patrick McGrath said previous strong turnout numbers have been about 3,000 total votes, with this year’s turnout far surpassing that mark.
In the Burnt Hills school board race, voters did not break strongly for candidates like Walsh, who said she is against COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and Bird, who said the government overstepped during the pandemic.
Two-time incumbent Deanna Stephenson, Tom Templeton and Petra Holden won seats on the Shenendehowa Board of Education, where seven candidates sought three spots. The winning candidates, who were elected to 3-year terms, earned 2,845, 2,479 and 1,904 votes respectively. All seven candidates received at least 1,300 votes.
“Public education is under fire due to cultural and social shifts defining what students should learn and not learn, threatening the fundamental tenets of public education, which brings me back to why am I am a dedicated servant to Shenendehowa to assure that each and every student is afforded the same options and opportunities for a successful outcome,” Stephenson wrote on the League of Women Voters of Saratoga candidate questionnaire.
In Ballston Spa, Holly Barker-Flynn received 1,363 votes, Law Ryan received 897 votes and Christopher Zeppieri received 621 votes. Those candidates beat out Jason Gurtler, who received 583 votes, and Brody Savoie, who received 542 votes. The losing candidates both campaigned on “transparency” in education.
“I am most concerned about the transparency regarding decisions being made about the environment our children are learning in and the content that is being taught,” Savoie wrote in the League of Women Voters’ questionnaire.
With residents largely supporting incumbents, Saratoga County’s bigger districts in some ways bucked a statewide trend that featured more newcomers running for school board seats.
“A trend that we’re seeing this year is that a number of incumbents are not running for re-election,” said David Albert, chief communications and marketing officer for the New York State School Boards Association, 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.
The packed fields in the larger Saratoga County districts follow a school year during which school board meetings in the county–and around the country–often became contentious over issues ranging from masking to school curriculum.
“There has certainly been a lot more people attending those meetings and a lot of feelings on both sides,” said Sarah Hoffmann, a 43-year-old special education teacher who lives in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district. “I want everyone to remain focused on what’s best for our kids and best for our school.”
Dan Clapper, a 54-year-old engineer with two teenagers in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district, said he supported candidates who want to give teachers and parents enough freedom to do their jobs.
“I think teachers ought to be able to do what they need to do in a school, and parents ought to be able to do what they need to do with their kids, and we should have a merging of those two,” he said.
School budgets were approved with strong support in the county’s larger districts.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake residents approved the 2022-23 school budget of $76,634,726 with 2,173 yes votes and 794 no votes, and a passing margin of nearly 73%. Shenendehowa residents approved a $194 million budget for 2022-23 that includes a spending increase of 3.85% in a vote of 3,419 to 948. Ballston Spa voters approved a $98,575,342 budget for 2022-2023, which represents an increase of 3.8% by a mark of 1,602 votes to 373. Saratoga Springs voters approved a $137,138,255 budget for 2022-2023, representing a 1.87% year-to-year increase.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.