Schenectady Board of Education President Maxine Brisport was not welcomed with open arms at Thursday’s Meet the Candidates Night.
Other candidates offered her calculators, a reference to Wednesday’s meeting debacle at which the board was briefly unable to calculate its budget.
One voter spoke scornfully of the times Brisport teared up at board meetings. And some in the audience at Petta’s Restaurant even heckled her, shouting at her as she tried to speak.
But she passionately defended herself, blaming former board president Jeff Janiszewski for all of the criticism leveled at the board.
She told voters she is now making progress toward firing Superintendent Eric Ely after “being stifled” while Janiszewski led the board. She accused him of running a “man’s club” that chose the superintendent, created the annual budget and made all policy decisions. She also said Janiszewski controlled Ely as a “puppet.”
She was not allowed to do anything, she said, until she became president this year.
“Now I feel the handcuffs are off,” she said. “I did not create the situation. I am not Jeff Janiszewski.”
While she won some applause when she said she had not voted to extend Superintendent Eric Ely’s contract last year, she was heckled when she said residents should have questioned his hiring.
“Where was the uprising?” she said. “Someone like me needs the support to make it work.”
Voters shouted that she was blaming them for her failings.
Four board seats are up for election in the May 18 balloting.
The other candidates focused on the future.
Nicole Ragone said she would bring the board into the 21st century by getting high school students to broadcast the meetings while board members sent out tweets and responded to e-mailed questions.
“I want to make it more parent-friendly, taxpayer-friendly,” she said.
Ann Reilly also focused on communication.
“I have been increasingly distressed in recent years by how things were done,” she said, describing teachers who could not get district administrators to return calls and parents who couldn’t get answers to their questions. The first step, she said, must be to fire the superintendent.
Robert Barnes, who has submitted a petition calling for Ely to be suspended, agreed.
“I’m still after Eric Ely,” he said.
He also suggested making the high school safer by keeping all ninth-graders in their own wing and staggering the periods so fewer students are in the hallways at once. Most bullying happens during the passing periods, he said.
Cathy Lewis, who was well-respected on the City Council for her thorough examination of each budget, promised to go through the school budget line by line.
“I would suggest that we begin even this fall,” she said. “You’ve got to look at the details.”
Ron Lindsay agreed. He was school board president for three years before leaving in 1991. Now, he said, he needs to return.
“I don’t like the way in which we’re going,” he said.
He wants the board should start work on the budget much earlier each year, beginning with ideas from principals, teachers and administrators.
Barnes had the same plan. He and Andrew Chestnut argued that they were best suited to focus on the budget because they’ve analyzed budgets professionally for decades.
“This is my expertise,” Barnes said.
Chestnut said the budget needs to be reorganized, separating the items needed to operate the buildings from the items needed to run programs.
Operational costs should be reduced as much as possible, he said.
“The problem is, since we haven’t organized the information this way, we can’t tell the difference between the two,” he said.
But Barbara Metcalfe said most budget items are required by law.
She warned the crowd not to simply vote for Lewis, Lindsay, Chestnut and Reilly, all of whom were endorsed by SCOPE, a new citizens group. She said they could replicate the back room dealing that Brisport alleged of Janiszewski.
“Be very cautious,” Metcalfe said. “You don’t want the same thing to happen again. You don’t want a core group of people because they will vote together. I’m running as an independent voice.”
Matthew Brockbank got the biggest applause of the night when he emphasized that he graduated from Schenectady High School in 2005.
“I had a great education,” he said.
But the same quality could be offered for less money, he said, adding that he’s already combing through the budget for cuts.
“Other districts do more with less,” he said.
To reduce costs, he promised to personally interview every administrator and principal every year, ask for union givebacks and talk to teachers and students.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” he said.