SCHENECTADY — New school board members enter a world of byzantine laws and rules, complex budgets and jargon-filled strategies for teaching kids — the learning curve can be steep, board members say.
“I’m in my third year and I’m at a place I’m finally comfortable in my position and now we have to start to worry about re-election,” said Schenectady school board member Mark Snyder, who is in the third and final year of his first term.
Other current and former Schenectady board members have expressed a similar sentiment that by the time they feel positioned to contribute fully to the board, their terms are starting to run out.
At last week's school board meeting, Snyder requested the board consider its options for increasing the term length for future members — more than the district’s current three-year terms.
Synder, who said he plans to pursue a second term in the spring, said he knows “what it looks like” that he is raising the idea of longer terms just as he sets out to be elected to a new term. But he said the change would benefit all future board members and enhance the work of future boards if members had more time to learn and contribute.
If Schenectady board members do pursue longer terms, they may be limited by state law that sets the length of board terms for small city school districts like Schenectady at either three or five years.
“Five years might be a little too ambitious I think,” Snyder said. “I think it’s asking a lot of someone to dedicate five years of their life to serve on the board.”
But increasing the board terms to four years may not be an option unless the district pursued legislation that specifically allowed Schenectady to adopt four-year terms. The City School District of Albany, for example, has a special allowance written directly into state law that enables it to have four-year terms — an allowance not generally applicable to other city school districts.
If the board decides to increase term lengths, the new terms would take effect after each seat came open. Once a current member’s term expired, the new term after an election for that seat would come at the increased length.
Of two dozen districts in the Capital Region, five have five-year board terms: North Colonie, South Colonie, Schuylerville, Canajoharie and Sharon Springs. Board members in those districts said they appreciate having the extra time to learn the ins and outs of education policy and push specifics ideas before reaching the end of a term.
“Before I started it seemed like kind of a long time, but once I got into the work of the school board I learned that … the first two years are a learning process and an orientation process and finally in the third year you can start to do some active work,” said South Colonie board President Ed Sim, who is in his seventh year on the board.
Sharon Springs school board President Laura Jackson also said she took a while to feel knowledgeable enough to contribute fully to board discussions and decisions.
“Three years is very short; I know I didn’t catch on for quiet a while,” Jackson said. “You are afraid to participate. I know I was because I didn’t really know that much.”
The vast majority of local districts, however, have three-year terms like Schenectady. And there may be other factors to consider like whether increasing the length of board terms would turn off potential candidates.
State law is also somewhat unclear as to whether the Schenectady school board would be required to win voter approval to change term lengths, according to the New York State School Boards Association.
“It’s not a beacon of clarity, the statute on this,” said Jeff Mongelli, an attorney with the school boards association.
While there is a law that authorizes the school board to adopt a proposition to increase term lengths during any regular school board meeting, it does not specify whether that proposition must go before voters as the word would imply, Mongelli said.
But if Schenectady decided to increase term lengths, association spokesman Dave Albert added, it would be on the strongest footing if it put the decision up for a public vote.
“The voters would be the ultimate authority,” Albert said. “It seems like the safest route would be to get voter approval.”
After last week's board meeting, Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said he would return to the board with an update on how it would go about changing term lengths.