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Fierce school security debate crowds Saratoga Springs school board field

Fierce school security debate crowds Saratoga Springs school board field

Most recent candidates support disarming grounds monitors
Fierce school security debate crowds Saratoga Springs school board field
Ed Cubanski, right, a candidate for the Saratoga Springs board of education, speaks during a fundraiser
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

At least seven people have declared they are running for the Saratoga Springs school board this spring, vying for three seats as a fierce debate over school security has spurred intense interest in the board election.

The election promises to hinge on how best to keep the district’s students safe as some parents and community members have pressed to reverse the school board’s October decision not to authorize district grounds monitors to carry firearms – as they had done discreetly for years without formal board approval.

Meanwhile, others have called for a preventative approach focused on fostering a positive school culture that tends to a wide range of student needs and resisted calls for increasing the presence of guns in schools.

The rapidly growing field of candidates emerged on the first day that board petitions were available at district office Friday and just under three months away from the May 21 election. Two new candidates, Skidmore sociology professor John Brueggemann and speech pathologist Natalya Lakhtakia, on Friday joined a field that includes two sitting board members, Heather Reynolds and Jim Wendell, and a slate of three candidates backed by a parent group focused on rearming the monitors.

The race had already started in force last month after the slate of three candidates – Colonie Central High School science teacher Connie Woytowich; retired Coast Guard Captain Ed Cubanski; and Adirondack Trust vice president for security and facilities Dean Kolligian – accepted the endorsement of Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, a parent group formed as part of a backlash to the board’s decision to disarm the grounds monitors. All three of the candidates have kids in the school district.

The grounds monitors are primarily former police officers who work on district staff, monitoring district property, assisting with visitor access and providing security at afterschool events. For years, some of them carried guns without the necessary board authorization, a practice administrators stopped last spring.

Unlike the Woytowich-Cubanski-Kolligian slate, Brueggemann and Lakhtakia – who said they would vote for one another but are running independently – support the current board's decision not to rearm the monitors. They both argued the best approach to keeping the district’s schools safe is one that focuses on social, emotional and mental health supports for students, as well as a “threat assessment” approach the aims to identify and intervene with students disconnecting and disengaging from the school community. They also pointed to the district’s tight budget – which they said they learned more about at Thursday’s school board meeting – and argued the cost of an expansion of school resources officers to every district school would be too costly and force layoffs of teachers or social workers.

Lakhtakia and Brueggemann also both said the debate over the grounds monitors became overly contentious, and at times personal, and called for a more civil dialogue at school meetings.

Brueggemann has lived in Saratoga Springs for 25 years, where he teaches at Skidmore College and researches and writes about religion, food and labor history. He and his wife have three kids in the school district, two in middle school and one in high school.

He said he appreciated the passion that parents brought to board meetings after the monitors were disarmed but argued it quickly devolved into a debate he didn’t think reflected the issues facing the district or one that would lead to constructive solutions. He also pointed to a wide range of issues he argued are more pressing for the safety and well being of students: vaping, bullying, anxiety, social media, peer pressure -- even student parking.

“There were a bunch of people raising their voices who pulled a lot of us into the conversation, and I’m one of the people they pulled in, but the conversation got really narrow and uninformed and then it got mean, and I thought we can do better than this,” he said in a Friday interview. “I thought the threats that my children face are more complicated than they’re describing… What I’ve found through talking to people, reading, listening is that the real effective strategies for making schools safe lie in prevention.”

Lakhtakia has lived in the school district for two years with her husband and their 3-year-old son. She works remotely as a speech pathologist for the Santa Fe school district in New Mexico. Lakhtakia meets with students and consults with teachers using a Skype-like video-conferencing program as she works with students from elementary through high school on speech and communication skills.

She said she has long been interested in serving on a school board, recalling how as a high schooler she appeared in front of the school board to request better signage on the road students at her school had to cross to transit between two school buildings.

“I always had an idea that I wanted to be on the school board,” she said in an interview Friday. “I’ve dedicated my career to children, I care about children, I care deeply about education, I care about teachers, I care about the people who maintain our schools, and the people making decisions for the whole school community.”

Lakhtakia said she often discusses with her students what’s going on in their lives or the struggles they face and that it’s important educators take a “holistic approach” to fostering safety in schools.

“It’s not just about handling an emergency, it’s about what goes into preventing that emergency,” she said. “I think we need to look at the whole child, look at everything and make sure we are helping kids become full people.”

While Lakhtakia and Brueggemann listened in on a district budget update at Thursday’s school board meeting, the slate of candidates in favor of rearming the monitors gathered with well over 100 supporters for a $40-a-ticket fundraiser at the Saratoga Golf and Polo Club. The three candidates each offered brief remarks at the event, singling their support of rearming the monitors while also trying to expand their platforms to a broader range of issues.

Woytowich emphasized the importance of STEM education and professional development for teachers. Cubanski said he wanted to “be the advocate and the voice for the teachers and the students.” Kolligian highlighted the importance of connecting more students with extra curricular activities and improving district facilities and technology.

But the group’s chief argument was hard to miss in the remarks: rearming the monitors will make the schools safer, they said. The trio of candidates say they support the soft measures and broader school-wide approach advocated by others but that ultimately they want armed personnel at the schools too.

“We are all here for one thing and that’s to get our grounds monitors rearmed, right?” Kolligian told the crowd of supporters, which included a handful of active police officers. “These individuals who are current or former law enforcement individuals put on a blue uniform and a badge and a gun one day and elect to retire the very next but continue to give back to their community. Does that make them any less qualified to protect our students, faculty and staff members? Don’t think about it: the answer is no, absolutely not.”

The candidates also alluded to the yearslong history of armed monitors in the district as evidence the monitors could carry weapons in a safe way and without incident.

“Obviously, the monitors that were armed, they were so quiet, respectful and discreet that for 20 years we didn’t even know they were there,” Woytowich said Thursday, adding that as a teacher she had never planned on having to train for potential “active shooter” events.

Sitting board member Heather Reynolds, who voted against rearming monitors and has stood behind that position, on Friday confirmed by email she is running for a second term and said she planned to roll out more campaign information in the coming days and weeks. She also said she was glad to see Lakhtakia and Brueggemann join the race, saying they were “not one-issue candidates or receivieving money from (an independent group).”

In his interview, Brueggemann also swiped at the slate of candidates and said it was a "shame" they had aligned directly with the parent group.

“The candidates, they say they care about a range of things, but they’ve signed on to this litmus test,” he said of the three slate candidates’ support for a safety plan released by the parent group. “I’m not beholden to anyone, I’m trying to listen to all of these different stakeholders, but I’m not beholden to any partisan agenda or outside group or special interest.”

Current board member Jim Wendell in December said he planned to run for re-election this spring; he didn’t respond to a message Friday seeking further comment. Wendell was one of four current board members who in October voted in favor of authorizing the monitors to again carry guns.

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