SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Parking around the high school. Elementary school class sizes. Communication with parents. Vaping in the bathrooms. Stressed students. Disparities in student discipline.
And armed district security in the schools.
The hotly-contested Saratoga Springs school board election is about more than one issue.
While the candidates – five out of seven appeared at a forum hosted by Saratoga Unites on Wednesday night – again split over whether to authorize district grounds monitors to carry firearms, they outlined a litany of other issues they said were important to them and district residents.
“We need a much broader conversation than we have had this year,” said John Brueggemann, a Skidmore sociology professor, emphasizing the daily stress, anxiety and pressures on students he said should draw increased attention. “For those kinds of issues that constitute regular threats to our children on a daily basis we need all the stakeholders to collaborate.”
Shaun Wiggins, who runs a data analytics and risk management firm, joined the race last week. He said he was partly inspired to run because of growing class sizes at his daughter's elementary school. Wiggins said the board may have to make cuts elsewhere in the budget to maintain small class sizes, pointing to the district's team of assistant superintendents and other top administrators as potentially a place to find savings.
“That student-teacher ratio that is the core of everything,” Wiggins said.
Heather Reynolds, the only sitting board member seeking re-election, raised concerns over the district's wide disparities in suspension rates for students of color and the low proficiency rates of black students at Maple Avenue Middle School on state tests. She said she hopes the board can turn its attention to those issues after it has an approved school budget for next year.
“This is a problem across the country, but it is a problem in our own schools,” said Reynolds, who works as an education professor and researcher. “We are not doing what we need to do for certain groups of students.”
Natalya Lakhtakia, a speech-language pathologist, when asked what other issues she thinks should get more attention, said it was critical to find ways to ensure all students had access to programs offered in the district.
“We need to be focusing on accessibility and equity, making sure all of our programs are accessible to all of our children regardless of what is going on in their lives,” she said.
Ed Cubanski said the district needs to do more to identify the students who are at risk of posing a danger to themselves or others and get them the support they need. He said the district should come up with “parameters, risk areas” and develop a system for identifying at-risk students and matching them with the professional support they need.
“How do we get them to those mental health professionals?” Cubanski said of the focus.
The candidates all seemed to agree the school board, district officials and school building leaders can do a better job communicating with parents about potential changes in the schools and the different programs available to students.
Connie Woytowich and Dean Kolligian were not able to attend the forum but submitted written statements that were read as part of the candidate introductions. In her statement, Woytowich, a high school science teacher in South Colonie, emphasized the importance of giving teacher opportunities to learn and plan to improve their skills.
In his statement, Kolligian focused on the importance of maintaining a strong infrastructure base in the district and planning for the long term as well as improving athletic and extracurricular offerings for students.
Whether to let district-employed grounds monitors, primarily former police officers with at least 20 years of experience, carry firearms as part of their job remains a divisive and central issue in the election.
Wiggins, who accepted the endorsement of Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, a parent group focused on rearming the monitors, said he supported armed security in the school but suggested he wanted to pursue a new model that would more closely tie grounds monitors to the command structure of law enforcement. He said he did not want armed monitors “under civilian control, that cannot happen.”
“I'm not comfortable having my two children in school,” he said. “There are bad people out there, Saratoga is no different, you think we are safe but you're really not.”
Brueggemann pointed out that the monitors were under civilian control and argued school district officials are not equipped to oversee armed security personnel.
“I do not think that you can have people in schools with firearms who do not have expert supervision,” he said. “Our school district does not have the expertise to supervise people with firearms.”
Reynolds was one of five board members who in October voted to not authorize grounds monitors to carry firearms on school grounds as the monitors had for years without formal board approval and in violation of state law. She said it was important to focus on prevention by improving the overall school environment through anti-bullying efforts and bolstering students struggling with social and mental challenges.
Lakhtakia struck a similar note and said it was dangerous to give weapons to school employees also charged with maintain student order and discipline.
“I believe anyone who is carrying lethal weapon around children needs ongoing and comprehensive training and ongoing is the key word,” Lakhtakia said. “I do not believe that anyone who is responsible for school discipline should be carrying a lethal weapon”
Cubanski, though, argued the armed monitors are like an insurance policy: You don't want to ever have to use it, but you are happy you have it. He also said the district monitors bring years of law enforcement experience to the table.
“Having those experienced grounds monitors gives you that experience, nothing beats experience,” said Cubanski, who spent much of his career serving in the Coast Guard. “I'd rather have a gun and never use it then need a gun and not have it.”