NISKAYUNA -- Niskayuna school board candidates touched on a wide variety of issues, from later start times and school resource officers to turf fields and staff morale, during a candidate forum Thursday night.
The five candidates vying for three board seats – incumbent Brian Backus, former board member Patricia Lanotte, Greta Jansson, Kimberly Tully and Jonathan Vaillancourt – offered voters varied backgrounds and points of emphasis even as they all struck a collaborative tone.
Vaillancourt has young children on the cusp of school age; Tully has three kids at Rosendale and Iroquois; Backus, the only sitting board member seeking re-election, highlighted his ties to education through adult children, young grandchildren and a wife who works as a superintendent and has twin daughters at Van Antwerp Middle School; Lanotte has a son finishing college, a daughter at the high school and she emphasized her background in finance; Jansson highlighted wide range of experiences with students at the elementary, middle and high school level.
“Now, having all of the experiences of the three school levels, I feel I'm ready to take on this challenge,” Jansson said after noting she held off on running for the board until her oldest reached the high school.
Tully also highlighted her patience in waiting to run for the board until she served the district in a variety of ways, including volunteering in classroom and serving on the PTO. “I've always believed in the importance of serving our schools in whatever way possible,” Tully said.
The candidates broadly agreed that they did not favor stationing an armed school resource officer in school buildings, but they said they were open to considering recommendations from Niskayuna police and input from parents.
They mostly supported moving the high school start time later in the morning but called for careful consideration of the impacts to transportation, athletics and individual family needs. They were open to replacing athletic fields with turf but also said it was important to balance all of the district's facilities needs and suggested exploring partnerships with the town.
Lanotte and Backus, who was elected in a special election to finish out Lanotte's term on the board after she resigned in 2017 for personal reasons she has said are no longer a factor, sparred briefly over the district’s current finances and whether district leaders have relied on large budget surpluses.
Lanotte, who has worked as financial analyst and project manager at GE, said the district has consistently over-budgeted and under-spent in recent years, running up surplus funds that she said could be used to support students. She proposed the money be invested in mental health supports for students, like social workers.
“When we go out to the taxpayers and say we need $84 million, this year $87 million, the expectation is we need it for teachers, coaches, students, groundskeepers and that we are going to spend that,” she said.
But Backus countered by arguing it was prudent to maintain a financial cushion in case unforseen costs or emergencies arose. He highlighted unexpected emergencies this school year like a blown transformer at the high school and the potential of health emergencies driving up insurance costs.
“It's nice to be able to have a fund balance you are able to work with,” Backus said.
The candidates appeared to walk a careful line on a question about school resource officers. While all of the candidates said they did not favor having an armed resource officer permanently in the school, they also said they were open to considering it if local police and community members felt it was best.
“As someone who has carried firearms for 39 years, I'm not a fan of having guns in schools,” said Backus, who recently retired after a long career in the military. He said when the school board asked students whether they would feel safer with a school resource officer, they said no.
As the district continues to develop plans for a major capital project planned to go up for voter approval next year, some of the candidates presented themselves as possessing experience that would be useful on that front.
Vaillancourt, who said he and his wife moved to Niskayuna with their young children about four years ago because of the school system, argued his experience would come in use as the district develops and potentially implements a capital project. Vaillancourt works as a mechanical engineer at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory and said he has experience in the finances and technical details of large projects.
“[My experience] would allow me the ability to not only look at the capital project from a financial perspective but also a technical perspective,” he said.
Vaillancourt also said the capital project should be a chance for the district to think further down the road and lay the ground work for a potential expansion into preschool.
“If we are making changes or expansions in elementary schools, we should be planning for, or at least considering, space for accommodating pre-k,” he said.
The board candidates were also asked about a recent school board meeting when leaders of the district's various staff bargaining units – from the teachers association to groups representing bus drivers, nurses and other support staff – outlined a litany of concerns about communication with district administration. The union leaders said the district was “in crisis.”
Tully said she thinks staff should be surveyed and said if morale issues aren't addressed – nipped in the bud, she said – they can fester and degrade the overall teaching and learning environment.
“I think opening the lines of communication and letting these groups know they are heard is critical,” Tully said. “If teachers feel they are not being heard, there is going to be frustration that will build up and that benefits no one.”
Backus took a different tact in responding to the morale question, suggesting the way the staff presented their concerns to the board was not the most constructive approach. He said the board was “hammered for a half hour” in a setting where they could not respond, and he lamented that the frustration at the board meeting overshadowed the presentation of an award given to students who organized the district's STEAM bus.
“Adult issues took over what was supposed to be a celebration for our children,” he said. “We all have to have a conversation about [staff morale] but how it happened at the meeting I think was really unfortunate.”
All of the candidates were present for that board meeting, and Jansson said seeing teachers and staff she knew expressing those concerns at first made her wary of running for the board but later made her think she could play an important role in fostering improved staff relations.
“This is probably the most exciting time for me to think about getting on the board because I have connections with these people, they are my people,” she said of the teachers and teacher assistants she had grown close to. “It's not always about money; I feel like making people feel valued is a simple thing if we take the time to do it.”
Lanotte called for expressly requiring the superintendent to set goals for improving staff morale and finding measurements to hold him accountable for it.
“We want our students to grow and we measure that,” she said. “Well, the board can watch their superintendent grow and measure that.”
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that Brian Backus' wife's twin daughters attend Van Antwerp Middle School.