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Niskayuna school board candidates: In their words

Niskayuna school board candidates: In their words

Five candidates seek three open seats
Niskayuna school board candidates: In their words
Niskayuna school board candidate Jonathan Vaillancourt speaks during a forum at the Little Theatre at Niskayuna High School.
Photographer: Erica Miller

NISKAYUNA -- Five candidates are running for three open school board seats in Niskayuna next week. The newly-elected board members will join the board as officials wrestle with staff morale problems and head toward a major capital project planned to go up for voter approval in 2020.

All the candidates were given a chance to respond to the same questions. Here are their answers (in the order they will appear on Tuesday's ballot):

Patricia Lanotte 

Name, age, occupation and why are you running for the school board?

My name is Patricia Lanotte and I am currently a Senior Project Control Manager at GE Global Research. In this role I manage external government and commercial contracts, acting as a liaison between our researchers and our customers, while providing contractual and financial analysis and support. My previous roles at GE Global Research included Assistant Controller and Manager of Financial Planning & Analysis. I am running for the school board because I believe that I will be able to assist the District as it moves toward a major capital project, and addresses issues of mental health and staff morale. I believe I am the most qualified candidate to fulfill the most important board member role of providing fiscal oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent in a prudent but effective manner. I am looking forward to serving our community once again.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the school district and what should be done about them?  

There are multiple challenges facing our school district, which will require strong leadership from the Board of Education in terms of policy as well as fiscal oversight. First, the mental health needs of our students must be addressed immediately in  all of our schools. We need to identify students who are dealing with anxiety and depression quickly, and provide the supports necessary to help students at risk. This would include staffing the calm room at the high school, and making sure that the clinic at Craig is open to all families in the District. Fiscally, over the last 3 years, the District has deferred spending on mental health priorities, while creating $6M in surplus above and beyond the allowable unassigned fund balance (aka rainy day fund). If elected, I will focus on the budget and spending, and pledge to advocate for using future surpluses to lower the tax levy, if our reserves remain at current levels.

What should the school board do to address the morale and communication "crisis" some district staff described at a recent board meeting?  

The Board of Education should recognize that it has a leadership role to play in developing communication and fostering an atmosphere of respect and understanding between the administration and our bargaining units. The Board through the annual superintendent evaluation process should create measurable goals for the superintendent which would allow for an honest evaluation of staff morale. These goals could include requiring the superintendent to solicit feedback in the form of a 360 survey, to help understand where morale is lacking, and to provide an opportunity for open and honest dialogue between employees and administration. There should be multiple opportunities for self reflection and improvement, with the goal of creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and a sense that we are all working toward the same goal, that of providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere for all who work and learn in our buildings. 

How would you approach a discussion about a forthcoming capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings?  

I see the capital project committee as a first step toward building community support for a major capital project. I would start with the a review of the building condition survey, the enrollment projections, and hold forums or create focus groups to discuss the findings of the committee, to ensure that we have as much input as possible as we move towards a decision point.  We need to review data and come to a decision as to what the community will support in terms of new debt. I would review the current debt service schedule to ensure that the timing of retiring old debt coincides with taking on additional debt, to minimize incremental cost to the taxpayers. I would rate and rank the priorities based on what will have the greatest positive impact for all students. Finally, I will ensure that we carve out sufficient operating dollars, each year, to ensure that we have adequate maintenance for this new investment.

 

Jonathan Vaillancourt 

Name, age, occupation and why are you running for the school board? 

Jonathan Vaillancourt, Mechanical Engineer. I am running for Niskayuna school board because I believe my personal and professional experiences provide me with the tools necessary to make a positive impact. As an engineer I believe I can provide an excellent compliment to the other board members. My data analysis experience will allow me to review our school scorecard, find trends, and find effective solutions that will support our students, staff, and community. I also focus on how things are used or implemented, looking at the fine details, providing insight into policies to avoid concerns and helping make sure they work. In addition to my technical experience I have had significant business and finance experience. I have worked on multi-million dollar capital improvement projects which I believe will be a great asset for the upcoming district capital improvement projects. I have significant experience working on, and managing parts of, projects with multi-million dollar budgets, always with an eye for reducing costs and maximizing value. This is a critical skill needed for school board. I will work to maximize the value of our tax dollars into our children's education. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the school district and what should be done about them?

The biggest challenges for the Niskayuna school district to address are staff morale and diversity and inclusion. Our teachers and support staff are leaders in their fields and it is important for the district to ensure they are recognized as such. Ensuring we maintain open lines if communication and collaborating as a district will aid in improving staff morale. Staff morale impacts student education and student wellness which is why it is an important item. Diversity and inclusion is a challenge as our district demographics change, both culturally and socioeconomically. Our district has begun establishing diversity discussions and a diversity council and we need to bring lesson from these efforts into the school to supplement our children's academic education with appropriate culturally diverse education. Not only will this address the challenge of diversity and inclusion but it will also be helpful in improving aspects of student wellness and mental health. 

What should the school board do to address the morale and communication "crisis" some district staff described at a recent board meeting?

As I noted before, ensuring we maintain open lines if communication and collaborating as a district will aid in improving staff morale. Providing our staff with the support the need will provide our students with the best educational opportunities possible.

How would you approach a discussion about a forthcoming capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings?   

I would approach a discussion about capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings the same way I approach all things, I will review data and input to make an informed decision. I would look for additional data on student enrollment and class size projections to help define our future needs. I would then engage with students, teachers, staff, and parents to identify concerns or improvements needed. Using this information I would work with professionals to determine the options our district has available and balance those options against the financial impact, aiming to minimize the tax burden.

 

Brian Backus

Name, age, occupation and why are you running for the school board? 

Brian R. Backus, Colonel, USAF, Retired, 59 years old.  Our twins, Aiylin and Owen Rutnik, went to Hillside Elementary and are now 8th graders at Van Antwerp Middle School moving up to the High School next year. I am running for re-election to the Niskayuna CSD Board of Education in a time where our educators, leaders and most importantly our students need our advocacy to remain focused on teaching and learning to prepare them for jobs we cannot yet imagine. I will continue to support the district’s tradition of excellence as it moves beyond the status quo; preparing learners to be global citizens. Moving forward, the educational goals of our community and district should build on what we have already accomplished, holding true to our core values and traditions, but also looking to the future to prepare our students to be career and college ready.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the school district and what should be done about them?

Over the past 5 years we have averaged a 1.5% tax levy increase while annually adding staff, adding mental health supports, and enriching curriculum, all while maintaining a healthy fiscal position. Unlike most districts across New York State, our enrollment is trending upwards. However, our demographics are changing, necessitating additional mental health and other supports for our students. As we move toward our next capital project, our facilities need to be able to address the increased numbers and increased needs of our students, while still being as fiscally responsible and mindful of the significant investment made by taxpayers as we have been. 

What should the school board do to address the morale and communication "crisis" some district staff described at a recent board meeting?

The responsibility for the proper functioning of this district belongs to every student, staff member, administrator, and school board member in it. And if something isn’t working, whether it’s communication, morale, or anything else, we are all responsible for making it work. I was surprised and saddened to hear the bargaining unit presidents at the May 7 board of education meeting speak of the district being in “crisis” and I am committed, as we all should be, to improving communication and morale for the sake of all.  Steps to improve communication are already underway, including an upcoming meeting to discuss these issues between labor leaders, administration and designated board members. We value our teachers and all of our wonderful staff and we don’t want them to feel otherwise. 

How would you approach a discussion about a forthcoming capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings?   

The capital project advisory committee, comprised of a myriad of stakeholders, has been hard at work for some time now. They have been conducting research and working diligently and thoughtfully to come up with potential project proposals and configurations. I want to hear them out. Then I want to hear from the community. The more input and diverse opinions and voices the better. Only by listening and considering all of those opinions and voices could my fellow board members and I, together with district leadership, start to discuss and make decisions about the capital project, including the possible reconfiguring of our school buildings. 

 

Greta Jansson

Name, age, occupation and why are you running for the school board? 

Greta Jansson, 48, Business Owner and neurodiagnostic technician

I am running for school board this year because I felt well situated after having a child in each of the school levels: elementary, middle and high school. I possess 22 years of business and financial experience and I am the only candidate that owns and has managed her own business. I will bring my career experiences in finance, managing budgets and people, and volunteering, to serve our school district and all stakeholders.

I pride myself in being level headed and fair but am not afraid to take a well thought out stance.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the school district and what should be done about them?

Morale of our teachers and staff is one of the most pressing issues our district is currently facing. The school board most certainly can and should make sure we are doing all we can to make our employees feel valued. Being responsive, and engaging teachers and staff in finding a solution is essential.

Another pressing concern is mental health and wellness. This broad topic covers everything from anxiety, depression, delayed start times, to vaping and substance abuse. Our district has been ahead of the curve on trying to address mental health and wellness, but we have a long way to go. We would benefit from educating our parents better about the issues our teachers and administration are seeing in the schools. We also need to tap into the brain trust of our veteran teachers. Who better to help solve the problems we are facing with our students than the teachers who are with them all day, and have many years of experience?

What should the school board do to address the morale and communication "crisis" some district staff described at a recent board meeting?

I answered this above.

How would you approach a discussion about a forthcoming capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings?   

I would approach this discussion as you should any discussion on such a pivotal endeavor for a district. We need to be transparent. We need to clearly express the goals of the capital project and the reconfiguration of the schools to all stakeholders.

We have put together a powerful committee of community members and professionals to provide us with their recommendations. We need to communicate these recommendations clearly to the community. And then, we need to be open to feedback from the community.

 

Kimberly Tully

Name, age, occupation and why are you running for the school board?

Kimberly Tully, 41, Teacher/Educator

I believe strongly in both the education of our youth, and serving our community; serving in this position will allow me to give back to my community while having an impact on the education of our students. I believe effective school boards have collaborative relationships amongst themselves as well as with staff, students, and the community. Various volunteer PTO roles I have served in over the years have allowed me to see the importance of those relationships. I believe my educational background and teaching experiences provide a perspective that is missing from the Board of Education. Working collaboratively with fellow board members, I will work to ensure that our teachers and staff are properly equipped to efficiently provide the best educational experiences possible.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the school district and what should be done about them?

The Board of Education has a responsibility to the community to make sure that a high level of education is balanced with a reasonable tax rate, which in turn keeps the value of homes in our district at a premium. We cannot tax our way to educational success. 

Facilities continue to be an issue in the district. We need to put plans in place to address the “little” issues prior to them becoming big issues so that we aren’t wasting money by neglecting the assets we currently have.

Delayed school start times is an issues being researched by the district.  It is imperative that the committee working on this consider all positive and negative implications, including how the change will impact busing, the start times of other schools in the district, the affect it will have on athletics and extracurricular activities, and any financial impacts. 

What should the school board do to address the morale and communication "crisis" some district staff described at a recent board meeting?

I believe that I am the only candidate who has worked full time in a school district, and as such, I believe that I am the best qualified to immediately and continuously address this issue. I will engage in aggressive outreach to the employees to hear their grievances and bring those issues to the Board. I would like to see a procedure put in place for evaluating staff morale on a regular basis. The simmering of issues isn’t healthy and it isn’t efficient. Our teachers and staff need to feel valued as they are working to achieve our goals, and when they are unhappy or feel they aren’t appreciated, we aren’t as efficient in the delivery of services to our community. My experiences within the Niskayuna schools over the past 7 years has been one of fact finding, consensus building, and problem solving. 

How would you approach a discussion about a forthcoming capital project and proposals for reconfiguring school buildings?

The district is preparing to present options about a proposed capital project, which includes the reconfiguration of buildings district wide.Just as the community has been involved in a committee studying this issue, we need to continue to have active community involvement once the options are presented. Transparency should be the Board’s hallmark and I will not participate in decision making by "7 people in a room." The community involvement must include more than just parents and school employees but also current and former students who have firsthand knowledge of our buildings and how they are used, as well as community members who do not have children in the schools who will share in the burden of paying for these projects. I have always felt the more eyes and the more diverse the thinking during the planning process of a project, the better the final outcome will be.


 

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