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Saratoga voters return mixed verdict in school board race

Saratoga voters return mixed verdict in school board race

New members unlikely to alter the board's position on arming grounds monitors
Saratoga voters return mixed verdict in school board race
BOE Vice President Stephen Verral speaks as the votes come in at Saratoga Springs High School on Tuesday.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Saratoga Springs school district voters Tuesday delivered a mixed verdict in the school board race, electing three new members who are unlikely to alter the board's position on arming grounds monitors.

Skidmore professor John Brueggemann earned the most votes, 3,362, followed by Adirondack Trust vice president of facilities and security Dean Kolligian, 3,069, and Natalya Lakhtakia, a speech pathologist, 2,898, according to unofficial results the district announced late Tuesday night.

With Kolligian running on a slate of candidates in favor of rearming the grounds monitors and both Brueggemann and Lakhtakia arguing against arming district monitors, the outcome in Tuesday's election doesn't appear to change the board's calculus on the issue.

In October, the board voted 5 to 4 to not authorize monitors to carry firearms. On Tuesday, two of the candidates were elected on platforms in part supporting the October decision, replacing two outgoing board members who also supported that decision.

The third candidate elected ran on a platform to rearm the monitors, replacing one outgoing board member who had voted to rearm the monitors in the fall.

But the race was close: Shaun Wiggins, who ran on the slate with Kolligian, fell just 79 votes short of Lakhtakia's tally. Heather Reynolds, the only incumbent to seek another term, earned the fifth most votes at 2,800.

“I think the results represent a validation of our community, of people talking, listening and working together,” Brueggemann said Tuesday night after the results were announced. “I think the voters have spoken and it's time to start collaborating on all the ways we can protect the strengths of the district.”

More results from Capital Region school board elections and budget votes:

Voter turnout more than doubled totals in recent years, with nearly 6,000 residents coming out to vote in the school board race and the budget, which voters approved by a wide margin. Just over 2,800 voters turned out at last year's vote, which also included a capital project with upgrades to parks throughout the community. And last year's turnout was a marked increase from the prior year, when fewer than 2,000 residents cast a vote on the school budget.

The three winning candidates were all endorsed by the Saratoga Teachers Association earlier this month.

Tuesday's election capped a hotly-contested campaign that centered on one of the most deeply-felt and contentious issues in education: how best to protect student safety and security – and what role guns should play in that protection.

After Superintendent Michael Patton took charge of the district last spring, he was informed of a longstanding practice that some district grounds monitors – many of whom were former law enforcement officers – carried firearms on school grounds. But they did so without formal board authorization, as is required by law. District officials halted the practice and moved the issue on to the school board agenda. In October, a divided board rejected a resolution to rearm the monitors.

While that meeting was sparsely attended – just one community member spoke up in favor of rearming the grounds monitors – the board's decision sparked a backlash that resulted in a series of fiery board meetings through the fall and winter, where parents and residents staked out positions separated by a wide chasm. On the one hand, many speakers at those meetings argued armed guards could save lives if a violent attack occurred in the district; but others countered that more guns in school could further exacerbate student stress and anxiety and risk a dangerous accident.

Opposition to the board's decision to disarm the monitors coalesced into Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, which started as a Facebook group formed by Kara Rosettie, a Wilton parent of three Saratoga students, and later raised money to support a slate of candidates in the election.

“I simply could not understand why our school board did not see how fortunate we were to have these trained professionals in our schools to protect our most precious commodity, our kids,” Rosettie wrote in a Facebook post on Monday summarizing her efforts since the fall.

Over the winter, the group turned its attention to the school board race, seeking out a slate of candidates to run with its endorsement and backing. They endorsed three candidates and kicked off the election with a fundraiser that brought in thousands of dollars.

The group ultimately raised over $35,000 to back its candidates, an unprecedented amount of money for a Saratoga school board race, hiring a Florida-based Republican political consultant to help with its voter targeting and messaging. In the Monday post, Rosettie said the group sent robocalls to 14,000 residents, distributed 30,000 pieces of mail, placed 500 signs throughout the community and sent out 12,000 text reminders to people ahead of election day.

But Brueggemann and Lakhtakia stepped forward in March to join the campaign fray, staking out positions against arming district monitors, citing concerns that the district had the expertise to oversee armed monitors. They also attempted to widen the frame of concerns, citing the everyday challenges students face with stress, anxiety, vaping and other issues.

“I have always planned to run for school board, but felt compelled to do so this year after witnessing the open hostility that our administration and board received in the fall,” Lakhtakia wrote in a Gazette survey of the candidates. “I teach my son and my students to always be kind and respectful – I embody those principles myself.”

On Tuesday night, Brueggemann said he respected all of the candidates in the race – and that his respect for them grew as the race went on. But he criticized the campaign tactics employed by Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools and said he hoped Tuesday's results stood as a repudiation of that campaign approach.

“I don't respect the divisive tactics that were used by the slate, I think the personal attacks, the half-truths, the outside consultant, I don't think our community wants that,” he said.

The deep divides in the race were on display outside of polling places Tuesday.

“What good is a guard if he can't even protect himself?” said Dave Englehart before he headed in to vote Tuesday at Greenfield Elementary School.

But Mary Vetter, who also voted in Greenfield, said she was troubled by the large amount of money spent by the slate of candidates and their use of a Republican political consultant. She said it was a local election that should be decided by the local community, without large sums of money or outside political support.

“We are all intelligent and we can make our own decisions,” she said.

More results from Capital Region school board elections and budget votes:

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