A few years ago, Matthew Taylor was organizing student walkouts and trips to Washington to protest gun violence as a Saratoga Springs High School student. Now, he is organizing a campaign for school board that has been relegated to Facebook, Instagram and the phone as a pandemic keeps school buildings closed.
Taylor – who has worked on local political campaigns, including managing one for a city commissioner position – graduated in 2018 and headed to The George Washington University to study political science. But halfway through his second year, the private college unexpectedly cut his financial aid support, so he moved back home to Greenfield and plans to start school locally in the coming months.
He said his experience with George Washington has only reinforced his belief in education as a “great equalizer” and helped drive him to run for the school board.
“The students of our district both need and deserve someone who fully knows what it's like to go through the system and who knows the struggles students face and someone who knows firsthand how those struggles can stunt a child's future,” Taylor said in a video announcing his candidacy around two months ago.
This year's school board elections – set for June 9 as absentee-voting only – will long go down as a novel experiment in how the state runs its school district elections. School district officials, already pressed by an unprecedented transition to remote education, are still waiting for updated state budget figures before sending out absentee ballots to as many eligible voters as they can find.
The election also presents a unique opportunity for people to “self-nominate” for a position on the board after the governor suspended signature requirements. Anyone eligible to serve on a local school board can get their name on the ballot by submitting nominating paperwork with the district clerk by close of business Monday.
While a full picture of who is running in districts across the region will emerge over the next week, many candidates have been campaigning since before the pandemic upturned education and have not been deterred by the unprecedented challenges, and opportunities, local school districts will be facing during the three-year terms they hope to serve.
However, the transition to remote education and the suspension of in-person campaigning has altered the landscape on which the elections will play out and the challenges districts will face over the years board members are being elected to serve. Candidates have resorted to engaging potential voters largely from home, and school districts are trying to stand up a fully-absentee election for the first time ever. Some education watchers are predicting higher than usual voter turnout under the new rules.
In a recent interview, Taylor explained that the pandemic and its impact on education has brought one of the major challenge he sees facing the district to even closer to the forefront: providing every student with equal capacity to access the district's quality education.
He said he understands what it is like for lower-income students attending schools in affluent districts and thinks it's important for the district to be mindful, inclusive and supportive of those students.
“When I went to high school, I wasn't the wealthiest kid. I was lower middle class, and I knew the struggles that put on my education,” he said. “I think it affects our students more than the average person would know because they haven't experienced it.”
He said the district should not only ensure it pays for things such as college testing and application fees for students who need financial help, but also examine the ways the district's income gap contributes to different educational experiences.
Still with friends at the high school, Taylor said he understands the devastating loss so many students are experiencing through the closures. He said district educators should be checking in on students and focusing on supporting their mental health.
“I think it's important we have any form of help for those students, guidance counselors, therapists, a way for them to call and speak to someone,” Taylor said.
As a student, Taylor formed the high school's first Young Democrats club and organized student walkouts as part of a nationwide movement protesting school gun violence. He helped raise money for a group of Saratoga students to rent a bus to travel to Washington for the 2018 March for Our Lives, during which thousands of students rallied outside the Capitol calling for stricter gun measures.
Taylor promised to run a nonpartisan campaign and he said recent school board elections in Saratoga Springs have been overly politicized and contentious.
“This was more to me than just running for political office,” he said. “I think education is important and the great equalizer.”
He said that while the pandemic has altered the campaign approach he may have taken, he has modified it to the current situation, engaging people both to explain his views and to hear theirs.
“We are going to work very hard to still reach out to voters to hear their concerns and communicate with them through whatever means we have,” Taylor said.
In Schenectady, 2006 Schenectady High School graduate Samuel Rose has jumped into this year's race for one of three open seats on the board. Rose, who earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Buffalo and works at the state Education Department, said he is a lifelong Schenectady resident who is both rooted in the community and understands how large education institutions work.
He said the community's future well-being depends on an engaged and informed public.
“This starts with a sound public education that teaches students how to think for themselves not just what to think,” Rose said. “I'm running because I think this position is one way I can help make Schenectady a better place for all of its residents.”
Rose described the school board's chief responsibility as providing “public oversight and community control” of the city's public schools and said his approach as a board member would flow from that, serving as a bridge between the community and the administrators running the day-to-day operations of city schools.
“The school board is a way to make the voices of residents of Schenectady heard and to channel that action through the administration,” he said.
Rose said he wished the school board had handled the recent departure of former Superintendent Larry Spring, who left his position abruptly in March under a non-disclosure agreement with the board, with more transparency.
“I do certainly wonder if there was a better way for the board to handle it in a more open and democratic process, so the people of Schenectady can know what is actually going on with the school district administration,” Rose said. “I'm skeptical of the use of nondisclosure agreements by elected officials.”
Rose, who taught while working on his doctorate and said his experience in the education department would serve him well as a board member, said it will be critical to protect the integrity of public education in the recovery and aftermath of the pandemic. He said it is important to think about schools within the context of the broader communities they serve, calling for partnerships throughout the city that support education and community development.
“Schools do more than just teach people, schools do a lot more than just instruction,”Rose said. “Schools are institutions of the community.... Our solutions to the education problems need to also be larger community solutions.”
New faces emerge in Niskayuna
Sarah Rogerson, an immigration law professor at Albany Law School, started collecting signatures for the Niskayuna school board before the current closures. She then shifted to gathering the signatures through the mail, sending off petition forms for people to sign and send back in the mail. She had collected the qualifying number of signatures, she said, before the state suspended the requirement.
The exercise, though, allowed Rogerson to continue to engage with community members as she and her husband took up educating their two elementary school students from home.
While Rogerson said she has been considering running for local office since the 2016 presidential elections – motivated to get more engaged at a local level – she has only more recently felt more comfortable doing so as her kids have grown more independent and she gained more experience. Rogerson served on a district subcommittee focused on diversity and equity for the past two years.
Even though she set out running for the school board before the pandemic, she now has a better understanding of just how important the role is.
“The pandemic has really brought it home for me how important the role of board of education members will be for the foreseeable future,” Rogerson said, noting the need to navigate a safe return to school and the fiscal challenges of the state's budget shortfall.
Rogerson has experience both as an educator – teaching law school for about a decade – and as an advocate of marginalized populations – representing refugees and undocumented immigrants in her legal work.
She said her experience helps her understand how vulnerable populations can be both served and harmed by large institutions and that in the midst of a crisis vulnerable groups are often the first and most impacted members of the community.
“We need people who are serving on the board who understand how public education is interconnected to a host of other social concerns and how poverty and inequality intersect,” Rogerson said. “Day to day, if you are not thinking about issues like English as a second language or reaching out to students who have different challenges... if you aren't trained to look for vulnerabilities in a system, you can implement policies that inadvertently exclude others.”
Tim Brennan, an attorney specializing in construction and medical malpractice, is also running for a Niskayuna board seat. Brennan has four children in the district, including students at the elementary and high school levels. His wife works as a social worker in the district. Brennan said with kids across the district, with varied interests and skills, he understands a lot of the different ways families interact with the school system.
“I have a lot of perspectives having those four kids.... From APs to IEPs, we cover it all and are involved,” he said, noting his kids are in both advanced courses and special education. “Given the fact we have so much going on in our family with interests and needs, I have a lot of perspective to offer in terms of the people in the district and what they feel.”
Brennan also said his professional experience can serve the district as it potentially moves forward with a capital project and the board is tasked with the managing and oversight of tens of millions of dollars in school renovations. And he highlighted his family's community work: he helped found a local flag football league and his wife founded Nisky NOW, a program that provides supplemental food to families of students in need.
“Five out of six people in my family go to the district,” he said of his wife and kids. “I think I'm really invested in what's going on in the district, and I think I have a lot of perspectives that would make me an ideal person to make sure people's views are heard.”
The two lawyers are running for two open board seats, including one currently held by Rosemarie Perez Jaquith, who isn't seeking another term on the school board.
Jennifer Zhao, who is finshing up the three-year term she won in 2017, is running for reelection, seeking one of the two open seats.
Zhao said she has learned a lot during her time on the school board, noting her last two years on the policy committee and her growing understanding of school district finances. She highlighted the experience as an advantage, noting the relatively short collective experience of the current school board.
“I think that continuity is important and having that built up expertise, rather than always coming in and coming out,” Zhao said.
She said she never considered not running for another term on the board and also started collecting signatures in person before transitioning to collecting signatures remotely before the requirement was canceled.
Zhao, who has three young kids at home, said she has worked to reach district residents remotely, hosting a recent Facebook live event and plans to do more before the election and maybe beyond that.
Zhao said as the district moves forward, it may want to think about how to develop policies that would outline how to respond to future situations where students have to be taught remotely and how to ensure their privacy is protected. She also said the district needs to continue to move forward with long-term plans like a major capital project, noting that the current challenges can't get in the way of building for the future.
“I don't think we should let this dictate how we plan for the next three or five years,” she said.