BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Here’s a look at the six candidates competing for two seats this year on the Niskayuna Central School District Board of Education in the May 19 election.
The seats of six-term board member Barbara Mauro and three-term board member Bob Winchester are up for election. Mauro is seeking re-election, Winchester is not.
The winners’ terms will begin July 1, 2015 and end June 30, 2018.
Here are profiles of the six candidates and their responses to a series of questions about themselves and the school board. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Niskayuna resident for five years
Occupation: Squadron commander, Air National Guard
Children attend Hillside Elementary School
Qualifications: “My 35 years in the military, my 18- 1 /2 years at Capital Region BOCES, the fact that I’ve already had my four adult children go through school, and the fact that when I worked at BOCES I worked with 72 school districts in twelve counties. I got a chance to see how different schools work and how they function.”
Niskayuna resident for 24 years
Occupation: Physical Therapist
Children attend Iroquois Middle School and Niskayuna High School.
Qualifications: “I think that my career skills would bring a good fit to the board. I’ve learned a lot over the years about working with groups and consensus building and really listening to people to try to understand their concerns and work toward a solution. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade or more going to board meetings and participating in different committees. I was on the GLEAN committee, Gifted Learning and Enrichment at Niskayuna. I was on an ad hoc committee about food allergies in the classroom, and one about drugs and alcohol at the high school. I was on the recent superintendent stakeholder interview team. I was on the middle school shared-decision making committee. I have a really good sense of what’s been going on for a long time.”
Niskayuna resident for 19 years
Occupation: Real estate broker
Child attends Iroquois Middle School
Qualifications: “I have quite a bit of experience, volunteerwise, with the school district: about six years’ experience in a number of roles, from PTO at Birchwood to PTO council co-president, and a number of committees, including the FUAC [Facilities Utilization Advisory Committee]. I was a representative on full-day kindergarten implementation a few years back, and academic advisory committee, too. Recently I was part of the superintendent interview committee. And I’m involved with real estate, so I’m out in the community.”
Niskayuna resident for 22 years
Occupation: Retired attorney and current Board of Education member.
Children are both alumni of Niskayuna High School, Iroquois Middle School and Rosendale Elementary School. They graduated in 2001 and 2003.
Qualifications: “My experience and my knowledge of how school districts are supposed to operate.”
Niskayuna resident for ten years
Occupation: Medical oncologist and hematologist
Children attend Rosendale Elementary, eldest soon to transition to Iroquois Middle School.
Qualifications: “I think that my current board roles [New York Oncology Hematology, Schenectady County Public Health, Ellis Medicine, and others] have prepared me pretty well for this. I think the school board is different than other things because of the education component, but the basic system is very similar to the management work we do here at the practice. There are a lot of parallels between health care and education.”
Niskayuna resident for eight years
Children attend Niskayuna Co-op Nursery School and Glencliff Elementary School.
Qualifications: “I’m a leader. I was in the military. They were always putting me in leadership roles, and I even taught some of the classes. I have the youngest children of anyone currently on the board and of my fellow candidates. I think it gives me an interesting perspective, and I’m also vested in this district for at least 13 years.”
What school-related issue are you most passionate about?
Brian Backus: Truthfully, it’s not really one school-related issue. The issue for me is what’s best for kids. We spend a lot of time talking about budgets and we spend a lot of time talking about Common Core and opting kids out of taking tests, but we don’t really talk about what’s best for kids. That’s really why I decided I wanted to get involved.
Barbara Burgess: One would be the idea of finding creative ways to increase opportunities for the kids. One example of that is distance learning, and we’ve started doing that, but in order to maximize those opportunities there might be some changes we need to make in terms of the high school schedule.
David Koes: Right now my feeling is that there has been a little unrest the last few years with the board, mistrust issues. One of the things I’m passionate about is continuing to try to improve that relationship with the community. I’m really passionate about getting the word out and getting input and having folks feel like that input is being taken seriously.
Barbara Mauro: The right leadership at the top. Without that, nothing else can happen, including focusing on students and student learning.
Howard Schlossberg: I think the thing that I hear the most from people is that of support. Niskayuna is great at taking care of the kids who are excelling. They’re great at taking care of the kids with special needs. But I think some resources could be diverted more to the folks in the middle. It’s something I’ve heard from lots of people.
Danielle Scolaro: Probably, because of our daughter, special education. My daughter has Down syndrome. We believe in inclusion. It teaches not only kids with needs, but it teaches kids who are more typical about compassion and patience. It creates a positive culture within the school.
What recent Board of Education decision might you have approached differently?
Brian Backus: One of the things I’ve learned in 35 years in the military is how to build consensus and how to work as a team. And I think that from my observations, whether Birchwood was going to close or whether Superintendent Salvaggio was going to continue, there seemed to be a very publicly divided board on how that was going to work. The board meetings I’ve been to this year, with John Yagielski as interim Superintendent, the board seems to be a much more unified, collegial team. I do support that and I’d like to see that going forward. We can all have different opinions, but that should be settled so there’s a common voice and a common message going forward.
Barbara Burgess: I really don’t want to rehash the past too much. They made one recently, they’re looking at providing some before and after school care at the middle schools. And they were in the midst of getting quotes from various vendors and they made a decision to table that. Maybe they’re trying to talk about that and work it out. But I wish that they would move forward with getting the service in place because parents are asking for it.
David Koes: I would take a look at when the community was asked to participate in looking at the facilities through the FUAC committee. The decision of the board to just put that whole project on hold, I think the community looked at that and said, ‘We’re not making the tough decisions.’ It’s not so much that I was looking to close a school. I feel the process created unnecessary unrest and stress within the community. The committee came up with some good ideas, and even if you looked at those and took pieces, we’d be further ahead.
Barbara Mauro: What I would’ve done differently was, in 2011, I would’ve hired a different superintendent. That’s what the last three years have been all about, sort of everybody knows that, but that’s the truth.
Howard Schlossberg: They’ve actually done a fairly decent job. There’s a lot of politics around the time of the last superintendent. That caused some bad blood, as well as the budget a few years ago. I think the communication with the people to explain why these tough decisions are being made makes them more palatable.
Danielle Scolaro: The biggest one was the tax increase the past few years. I’m all for a good education, and we have to pay for that. But I think that John Yagielski has done a really great job of streamlining things and saving money. I think we need a leader like that.
What’s one recent decision by the board that you applaud?
Brian Backus: I think the way the budget was built this year, I applaud. The zero-based budget really focused the district and board to go back and look at, What’s the best use of the resources for children and for programming? It really came up with a zero-based budget that’s a zero percent increase for the tax levy over the community.
Barbara Burgess: I think that keeping all the schools open was the right decision. I think that the data was probably difficult to really sort through. It was a tough issue, an emotional issue. But I think in that instance, they really made the right decision.
David Koes: The board this year embraced John Yagielski’s plan. The current budget plan embraced the idea of building from the bottom up and laying the groundwork for the future. I would embrace their willingness to accept the budget plan and use that as a framework to move things forward.
Barbara Mauro: The decision I applaud is hiring John Yagielski as our interim Superintendent.
Howard Schlossberg: I think the service of John Yagielski, when they brought him in to help last year, really was a total breath of fresh air. He was a great guy to bring in in a tough time.
Danielle Scolaro: Basically a lot of the things that John Yagielski has put forth. He’s streamlined so much that this year, there’s no budget increase. I’m sure the board has had a hand in that, so I applaud their ability to cut back while keeping student education at the forefront.
A group of students would like to see a non-voting student representative on the school board. What is your opinion?
Brian Backus: I have no problem with there being a non-voting member from the student population on the board. My only concern is, what’s the process to identify who those students are going to be? I don’t know that that process exists right now. I think once somebody can clearly articulate and identify a process for what that would look like, I would be in favor of it because it is all about kids. It would be a positive experience both for the board and for the students.
Barbara Burgess: The students have been coming this year as a group and it’s been terrific. I know a lot of the kids because they’re in [eldest daughter] Samantha’s class. I don’t think they’re asking to have a vote, they’re asking to just be at the table and participate in the discussion more fully. I think it would just give them a more, a fuller participation. Executive sessions, they probably couldn’t be there, but definitely, it would be worth exploring.
David Koes: I think it’s great. I was at the meetings, and we have really a sharp bunch of kids within the district, there’s no question. You learn about what’s going on in schools if you talk to your child. It’s a great resource. I think it’s important to have the student input on a number of things, on anything that impacts them. They’re the ones that are experiencing that environment on a day-to-day basis.
Barbara Mauro: We talk a lot about that at the board meetings. I think it’s very good to have the board hear the voice of the students, and that can happen in many different ways. Having a representative to the board is one way to have student input, but it’s not the only way or necessarily the best way. The thing is I don’t conceptualize having this student be a “non-voting member” of the board, because the board members are elected by the public. But I think there could be a student who is a representative to the board and is allowed to sit at the table to participate in discussion in the public sessions.
Howard Schlossberg: It’s interesting. They’re kind of already there. They’re already on the agenda. They sit at the table and are able to talk and discuss with the board. They want it to be a little more formalized, but it sounds like it runs up against some legal issues. But I certainly have no objection to expanding their role.
Danielle Scolaro: I do like the idea because I think students are an integral part of our school. They are our school. These students are saying the other students don’t even know that there is a Board of Education. There is an information gap there. Having student representative would definitely aid that. And I don’t see how it could be bad.
What inspired you to run for a seat on the Board of Education?
Brian Backus: I’ve been in the military for 35 years. A lot of what I’ve done has been service, either to the country or to the state. As I get closer to retirement I want to find a way to contribute to my community. All the places I’ve been around the world, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, the Horn of Africa … this is the greatest country, and education is the greatest thing we can give to our children. I want to make sure Niskayuna is providing a world-class education.
Barbara Burgess: What got me really excited about running, and what I am really passionate about right now, is I feel like we’re really at a point where we can do some really exciting things. We have a new superintendent coming and he has a lot of energy and great ideas. I feel like this is a great opportunity , as a community, for us to really come together on a vision of what our schools can be and work together to achieve that.
David Koes: Because of my involvement the last five or six years, my background, I felt as I was volunteering for those committees and working in the community I was making some type of difference. I look at this as the next stepping stone to try to make a difference at a greater level. I also was excited about the timing of it because we’ve got a new superintendent coming in, we have potential for board changes, and this is the time to build a team around that superintendent that can move things forward.
Barbara Mauro: The first time I ran, I just wanted to be involved in the governance of the school district, the type of governance that can only occur when you’re on the school board. I’m running now because I think I’m the candidate with the most experience and know-how in terms of what a board member has to do. There are so many things you have to learn. Now that we have a relatively new board, I feel a pretty significant sense of responsibility to be available to the voters to be re-elected, to keep that steady hand of background experience.
Howard Schlossberg: I actually thought about it a few years ago. Everybody comes to Niskayuna for the schools. A few years ago I thought about it but I was told by my wife that I shouldn’t because there was too much going on. I have fewer commitments now and more experience being on boards. I think now’s the time.
Danielle Scolaro: Mostly being involved as a stakeholder on the superintendent interview team. I really enjoyed being involved and having my opinion matter, and knowing that the community can be just as involved as teacher.