BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — A few years ago, Alex Pan heard the Niskayuna Central School District’s budget was going to be cut. He was worried about his gifted classes and his favorite teacher at Craig Elementary potentially disappearing from his life.
But he was about a decade short of voting age, so he did what any third-grader would do: He became active in local politics.
Alex, now 12 years old and a sixth-grader at Van Antwerp Middle School, has made a habit of forming an educated opinion on every Board of Education election since that first contentious year inspired him.
Each year in the spring, when candidate biographies are released by the district, Alex uses his community connections to get in touch with the aspiring board members who interest him. Then, he interviews them about the issues he cares most about, and creates a presentation that he shares with his friends and neighbors before the election.
“I think it gives me a lot more voice in terms of who gets elected, and it gives [candidates] an idea of what people want,” he said.
Alex’s mom, Carri, said she helps her son with deadlines, planning and organization, but the spark for the idea came directly from him.
“He felt like doing something like student council, but he felt like that wouldn’t be a big enough decision for him,” she said.
She also helps him prepare for interviews, drives him to the meetings and helps him keep notes. Carri said it can be amusing to watch the candidates’ reactions as Alex begins to ask his questions.
“They think it’s going to be like, ‘Can you change the school lunch? Can we have ice cream?’” she said with a laugh.
Alex interjected seriously that the school lunch menu could probably use some upgrades, but that isn’t the most important issue this year. Instead, his questions focused on the district budget, the volume of testing in schools, opportunities for gifted students like himself, and the candidates’ experience.
His questions, and his decisions about which candidates to interview, often come from personal preference. Alex takes all the most difficult classes he can sign up for, and enjoys participating in Van Antwerp’s robotics team and the Mathcounts club.
But he also asks questions based on the issues that affect his classmates. For example, after making a new friend from China one year, he noticed that many international families attended Craig Elementary because of its proximity to GE and KAPL. That election year, he formulated questions about opportunities for English as a Second Language students.
Even though writing questions takes time and thought, Alex said actually asking the questions is an especially tough part of the interview process.
“Usually since I don’t know the person I’m not as comfortable,” he said.
And then there are times when he’s asking tough questions, and he can tell he’s being dodged.
“It’s more stressful when they’re not really giving me a straight answer,” he said.
He’s also learned that interviewing someone in person is much more productive than trying to converse over the phone or by email.
Alex’s activism recently extended beyond school board elections when he applied to be a part of the interview committee for Niskayuna’s new superintendent. He couldn’t be on the team, however, because he was too young to sign a binding legal document promising confidentiality. He said interim Superintendent John Yagielski met with him and his mother, and offered them a place on a stakeholder committee, which had less stringent guidelines.
His mom remembers her son being quite vocal at the meeting.
“No one else was raising their hands, so I was like, ‘OK, fine,’” Alex acknowledged sheepishly.
Though he’s young enough to be embarrassed by his mother now and then, Alex has proven he’s plenty old enough to make a difference about the issues that matter most to him, while impressing the adults around him in the process.
His first-grade teacher jokes that she wants a kickback when Alex becomes president. After all, she taught him to read.
For now, though, Alex hopes to inspire other kids to let grown-ups know when they have an opinion about something important, even if they take a different route than the one he chooses.
“Really just try to get people to know that you’re interested,” he said.