School board to add non-voting student reps

your nisk logo 10

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — It’s official: The Niskayuna Board of Education will make space for two non-voting student representatives this fall, after a great deal of discussion and planning.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the board created a special agenda item that made time every meeting for students to discuss their concerns with the members. This took place as an extension of the public comment session open to everyone, but the agenda item formalized the student component.

But hyper-involved students, like senior Emil Friedman, hoped for more.

“It’s a lot easier to be part of the conversation,” he said of the new arrangement.

In the past, once public comment ended, students were not allowed to participate in the meeting.

Under the new setup, two students from Niskayuna High School, one junior and one senior, will act as representatives to the board.

“It’s an advisory position,” Friedman explained.

New York state law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from joining a board of education, and the training and legal requirements of serving on a school board would be a huge commitment for any full-time student to undertake.

This means the two students on the board will not be able to vote or attend executive session, but will be able to actively participate in discussions that the general public can only watch.

Friedman was among the students who worked with the school board to develop the plan to add student representatives.

“In the spring we presented the proposal,” he said.

Board of Education members raised several concerns, which led to compromise in the final arrangement.

For one, several adult members worried that an every-week commitment might be too demanding for Niskayuna students in their final two years at the school. The final arrangement allows for each representative to take on as little as half the meetings during the school year, although they are welcome to attend more if they’d prefer.

Typically, terms will be two years, beginning as a junior. Each year, a new junior will be elected, and the second-year representative, now a senior, will act as a mentor. For the 2015-16 school year, the senior will have an abbreviated term of one year.

Board of Education members worried about how the representative positions would be filled. In order to balance student opinion with board member preference, the students who proposed the representative position designed a two-part process.

The first part, drawn from class elections, involves collecting 75 signatures from one’s peers and five from teachers. Once that task is completed, the candidates will submit applications to the Board of Education, to be reviewed by a committee with final say in the matter.

“We felt you have to have knowledge beyond just being voted for,” said Friedman, who expects the committee portion to be similar to any other selection process. He was a stakeholder during the superintendent interviews that led to Cosimo Tangorra’s appointment as head of the school district earlier this year.

Friedman said the school will begin advertising the Board of Education representative positions to every student in the high school this fall by targeting social studies classes. Even though only juniors and seniors can be selected, he wants everyone to get interested and involved.

Friedman said he expects a large number of quality applications, making the selection process challenging.

“It’s going to be very tough,” he said.

But it’s the good kind of challenge.

At the end of his sophomore year, Friedman saw the superintendent of schools at the time, Susan Kay Salvaggio, leave her post, with serious consequences for the community.

“There were some real concerns raised about transparency,” he said.

As a junior, he admired the cultural changes led by interim Superintendent John Yagielski and the community; as a senior, he feels proud to leave with his peers permanently engaged on the school board.

“I think this is pretty cutting-edge for Niskayuna,” Friedman said. “Students here are very much in touch.”

Any student can participate in the advisory group that meets regularly with administrators. The club’s first meeting this year will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 in the Niskayuna High School Library.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.