By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — School district residents had the chance to meet Niskayuna Board of Education candidates and listen to them answer audience questions for an hour and a half on May 2.
First-time candidate Jennifer Zhao joined incumbents David Apkarian and Rosemarie Jaquith behind the microphones at Van Antwerp Middle School, where moderator Connie Trigger compiled and posed audience questions ranging from nutrition to diversity to guns.
Three years ago, residents filled the auditorium to hear what the candidates had to say. This year, with much of the 2014 turmoil in the rearview mirror, the crowd was noticeably smaller and a number of the questions were decidedly based on the national political climate.
The school board is a non-partisan body, meaning that candidates are not recruited nor do they run with a political party affiliation. Audience members, however, had broader, partisan issues on their minds. Trigger instructed the candidates to put politics aside as each took a turn answering the often loaded questions.
The second question asked of the panel was, “What are your views on teaching climate change?”
Jaquith’s answer was absolute: “We are nonpartisan for a reason. I am never in favor of changing curriculum based on politics of any kind. If it’s in our curriculum, we support it regardless of politics.”
Apkarian echoed Jaquith’s answer saying, “[The board] should not make political statements.” He went on to say that when discussing lightning-rod issues all views should be considered and that debate is good, but ultimately what is discussed, and how, is left to the staff and teachers.
“Everything we teach should be evidence-based,” Zhao said. She continued by pointing out that issues like climate change and sustainability are opportunities for students to explore, hone their research skills and collect evidence for themselves.
Another politically minded question: “What are your feelings on guns and religion in school?”
Looking a bit surprised by the question itself, all the candidates stated succinctly and unequivocally that they do not favor firearms on school grounds and reminded the audience that laws prohibits teaching religion.
The candidates agreed with each other when the next question was posed: “Do you feel there is liberal bias in education?” Each candidate affirmed his or her trust in the teachers to navigate through and educate students on current events and issues.
After the question about liberal bias, the questions became more focused and Niskayuna schools-centric.
On the nutrition program: Zhao would like to see healthy food offered but wants ideas to come from the bottom up, not a heavy-handed mandate from the board. Apkarian wants to “provide the best we can for the kids,” while adhering to policy and Jaquith acknowledged the issue is a “hot topic” and emphasized the board’s role is to set policy.
The candidates did have differing opinions on a couple of issues, including self-selection at the high school.
Jaquith acknowledged there can be problems with self-selection but in general fully supports it.
Apkarian was more concerned that students could take on undue pressure by selecting classes that are inappropriate or creating a schedule that includes all classes and no lunch period. He favored greater connection and communication between home and school as students select their classes.
Zhao was also concerned about the pressure students feel from themselves, their parents and their peers to take challenging classes. She would like to see students take a longer view and evaluate how an accelerated class fits with the long-term goal and overall happiness.
On issues related to curriculum, Jaquith supported the current systematic review of curriculum to maintain a high level of education and relevance.
Zhao would like to see more project- and team-based teaching and multidisciplinary courses along with more classes that teach real-world skills such as personal finance.
Apkarian supported the ongoing curriculum review process but would like to see an effort to make sure that all students are prepared, not just those aspiring to attend prestigious four-year institutions. He also favored teaching life skills as a path to future success.
The three also had different long-term visions for the school district.
Jaquith favored continued community engagement and following the newly developed and approved strategic plan, which is itself a long-term plan. The full strategic plan may be found on the district’s website at niskayunaschools.org/aboutus/strategic-plan.cfm.
The three main goals of the plan are to: create a world-class educational experience; create learning environments that are safe, welcoming and constructive for all; and to engage business, industry and higher education organizations to think of Niskayuna as a building block for their success.
Zhao hoped to address looming issues such as dealing with increasing enrollment without negatively affecting class size. She would like to see the board set goals to reduce the number of students using drugs and alcohol as noted in the biennial N-CAP survey. Zhao also wanted to see increased diversity of teachers and administrators.
Apkarian envisioned a curriculum that incorporates all students, a maintained strategic plan and improved facilities. He also favors trying new things and taking appropriate risks noting that if a project fails, it’s an opportunity to learn and move forward.
The three candidates are running for two positions. Residents will go to the polls on Tuesday, May 16 where they will also vote to approve or reject the district’s budget for the 2017-2018 school year as well as approving or rejecting a bus purchase. Voting will take place at Niskayuna High School from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.