School board candidates answer questions

Niskayuna Central School DistrictNiskayuna Central School District

By Kristin Schultz

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — On Tuesday, Oct. 10, voters will head to the high school to cast ballots for one of three candidates running to replace former school board member Pat Lanotte, who resigned in July.

Brian Backus, Christina Calabrese and Noney Grier all filed petitions to run. None of the candidates have previously served on the school board.

The Parent Teacher Organization will host a “Meet the Candidate” night on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at Van Antwerp Middle School. The event will be moderated by PTO volunteer Connie Trigger, who will ask the candidates audience-generated questions.

Your Niskayuna sat down with the candidates and asked them about their experience, motivation and hopes for the future of the district and the children it serves. Here are their responses. Candidates are listed in alphabetic order. Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo provided

Photo provided

Brian Backus

Occupation: Commander of 139th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton National Guard Base.

Children in the district: 2. They went to Hillside Elementary School and are now at Van Antwerp Middle School

Lived in Niskayuna:  Just over 7 years

Why are you running?

I’m getting closer to end of my military career. I’ve dedicated most of my life to service, and I want to be able to give something back. I think Niskayuna has a great school district and I’m hopeful I can contribute to the board and work with Dr. (Cosimo) Tangorra (the superintendent) to help the district continue to improve.

What personal attributes do you bring to the table?

I’ve served 38 years in the military and 18 1/2f years working for Capital Region BOCES, where I managed their health-safety and risk-management program. I was a union president with BOCES and worked on their strategic planning committees, shared decision-making committees and finance committees.

I also happen to be married to a school superintendent, so I think I really get the 360 view of how I can help the school.

What is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Keeping up with technology and providing students the world-class education we expect to provide for them. There are competing interests for dollars, time and for space in the building. Every decision the board makes should be focused on what’s best for the kids.

What are the district’s biggest strengths?

There’s a great group of teachers in the district. Then there’s the support staff, the administrators and the leadership and, truthfully, the board. The best part of the current board is that they’re all in the same boat, all rowing in the same direction, trying to do what’s best for kids.

The people are so connected to each other and to the community. It’s probably the biggest small-town community I’ve ever been involved with and that’s why I really like raising our kids here.

Where do you see the district in five years?

Things happen so quickly with technology, I think within five years every student is going to end up with a portable device as opposed to a backpack full of textbooks.

I think you’ll see facility projects touch the majority of the district. There’s a lot of proposed development in Niskayuna that would affect the schools.

Photo provided

Photo provided

Christina Calabrese

Occupation: Attorney for the New York state Attorney General’s office.

Children in the district: Boden is in third grade and Emma is in first grade at Birchwood Elementary.

Lived in Niskayuna: Since September 2006


Why are you running?

My whole life I’ve been working in public service. It’s who I am as a person. My children are older, I have more time now and think it’s important to be connected with the policies and practices that will affect them and all of their friends.

What personal attributes do you bring to the table?

I have budgeting and finance experience and look at the whole picture to find solutions to problems. Due to my profession, I know how to draw consensus to achieve goals. The only way to succeed as an attorney is to find a consensus among your adversaries and among your friendlies as well in order to achieve goals. Those two characteristics are essential to getting things done on the board.

What is the greatest challenge facing the district?

We need to recognize issues that are facing us and address them. There’s a history of speaking about issues but not making change or not addressing them, particularly with the issue of delayed (school) start times. It’s a really important issue that affects the mental health and physical well-being of our children. We’ve talked about it a lot in the last few years, but change has not occurred. I think that is the most important issue that I intend to address and build consensus going forward.

What is the district’s greatest strength?

The sense of community. I’m over the moon to live here. I chose Niskayuna for the community. At the end of the day, this community comes together and supports each other — particularly with issues surrounding our children.

Where do you see the district in five years?

I’d like to see at least the high school have delayed start time, preferably also the middle school.

I would also like to see satellite mental health hubs in schools, to address the stress and anxiety and depression that our children face and don’t necessarily get the care they need to be successful as students. Cohoes just implemented this plan and we should model it and address these needs.

Photo provided

Photo provided

Noney Grier

Occupation: Voluntary service specialist for the Albany VA — recruitment and management and recognition of almost 600 volunteers currently

Children in the district: One child graduated in 2012, another is a seventh-grader at Van Antwerp Middle School

Lived in Niskayuna: 7 1/2 years


Why are you running?

My husband and I knew where we wanted our kids to go to school and we worked hard to plant roots in Niskayuna. I love the superior education, diversity, sense of community and so much more. I want to be part of preserving this but am also aware that there will be change as Niskayuna continues to grow. I’m willing to embrace change and the opportunity to learn. It would be an honor I would take as seriously as anything I’ve ever involved myself in.

What unique attributes would you bring to the table?

Teamwork is a strength. It’s what I do here; I make no decision by myself. I am also an objective, critical thinker. I am willing to listen and take seriously the obligation to the taxpayers.

I have been complimented on my work ethic and follow through. I don’t take shortcuts and I’m relentless when I have something I feel passionate about. I’ve also spent quite a while becoming well-trained in fiscal management and the ethical use of funds.

What is the biggest challenge facing the district?

I’ve heard from a lot of people and the later start time (for the school day) is a pretty hot topic right now. There’s a lot of research showing the sleeping needs of teenagers. There are different sleep requirements. Not against it, it needs more consideration.

What are the district’s biggest strengths?

The community is great. The education, academics and extracurricular activities are superior and the community is family-oriented. It’s a wonderful school district and we’ve never had a bad experience.  

Where do you see the district in five years?

In looking at the strategic plan, I think it outlines where the district is going. I’d like to preserve where the district is while continuing to adapt to the growth in the community. I believe Niskayuna never knew quite how much it would grow, yet it has adapted very well to the growth.