School board hopefuls participate in forum

By Kristin Schultz

Gazette Reporter

The three candidates running for the single spot on the Niskayuna Central School District Board of Education came together on Oct. 2 to answer audience questions.

The election to replace Patricia Lanotte, who resigned from the board in July, will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

Around three dozen people attended the forum hosted by the PTO Council and held in the Van Antwerp Middle School auditorium. PTO council member and long-time moderator Connie Trigger manned the podium and directed the questions to the candidates.

Noney Grier, Christina Calabrese and Brian Backus are running for the position. Each candidate gave a mainly biographical opening statement. Grier talked about her own experience as a student who struggled but overcame her challenges.

“We need to make sure everybody has the chance at an education and that none fall through the cracks,” Grier said.

Calabrese introduced her family who was in the audience and emphasized her commitment to transparency and sound decision-making.

“We need to make evidence-based decisions,” Calabrese said. “It’s important that you know where I stand on issues.”

Backus also briefly described his military and BOCES experience as well as focusing on the future.

“We need to help students prepare for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” Backus said.

Questions from audience

After the opening statements, candidates spent about an hour and a half answering audience questions.

The inquiries mostly related to issues currently facing the district. The candidates all agreed that the district would have to be aware of and deal wisely with proposed and approved building projects that could increase enrollment.

While Backus said he had attended many school board meetings, spoken with and was friendly with current school board members, Grier and Calabrese both said they have not attended many meetings.

Calabrese spoke directly, stating that she has kept up with district meetings by reading the minutes online and saying that not being friends with current board members is a good thing.

“It’s not that I’m not, not friends, I just don’t know them,” Calabrese said. “Having a pact on the board is a problem. Responses need to be evidence-based, not partisan-based.”

Grier said she has met some of the current board members and noted that they work as a team.

“That’s something I’ve done well with. I’ve worked on many teams and committees. [The school board members] do not make decisions on their own,” Grier said.

Regarding the Sept. 28 football game at which some players opted to kneel during the National Anthem, all the candidates said they didn’t necessarily agree with the students, but would not deny them the right to express their opinions. Grier is a military veteran, Backus is a colonel at Stratton Air National Guard Base and Calabrese’s husband has been deployed to Afghanistan.

The panel disagreed on issues related to stress and mental health. Calabrese pointed to the newly established school-based behavioral health center in Cohoes, where students can avail themselves of a variety of mental health services available in the middle school. She said Niskayuna should model what Cohoes did and take bolder steps to address stress and mental health issues among the students.

Grier wanted more information shared with parents and students about substance abuse and reduce the stigma and other barriers that prevent people from seeking the help they need.

Backus felt the district is moving in the right direction as it has already established a mental health and wellness committee and is in communication with the guidance department.

School start times

On the topic of later start times at the high school, all three candidates agreed that the science is there to support moving start times to later in the morning.

“If it’s best for the students, I’m all for it,” Grier said. She and the other candidates stated that more research needs to be done to determine how moving the start time would or could affect other parts of the system like athletics, transportation and BOCES programming.

“There are issues with buses, child care and athletics,” Calabrese said. “But studies have shown it actually saves the district money and improves the lives of students. We must delay the start time at the high school.”

“We have a committee working on the issue. If we were a business, we could [make this change] tomorrow,” Backus said. “But we’re a system that is integrated with other systems.”

The forum concluded with closing statements from the candidates followed by a meet and greet.