Candidates tackle issues of Saranac Lake school board
SARANAC LAKE – Candidates for seats on the Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education shared their views on school budget issues, consolidation, standardized testing and other topics during a public forum Monday night.
The nearly two-hour event, held at Saranac Lake High School, was hosted by the Saranac Lake Teachers Association. It featured the four candidates running for the two available seats on the board – Esther Arlan, Clyde Baker, Shir Filler and Tracey Schrader – fielding a series of questions from SLTA Vice President Joe Thill that the candidates were given in advance. That was followed by an unscripted question and answer session with the audience.
Other than eliminating jobs and programs, Thill asked the candidates what can be done to mitigate the yearly shortfalls in state aid the district has faced.
Arlan said she believes there are ways to reduce spending and use the money the district saves for education, although she didn’t name any specifics. She said the board should work with legislators to reduce outdated and unfunded mandates and bring state and federal education legislation up to date. Arlan also said the district should seek more grants to increase revenue.
Baker said school officials have looked at expenses “but there’s not much there that we can reduce, unfortunately.
“So we do have to look at grants,” he said. “We have a great special education program here. Some of the things we have, other schools around don’t have. We may be able to turn that into an income producer for us.”
Creating a nonprofit school district foundation and looking for ways to save money, like the new wood pellet boiler installed in the Petrova building last year, could also improve the district’s bottom line, Baker said.
Schrader also supported the idea of pursuing grants and creating a foundation.
“There is money out there, we just need to find out how to access it,” she said.
A member of the Saranac Lake High School Parent-Teacher Organization, Schrader said the group has reached out to alumni to help fund a mobile computer lab at the high school.
“I think sometimes alumni can be a really key component to helping raise funds,” she said. “I think they’re a big target for promoting and coming back and giving back to their local school.”
Schrader also suggested pursuing sponsorships through local businesses where they could promote themselves with signs at athletic events or on school buses.
Filler answered the question more broadly, saying the district needs to do some “rethinking.
“We’ve been trying to keep education exactly the same for less money, so we shave off a little there and a little here, and at a certain point we’re going to get where there’s nothing left,” Filler said. She suggested strategic planning to identify the community’s core values “and try to plan our spending and our operations based on those values, not just cutting where there are places to cut.”
Other ideas Filler suggested included creating more individually oriented online education courses and combining grades to create multi-age classrooms.
Thill asked what the district’s long-term plan should be for consolidation of schools and shared services.
Baker said it’s something the board continues to look at. He noted that the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school districts are sharing a food service manager, some bussing to sporting events and are considering sharing come classes.
“We’d need to acquire a grant to do a study about consolidating the two districts into one,” Baker said. “It’s something we need to study and see if it’s feasible. We need to keep open to all ideas.”
Schrader said discussions about consolidation and shared services need to continue, but she also said the goal has to be to protect Saranac Lake schools.
“A lot of people want to be in our district,” Schrader said. “I was always really conscious of keeping us whole and not so much piecemealing us out so we start to not be the number one school in the Tri-Lakes.”
If the district could get more relief from the mandates and other pressures coming from Albany, consolidation wouldn’t be such a hot topic, she said.
Filler also supported continuing to investigate consolidation options, but she also asked why the district doesn’t use the Board of Cooperative Educational Services more.
“It seems to me they would be a great vehicle for sharing services,” Filler said. “We give them money, we should figure out how they can help us to get more value.”
Filler said BOCES could also help better connect the district’s students with “real world” experts in the community and the area. She also suggested partnering with North Country Community College, where she works, to host combined classes for college and high school students.
Arlan said the school board needs to look at what other school districts are doing and tap into the resources of the Cornell University-based Rural Schools Association. If consolidation is pursued, she suggested looking into the benefits of a regional high school.
“That’s less scary than saying, ‘We’re going to merge,'” Arlan said. “With all the new technology that’s coming down the pike, and with the curriculum we’re looking at, we could build a high school that would be state of the art. Looking at a regional high school would provide us with the opportunity to develop the kind of school that we want for all of our kids, when they get there.”
Asked what could be done to increase and improve student access to computers and other technology, Filler said the district can have all the access it wants in the classroom, but some children may not have computers at home.
“My thought was we could look at maybe providing laptops or tablets instead of textbooks,” she said. “The cost of textbooks is going up, the cost of computers is going down. If a student could take that computer home with them they would have extra time to practice and learn.”
Arlan said school officials need to find out what the jobs of the future are going to be, and tailor their educational programs to fit those careers. She said STEM education, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math, should be part of the district’s curriculum at all grade levels.
“In rural areas, the most important thing is we not get left behind, and that we work to see broadband comes in faster than it’s coming in,” Arlan said.
Baker said the district has done a good job providing student access to technology, for example, by putting in SMART boards in every elementary school classroom.
He said there’s always an issue with some people not having computers at home and said he’d support the idea of “a computer for every kid,” if the district can afford it. The idea could be complicated by whether families have Internet access at home, Baker said.
Schrader said creating a mobile computer lab at the high school will be a big step forward, and could be expanded to other buildings over time. The district should strive to provide computers or iPads for each student, she said.
“Technology is changing rapidly, and we have to be on that train going forward,” Schrader said.
During the Q&A with the audience, Jon Vinograd asked how someone can run for or serve on the school board if they have a spouse who is a teacher. There are currently two board members whose spouses are teachers: Baker and Miles Van Nortwick.
Baker said he doesn’t believe there’s a conflict of interest. He said he isn’t involved with negotiating the teachers’ union contract. He said he hasn’t shown any kind of favoritism or tried to influence how his wife does her job.
“The board doesn’t run the day to day at the school here at all,” he said. “The board is here to set policy. The contract I did vote yes on was not negotiated by me.”
Schrader said many people have told her they don’t feel it’s appropriate for board members to vote on contracts or even sit on the board if their spouses are teachers.
“If you are voting on a contract, within that contract is health insurance, and if you as a board member benefit from that, I don’t see how it can’t be somewhat of a conflict of interest,” Schrader said. “Sometimes I think when you have a spouse, you can’t help but not feel a certain way when things happen. I think it does muddy the waters.”
Filler said she’s heard the same concerns, but said, “We live in a small town, and we have to be realistic.
“In a small town you’re going to have these conflicts, you almost can’t avoid it,” Filler said. “I think mature, intelligent people can set those things aside. If you don’t participate in the actual negotiations and maybe abstain from the vote on the contract, it’s a little bit less of an issue.”
Arlan said there have been times when a majority of the board – four school board members – had spouses or family members who worked in the district.
“It is a balancing act and I think there are easy solutions,” she said. “I think if you are in that situation, the right thing to do is excuse yourself from the discussion and go out of the room. You have to make sure there is no perceived conflict of interest.”
Vanessa Houghtlin, a parent of three children in the district, said some teachers are “demoralized” by the over-reliance on standardized testing, new teacher evaluation requirements and other mandates from Albany. She asked what the board and the district can do to change that.
Schrader said school boards around the state need to speak collectively, and concerned parents need to get involved, too.
“That’s where the pushback’s gotta happen,” she said. “Every single district is facing the same thing. I understand having to measure, but standardized testing has morphed into this monster, and I can’t believe the powers that be believe this is the way to make education better.”
Filler said she was one of the local parents who opted their children out of state tests this spring. She said more of that kind of civil disobedience is needed to send a message to state education officials.
“Tests are sometimes good assessments, but not when they have such high stakes attached to them,” she said. “Now a teacher who wants to be creative gets scared because their job depends upon them getting that answer correct on that test. It does narrow the curriculum and demoralize people. But I also think that at the district level and at the building level, the administrators can set a tone and create an environment where teachers feel more free to be creative.”
Arlan said she’s gone to Albany, at her own expense, to lobby on behalf of education and share the same concerns with state legislators. That push needs to continue, with parents, school officials and school board members speaking collectively, Arlan said.
She also said some testing is needed.
“A lot depends on how it’s presented,” Arlan said. “If you have a negative environment where people are working, and they’re always upset, it filters down. It can be changed, I think, by how you as a parent behave at home. … I think we have to put a positive spin on it. We have to tell people why things are happening.”
Baker said he believes there is too much testing. Part of the problem is not enough people in the state education department have worked in the classroom, he said.
“The way to go about it, I think, is lobbying our legislators,” Baker said. “The parents’ group has a good core group who need to speak collectively as one voice, and the board needs to be involved, too.”
The school board election takes place Tuesday, the same day as the budget vote, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the district offices at the high school. Each of the two available positions carries a three-year term.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.