School board candidates share views on finances, remote learning, and equity

GUILDERLAND — Four candidates are running for three seats on Guilderland’s nine-member school board.

Three of the candidates are incumbents: Seema Rivera, currently the board’s president, who is seeking a third three-year term, and Luciano Alonzi and Blanca Gonzalez-Parker, both of whom were elected last year to fill in vacated posts.

The fourth candidate, Nathan Sabourin, is making his first run for the board.

School district residents will go to the polls on May 18 when they will also decide on a $105 million budget for next year.

Interviews with each of the candidates can be viewed at as they respond to these issues:

— Finances: Guilderland’s proposed budget for next year does not include the pandemic-related federal aid it will apply for, following guidelines: $4.6 million from Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and $2.8 million from the American Rescue Plan. How should this money best be spent? Additionally, the district was surprised to be allocated $626,400 for a pre-kindergarten program, which it hasn’t offered before. Should Guilderland offer pre-K?

Allowable uses for the federal funds include addressing learning lost during the pandemic; providing mental-health supports for students; after-school and summer learning programs; activities to help low-income students and students with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethic minorities, homeless students, and foster-care youth; hardware and software for remote or hybrid learning; purchasing cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment; air quality and ventilation improvements; improving preparedness efforts and coordination; and planning for school closures.

— Remote learning: In the midst of the pandemic, the district offered students a chance to learn remotely. In-person classes are being planned for the next school year. How should remote learning be used in the district going forward?

— Equity: School board President Seema Rivera recently said, “With the exception of a few leaders, there is a lack of strong leadership in addressing racism.” Several Black Guilderland alumnae, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, had had a phone conversation with school board members. The women expressed their anger and frustration over the school’s “whitewashed” curriculum. Subsequently, the board appointed a committee to look at and deal with equity issues. An equity audit is being undertaken and the board, in a split vote, amended the 2021-22 budget proposal to include a full-time diversity, equity, and inclusion administrator. What should the district be doing?




Blanca Gonzalez-Parker




GUILDERLAND — In her first year on the Guilderland School Board, Blanca Gonzalez-Parker says, her background in public health proved helpful as “everything was very COVID-heavy.”

She had worked as an emergency medical technician for the Western Turnpike squad, became a nurse, and has a master’s degree in public health from the University at Albany School of Public Health. She has a background in infectious diseases with certificates in disease surveillance and emergency preparedness, she said.

She works for NYS-CSEA in Partnership for Education and Training as a program associate for safety and health.

“I used to teach how to run a POD …,” she said of a point of dispensing. “I was able to do my part,” she added of helping the board navigate the pandemic.

Gonzalez-Parker is particularly proud of two stances she took on the school board this past year.

One was getting high school athletes back to playing sports. She noted her vote was in opposition to “our well-respected doctor” but said she trusted the well-thought-out plans made by the district’s athletic director and staff.

She was pleased with the outcome and believes playing sports helped improve the mental health of students.

The second contentious vote was on changing the school calendar to allow for Rosh Hashanah to be a school holiday. Gonzalez-Parker said she listened to constituents and was glad to advocate for them.

As for her goals if re-elected, she said, “I’m all things safety first.”

She would also like to keep working on bullying and diversity issues.

Gonzalez-Parker serves on the Safety and Security Subcommittee, and enjoys working with the Guilderland Police. “I want to improve our school safety plan,” she said.

Naming another goal, Gonzalez-Parker said she’d like to offer students different kinds of learning opportunities. She believes college is pushed too much while learning a trade would be better for some students. She also thinks that the district is “STEM heavy” — a reference to science, technology, engineering, and math.

Guilderland should “definitely explore” starting a pre-kindergarten program, Gonzalez-Parker said. “If we receive funding, I can’t imagine a reason not to do it,” she said, adding it would help struggling families.

It would be wise, she said, for the district to oversee a pre-K program run by someone else.

Of the $7.4 million in federal funds earmarked for Guilderland, Gonzalez-Parker said much of it will be used for pandemic-related health and safety needs.

She’d like to see money go to teachers, whom she called “frontline workers.” She lauded their many efforts in keeping learning alive in the midst of the pandemic and wished each could be given “a sabbatical and hazard pay.”

She also hopes the money can be used to make class sizes smaller, which would be useful for students who suffered a learning deficit during the pandemic.

Gonzalez-Parker believes she may be alone on the board in her views on remote learning. “I’m a proponent of permanently keeping remote learning,” she said.

She withdrew one of her children from the district to school her at home and found she was socially isolated.

While Gonzalez-Parker thinks it is important to return to in-person learning, a remote option would be good for certain students — for instance, those who are ill or who are bullied at school. Some students, she says, flourish in the comfort of their home environment.

Her own children have liked learning remotely, she said, and have learned from their teachers and also done independent work.

“We have shown this year we can do this,” Gonzalez-Parker said of remote learning and the option should be left open.

On equity, Gonzalez-Parker noted that, in a split vote, she had voted in favor of hiring a full-time diversity, equity, and inclusion administrator. “We have students who experience racism,” she said.

When she was a Guilderland student herself, Gonzalez-Parker said, she experienced “some jokes or comments for being Latina but always peer to peer.”

“This cannot be ignored ...,” she said of racism in the schools. “I was hopeful the diversity committee would be the big response we needed … We need to do more.”

She noted that other groups, besides Blacks, feel underserved and marginalized.”

Gonzalez-Parker said that she and her husband are “polar opposites politically” and have raised three children together. This has made her an experienced listener.

“With me, you get transparency. You get someone that will always listen to you,” she said.

She also said she was not using her position on the board as a stepping stone to run for another office.

Gonzalez-Parker pointed out that she is a Guilderland alumna, a parent with children in the district, and a taxpayer.

She urged district residents, even ones not voting for her, to pay attention to the election.

“We make decisions that impact your daily lives and your pocketbooks,” she concluded.





Luciano Alonzi




GUILDERLAND — Luciano Alonsi ran for the Guilderland School board last year just before completing his college degree. 

“I wanted an opportunity to help our community, to help our kids,” he said this week.

Now he is running again because, he said, “I finally got my feet underneath me,” and has more to contribute. “I’ve definitely learned a lot,” he said.

At age 23, Alonzi went on, his understanding of Guilderland High School is still fresh; he knows it “from the inside.”

During his year-long tenure on the board — which was consumed by the coronavirus — he is “most proud of getting kids back in school, back on the field, playing music, and singing.”

As a board member, he had favored a return to sports and lowering the distance for singers from 12 feet to 6 feet. “Kids were able to sing and play music together,” he said.

When Alonzi ran for the board last year, he said he’d like to see a turf field installed at the high school as there are times when spring sports have to rent out fields because of the poor condition of the home fields. He had been on the high school football team.

The mud in the spring creates a safety issue, Alonzi said this week, and runners practicing in the parking lot is not a good idea. Alonzi now serves on the school board’s Business Practices Committee and is pleased that one of the initiatives under discussion is a turf field.

Looking ahead, Alonzi is eager to see traditions restored. “We still don’t know if there will be a prom or graduation,” he said.

When he earned his bachelor of science degree in athletic training last year from Penn State, there was no graduation ceremony, he said. Alonzi called such ceremonies “a rite of passage” and said they were even more important in high school. “Not all kids go off to college,” he said.

Looking back at finances, as Guilderland’s budget for next year was being developed, Alonzi called it “a very nervous time.” He noted that, in the executive budget, on which Guilderland’s spending plan was initially based, aid would have been stagnant.

In the end, he noted, the district was allocated “quite a bit,” most of which went onto the fund balance.

The roughly $7.4 million that Guilderland is slated to receive from federal programs, Alonzi said, is “not a reserve or a slush fund — it’s an emergency fund to use for experiences related to COVID.”

He sees those funds as “an emergency resource” to pay for needs as they arise.

Alonzi called pre-kindergarten “a great opportunity.” It gives young children the chance “to learn and grow,” he said, and provides childcare for parents who work outside the home.

On remote learning, Alonzi said, “I’m in favor of getting the kids back into school.”

He also said, “Remote learning is not a perfect substitute for in-person learning” although he conceded, “For some parents, it was really a godsend.”

An important aspect of school, Alonzi said, is “social learning.” He went on “When you’re stuck inside your house all day … it is not good for your mental well being.”

While Alonzi said he is “not necessarily in favor of an all-year online option,” he also said remote learning could be helpful if students were sick, injured, or under quarantine.

On equity, Alonzi said the board had identified that as one of its main goals this year and had laid the foundation for future work. It is not possible to move as fast as some people expect, he said.

A diverse committee has been set up with a variety of stakeholders, he noted, and an equity audit is underway.

“It is quite upsetting and disturbing,” Alonzi said of racism in the schools, stating he doesn’t recall racism from his time at Guilderland. “My experience may be different,” he said.

He also called racism in school “stunning” and “reprehensible” and said it is important to “demolish it when it rears its ugly head.”

Alonzi went on, “The most important thing we can do is just be nice to other people.”

Alonzi voted against creating a full-time post for a diversity administrator next year not because he objected to the post, he said, but, rather, because of “the way in which we were going about it.”

The committee had not been consulted, Alonzi said, and amending the budget proposal at the end of a three-hour meeting without public input was “less than optimal.”

Public input had shown the majority think the district is top-heavy with administrators and that a priority is smaller class sizes, Alonzi said. Adding a new administrator and paying for the post by reducing unassigned teachers runs counter to both public sentiments, he said.

“We don’t necessarily have the scope of work yet for what this person will do or if it is necessary,” said Alonzi.

“I don’t like focusing solely on race,” Alonzi went on, calling that “really superficial and shallow.” People are both different and the same in many ways, he said.

While Alonzi says he understands why some may feel the curriculum is whitewashed, he spoke appreciatively of a class he took that combined English and history with a global perspective, a class that no longer is offered at the high school.

“We studied so many different countries,” he said.

Alonzi also noted that the state sets curriculum and teachers need to have their students study what is on the state’s Regents exams.




Nathan Sabourin




GUILDERLAND — Nathan Sabourin says he felt compelled to run for the Guilderland School Board when he watched a meeting in which board members were discussing the school calendar.

It seemed to him a simple matter to make Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, a school holiday. Sabourin noted he is not Jewish but “was quite frankly disturbed” with the views of some board members.

His primary goal, if elected to the board, he said, will be to continue the district-wide focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Sabourin describes himself as both a taxpayer and parent in the district and is concerned that some on the board are not. “You need to feel the pain of what the decisions are,” he said.

Sabourin and his wife, Elizabeth — a psychologist working in Niskayuna schools, have two daughters: Anna and Clara, both Guilderland Elementary School students.

Sabourin, an attorney, is a partner at Hinckley, Allen & Snyder where he focuses on construction contracts and litigation. This background, he says, would help the board as the district deals with contracts and construction.

“I’m an honest person, probably to a fault,” Sabourin said. “I’m not afraid to make tough decisions.”

As an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University, he studied theater, a pursuit that takes backbone and made him able to deal with criticism, he said.

On racism, Sabourin said, “We need … to stop denying what the truth is.” He credited school board President Seema Rivera for stating it “very clearly,” and he said “symbolic gestures” are not enough.

Sabourin said the district needs a clear policy on equity, diversity, and inclusion and everyone from staff and board members to vendors and contractors should undergo training on bias.

“We can be a real actor for change,” he said, adding that Guilderland is lagging behind districts like Niskayuna.

Sabourin’s second priority is to have the district return to full-time, in-person classes while learning from what was experienced during the pandemic.

He said, for example, that Guilderland Elementary School did a great job of “subject-specific teaching,” which could be beneficial in a normal school year.

His third priority, Sabourin conceded, was perhaps “pie in the sky” but, he said, he’d like to “get away from Regents.” “Anything 100 years old in an education system needs re-evaluation,” he said.

Students need to develop a passion for what they are learning and too many requirements can be constraining, he said, adding “We’ve got to do better at creating an environment … that is more welcoming and responsive to students.”

Sabourin would like to see pre-kindergarten classes at Guilderland but says the concept needs to be explored.

Federal funds might be used to hire additional school psychologists, social workers or counselors, he said, to help students who are coming back from remote or hybrid learning. The federal money could also be used to advance technology as it is incorporated into classrooms, he said.

While the district as a whole did an “amazing job” during the pandemic, Sabourin said, socialization is an important part of school. If parents don’t feel comfortable having their children return to in-person classes, that is their choice, Sabourin said.

He suggested that future remote learning could be handled regionally through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

On equity, Sabourin said, “Anyone who thinks this district does not have a problem with racism is being willfully blind.”

He said Guilderland has 1,300 non-white students and just nine non-white faculty. “It’s just sad,” he said. “We need to do better.” He recommended examining the district’s recruitment, hiring, and retention practices.

Sabourin said he is concerned about some comments made by board members and the public. “We have an obligation to provide students of all types a safe and welcoming environment,” he said.

While Sabourin said he is not as well known as the incumbent board members, he stressed that he is “not afraid to have a conversation” with anyone and urged district residents to send him an email, or to go to Facebook and follow his page.

He said he was not disparaging the board, which has “a lot of great people” who “make difficult decisions in the face of harsh criticism.”

Sabourin concluded that he wants to be an agent to continue doing the right things.





Seema Rivera




GUILDERLAND — Seema Rivera describes herself as a “big supporter” of public schools. She is seeking a third term on the Guilderland School Board and serves as its president.

She had a “rich experience” in the Guilderland public schools, graduating in 1997. She and her husband, Tony, now have two daughters, Lily and Sage, in Guilderland Elementary School.

Rivera began her career as a public school chemistry teacher.

She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the State University of New York at Binghamton, a master’s degree in chemistry and adolescent education from The College of Saint Rose, and a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.

Rivera works as an assistant professor at Clarkson University on the Capital Region campus.

Her six years on the board, she said, have made her more knowledgeable both about her duties and about her strengths and how to best use them.

She describes herself as a critical thinker and as a team player who does her homework.

Rivera is proud that the board last year established goals with metrics to measure progress in achieving them.

“When things get really tough,” Rivera said, what guides her in doing the board’s work is remembering why she is doing it in the first place — for the students.

Rivera is pleased with how, throughout the pandemic, the district communicated with the community.

For Rivera, one of the board’s most important goals is focusing on students’ social and emotional learning. “To my mind, that includes equity,” she said. Keeping school safe is important, too, she said.

More guidance is needed from the federal government on how Guilderland will spend the $7.4 million it has been allocated, said Rivera, noting there is a big range of what it can be used for. Among her priorities are the mental health of students, support for staff, and re-engaging students in school.

Instead of bolstering things that did not work in the past, Rivera said she’d like to see bold initiatives going forward.

Asked about the future of remote learning at Guilderland, Rivera said, “I don’t think anything can replace face-to-face learning.”

A “silver lining” of the pandemic, she said, was the district’s development of expertise in remote learning. However, she went on, the pandemic also highlighted issues of equity in technology.

While she thought it was great that Guilderland observed a traditional snow day in the midst of a storm this winter, Rivera said it would be possible in the future to continue schooling remotely when problems arise curtailing in-person learning.

Rivera is pleased that an equity audit is underway “to get the pulse of what students are feeling.” Before, the board relied on anecdotes, she said. Rivera believes it’s important to understand the needs of all students as a starting point.

Rivera is also pleased with the new full-time position for an equity and diversity administrator, which is part of the budget proposal for next year. The original proposal was to make those duties part of an assistant principal’s job.

In a split vote, Rivera is one of the board members who voted for the new full-time post. To do this position justice, she said, a full-time administrator is needed to focus on all seven buildings.

Rivera believes it is important to build trust between the school district and the community. Although she has a strong background in education, Rivera said, important qualities don’t show up on paper. This includes her “ability to work and talk with people.”

Although not everyone on the school board agrees, she said, “I respect their commitment.” She also said of being on the board, “You don’t always get your way.” It can be tricky when people feel passionate about their views, she said.

Rivera concluded that she does her homework to represent the community.

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