BKW ’22 election overview: Two candidates, no contest

HILLTOWNS — For the third year in a row, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District finds itself in an uncontroversial election season. 

On May 17, Berne-Knox-Westerlo voters will elect two school board candidates — both of whom are uncontested incumbents — and authorize a $504,000 bus proposition, along with the $25 million 2022-23 budget, which features a tax decrease of half-a-percentage point despite an overall increase in spending. 

If there’s any uncertainty about voter decisions, it lies in the district’s proposal to purchase 1772 Helderberg Trail, which is next-door to the district campus and currently houses Hilltown Healthcare, the only large-scale medical provider in the rural Hilltowns. The property would cost the district $410,000, which would come entirely from the district’s oversized unappropriated fund balance.

The portion of the building that’s not used by Hilltown Healthcare, owned and run by Jill Martin, is currently a residence. That portion would be converted into a business office, in what Superintendent Timothy Mundell has framed as a much-needed upgrade from the district’s current business office, which is now located in the school’s bus garage. Martin has been told that she’s welcome to stay at the building for as long as she needs, but questions about what will eventually replace Hilltown Healthcare in that location remain. 

To hear their thoughts about options for the building, along with other questions relevant to the future of the district, The Enterprise contacted school board candidates Rebecca Miller, who’s seeking her second three-year term, and Matthew Tedeschi, who currently leads the board as president and is seeking a third term. 

These were the questions: 

— Helderberg Trail property 

In this election, district voters will decide whether to authorize the school’s purchase of 1772 Helderberg Trail, which has a mixed-use building that is currently home to Nurse Practitioner Jill Martin’s medical practice, Hilltown Healthcare. Superintendent Timothy Mundell said that Martin is welcome to stay at that location for as long as she needs, but stated that the school board will consider what type of service-oriented business or group might move in once she’s gone. 

What would you like to see in that location? 

— School safety

This year, in the wake of a series of ultimately minor but still alarming incidents at local schools — including Berne-Knox-Westerlo — that involved threats of violence to varying degrees, The Enterprise spoke with a school safety researcher who said that a sense of community is one of the most important factors to account for when determining how safe students feel in their school. Also important is the range of mental health and social services that are made available to and utilized by students. Berne-Knox-Westerlo has put a significant focus on students’ mental health needs and creating an environment of unity in recent years. 

Do you feel that this investment is paying off, and how might success be improved upon and/or failures be addressed? 

— Budget

For the past couple of years, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo budget has featured decreases in taxes and increases in spending, which means that the school continues to operate and grow without cramping taxpayers. However, sometimes it’s necessary to increase tax rates and/or cut core programming to make a budget feasible.

In the event that the district superintendent needs to create a future budget that relies on funding cuts or tax increases, what are your budget priorities? What areas do you think are the most important to preserve, and, if a cut can’t be avoided, where would you prefer to see it? Also, when is it appropriate to raise taxes, and do you have a personal limit on the size of one year’s increase?

 

Rebecca Miller

Rebecca Miller was first elected to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education in 2019 and is seeking re-election because, she told The Enterprise, “I am committed to this school district and this community and enjoy giving back any way I can.”

Miller, who has lived in East Berne for nine years, holds a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s degree in liberal studies, she said, and used to have a teaching certificate for kindergarten thr9ugh 12th grade before she became a stay-at-home mom when she had her first child. Now, though, Miller is “in the beginning stages of a new business venture as the co-owner of a company dealing in heavy equipment sales,” she said.

When re-elected, Miller said she hopes to maintain and improve BKW’s identity as a “student-centered school.”

On the topic of 1772 Helderberg Trail, Miller said that she “would love to poll the community, staff, and students to get a feel for what they would like to see in that space. It needs to be something that will further serve our student population and community members. 

“Something along the lines of a tutoring center or childcare comes to my mind,” she said, “but I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and seeing a collaboration come to life to get the most out of the space, making it a beneficial addition to our district.”

Miller also reiterated the need to install a new business office there, separate from where Hilltown Healthcare currently is and a where new service would be, saying that the qualities of the current business office are “no longer suitable for a workspace.”

On school safety, Miller listed the school’s six core values, which she believes all contribute to a general feeling of safety on campus and among the school community. Those values, in essence, are student-centrality, an individualized environment, preparation for life after high school, growth-mindsets, strong leadership and stability, and school as the “heart and soul of our community,” she said. 

“BKW’s focus is educating the whole child,” Miller explained. “Proper access to mental health services is definitely a component of creating equity and giving each child the tools they need to succeed. A focus on restorative practices and shifting counseling staff to ensure a proper caseload are steps that have been taken in the past so each child can have an opportunity to be served.”

She also highlighted the diverse extracurricular offerings hosted by the school, including a farm-to-table program, an e-sports club, and work-based opportunities. 

These programs, she said, exist “to serve each and every child, to make them feel heard, seen and valued by providing opportunities that speak to their interest. These opportunities, along with the efforts of our mental health services and our Resource Officer, are components that will help keep our students safe and create an environment that they can come to and feel cared about in.”

To improve the school’s sense of security, Miller said, “Efforts need to continue to be made to make students feel comfortable sharing their concerns with the trusted adults they encounter every day. Building relationships with students and community members, making sure each and every student feels a sense of belonging, providing more opportunities for student voices to be heard and growing the connection with the school and the surrounding communities are vital in keeping our schools safe. 

“Increased mental health professional development for our teachers and staff is becoming more and more important,” she said, “especially on the heels of COVID, where a lot of students may have felt a sense of isolation. School safety is definitely a team effort that relies on students, teachers, staff, and the community all working as a united front with our core values in mind.”

When it comes to the school budget, Miller said that the “key to success” is foresight and planning.

“In the event that the District Superintendent needs to create a future budget that relies on funding cuts or tax increases, the priorities, in my mind, will always be maintaining a student centered budget including current programming for students, and appropriate staffing levels,” she said.

“Smart planning, looking for other ways to save, such as savings from retirements and other means of funding such as reimbursements for services provided, rebates from insurance programs, and interest earnings are key,” Miller continued. 

She said that, although she didn’t have a strict limit on how much taxes could be raised in a single year by her vote, “I can confidently say it is our job as a School Board to make sure the budget remains fiscally sound with as minimal of an impact on the community as possible, and we are committed to [doing] that. Our job as a board is not only to make sure the budget serves our students’ needs but the taxpayers' needs as well.”

 

Matthew Tedeschi

Matthew Tedeschi is a lifelong member of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo community who graduated from the school in 1990 and from Hudson Valley Community College two years later. He lives in Westerlo with his wife, Maria, with whom he raised two daughters. 

A veteran of the insurance industry for almost 30 years, Tedeschi was first elected to the BKW Board of Education in 2016 with Matthew Elble, who is still on the board. Tedeschi told The Enterprise that he’s seeking re-election this year because “stability is the key ingredient to a successful board of education.”

“There has been a tremendous amount of work done to transform BKW to what it is today and still much more to do,” Tedeschi said. “I enjoy working with my fellow board members and appreciate their dedication and commitment to the community and the children of BKW. Giving back to the community is important for me.”

Echoing Superintendent Timothy Mundell, Tedeschi said he hopes that Nurse Practitioner Jill Martin uses her current office for as long as she needs to, and that he doesn’t think finding a community-oriented service “will be a problem at all.”

“​​We have been approached by a member of the community who would like to operate a day-care facility at that location, we have discussed a dental clinic for children in the district to receive dental care,” he said, “[and] there is always conversation and discussion about mental health-counseling space that is desperately needed in the community.”

Tedeschi added that the purchase “will not affect the 2022-23 budget and this one-time expense will keep our fund balance in line with what the Comptroller's office requires,” referring to the fact that BKW had underspent during the last school year and found itself with an unappropriated fund balance the state’set limit of 4 percent of the budget.

Tedeschi also said that the board was told, when it was approached about buying the property, that “it was the desire and wish of Dr. [Gary] Kolanchick that the school be the one to purchase the space.” Kolanchick had owned the property and ran a clinic out of it until his retirement in 2015, when he sold the property to the current owners, James and Kimberly Conklin. 

Tedeschi called the purchase “the perfect opportunity, should the voters agree.”

On whether he feels the district’s investment in students’ mental-health needs has been beneficial, Tedeschi said, “The short answer is, yes, I feel like the investment is paying off.”

“However,” he went on, “I don’t think that we have truly seen how much the pandemic has affected students, staff, and society and [I] think that some of the incidents that we are seeing are due to two years of out-of-the-norm living. But the reality is that this is the one area that an organization can never stop investing in, evaluating, and improving.”

Tedeschi said that the school’s perspective and strategies need to evolve as much as the world itself does, and that the school should always be viewed as a community touchstone for students and residents alike, which he thinks has been the case so far. 

He then pointed to the board’s role in fostering that sense of community.

“As I think back over my past six-and-a-half years on the board, one thing that I am proud of is that, as a board, we have led by example,” Tedeschi said. “We have always tried to find common ground and unity during the most crucial conversations. If that leadership sets the tone for the rest of the organization, then I feel the students will feel that they belong to this community and that their needs will be met.”

Tedeschi said that he had a hard time answering The Enterprise’s questions on the budget because “I don’t see it happening in my time on the board.”

“We do not look at the budget annually,” he said. “We have a handle on the finances looking forward 5-7 years. We know enrollment projections, retirement projections, and staffing needs in those coming years. We have worked really hard to reduce future costs like health insurance, prescription drug expenses, and staffing based upon projected enrollment.”

With that approach, he said, the board is, and will remain, hypervigilant. 

“We were able to provide tax decreases in a pandemic when most districts were having increases,” Tedeschi said. “We completed a $20 million capital project with no impact to the taxpayer. We have increased the amount of aid we receive to exceed what we collect in taxes from the community. [For] the past 6.5 years we have been fiscally responsible and managed spending accordingly.”

All this, he said, while adding programs, classes, clubs, and so on. 

But to provide a general sense of his budget outlook, Tedeschi said, “I do think that ensuring that the children of our community have the resources and the programs they need to be successful in tomorrow’s world is fundamental.  I also know that that can’t be done on the backs of our community.”

Tags:

More Hilltowns News

  • The 37-acre, 5-megawatt solar project proposed by RIC Energy received conditional approval from the Knox Planning Board last month as the town board works to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement among the company, the county, and the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District.

  • In addition to $1 billion invested nationwide by the federal government, New York State Senator Michelle Hinchey announced a $5 million meat processing expansion grant, which aims to empower New York residents to open up meat-processing facilities at a time when farmers are reportedly having trouble finding any.

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo voters re-elected incumbent, unchallenged school board candidates Matthew Tedeschi and Rebecca Miller; approved the district’s $25 million budget; and authorized the purchase of several buses, as well as a property that sits adjacent to campus. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.