Five candidates vie for three seats on the Guilderland School Board

GUILDERLAND — The five candidates vying for three spots on the Guilderland School Board participated in a cordial Enterprise forum on Monday evening, discussing issues in the district’s seven schools.

The terms on the nine-member board last for three years and the posts are unpaid.

Voting takes place on May 21 at each of the district’s five elementary schools. In addition to electing school board members, voters will also be deciding on a $125 million budget and two bus propositions as well as the district’s sale of the Cobblestone Schoolhouse to the town for $10,000.

Only one incumbent is running: Blanca Gonzalesz-Parker started on the board in 2020.

The other four candidates are each making their first run for the school board: Mateo Dunagan, Nina Kaplan, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, and Tara Molloy-Grocki.

While last year the three incumbents were uncontested, two years ago candidates who ran on slates had diametrically opposed views on central school issues.

This year’s candidates are all supportive of the district’s efforts with diversity, equity, and inclusion. They each see merits in state initiatives such as for electric buses and universal pre-kindergarten.

And, while several expressed animosity toward Crossgates Mall for pursuing massive tax refunds, none of the candidates thought school budgets should top the state-set levy limit.

For voters choosing among the five candidates, the differences lie in the professional and life experiences each would bring to the board as well as in the specifics of how they would wrestle with these issues.

We would encourage viewing the video to get the nuances of the candidates’ responses although a summary follows.

 

 

 

 

DEI

“We need all of our students to feel comfortable in order to learn,” said Gonzalz-Parker of the district’s efforts for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It is also a requirement on behalf of the state.”

She said she was proud to have voted to establish a DEI committee and to create a post to direct DEI.

“I was one of the people that spearheaded the idea for the Student Voice Committee, which is a subcommittee of the DEI,” she said.

Gonzalez-Parker noted she was also “part of the anti-hate policy” the board’s policy committee wrote.

“So we are making strides. There’s still more work to be done,” she concluded. “It is definitely worth the time and the effort, but it is also our moral and legal obligation to do so.”

Kaplan, who is on the steering committee for Guilderland DEI Committee, said, “I love and respect the way that they reach out to the parents and the community members because it demonstrates an interest to engage.”

The district has an obligation, she said, to ensure the safety of both students and faculty. “The U.S. government continues to uphold these rules, for example, expanding Title IX to accommodate sexual harassment in other areas where students have felt scared or a sense of not feeling safe.”

She went on, “Making sure it’s being followed through is where it gets difficult.” Kaplan likes the idea of an office in the high school where support can be accessed.

“We have a very large district,” she said. “It offers amazing opportunities for students but with that, sometimes students can feel lost or unseen.”

As a teacher, Kaplan said, she opens her classroom throughout the day, even during lunch period, to meet student needs.

Molloy-Grocki said she, too, supports the district’s DEI work and asked, “What more can we do?”

Having spent her career as an elementary-school teacher, she suggested more counselors at the elementary level. “We do have families with two moms or two dads,” she said, “and sometimes kids are getting teased at lunch and just [need to] have the understanding of, like, all families are different.”

“‘Love is Love.’ Love is a family. It’s a great book,” she said, referencing Michael Genhart’s book for young children who face discrimination because they have parents of the same sex.

Molloy-Grocki also said she’d like to see transgender students have “a place to go where they feel safe.” She went on, “Everyone needs to feel safe and supported. Everyone needs some place to go to talk.”

Dunagan began by saying, “I proudly support our LGBTQ+ community, our Black community, our AAPI, and, of course, as a fellow Latino … all Latinos.”

He went on, “The moment when I came into high school, I can recall ‘inclusion’ not being a word in the vocabulary …. It took time for the district to get where we are now. I want to continue to move the district forward. That’s why I’m running.”

He also said, “I believe we have to do a lot of work to ensure that each and every student succeeds. That means their mental abilities; that means their physical, and that means their wellness.”

Elizabeth Floyd Mair, who served on Guilderland’s inaugural DEI committee, said the district has been a leader as the first in the Suburban Council to have a DEI director.

She noted that Guilderland students are “70 percent Caucasian and 30-percent other,” and said, “That’s huge.” But she noted that, at the same time, only a handful of faculty are Black or Asian or Hispanic.

“We can do more with encouraging young people in our schools to think about becoming teachers,” she said.

Floyd Mair also said, “There are a lot of students that are living in economic difficulty” and, for instance, can’t participate in sports or the school musical “because they need to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.”

Those students need to thrive just as much as any other, she said.

The goal, Floyd Mair said, is not to have one group as “the host,” welcoming in others but, rather, “everybody is completely equal.”

 

State initiatives

Dunagan said he wants to create “a greener school district” and is “thankful for New York state’s programs.”

He cited research from the United Nations showing that, by 2040, “climate change is going to be even more devastating than what it is now, and we need to address it now so we can prepare for the future.”

Dunagan said he was scared when Vice President Kamala Harris said students are breathing in toxins on school buses.

In addition to “green buses,” Duangan said, “I believe all of our growth of our school buildings should be solar” and that older buildings should be retrofitted with emission-blocking windows.

Floyd Mair said she supports the board’s proposition to get two electric buses “taking advantage of funding programs that would allow us to basically buy them for nothing because we would be reimbursed for the cost.”

She noted other schools had had problems with electric buses “but we need to get into the fray and start to work towards this goal.”

Floyd Mair thinks universal pre-kindergarten is “great” and supports Superintendent Marie Wiles’s idea that securing a pre-K spot for a child should be linked to income.

“We have homeless students in our district,” said Floyd Mair. “We have people who are single parents working on a small income [who] need this more than somebody who’s living in an $800,000 house.

She noted the change would have to be made on the state level. “Child care is really expensive and not everybody can afford it,” she said.

Blanca Gonzalez-Parker said of the state requirement to have all zero-emissions school buses by 2035, “We need to advocate for more time to make the purchase of replacing our entire fleet. We simply cannot afford it.”

The board’s Business Practice Committee, on which she serves, originally planned to propose 10 electric buses rather than the two voters will decide on, she said.

“We simply do not have enough money up front for that,” Gonzalez-Parker said. “Additionally, we don’t have the infrastructure and also our mechanics need to be trained on how to care for those buses.”

While two buses make sense for next year, she said, “We need to advocate for reimbursement, federal and state reimbursement,” which would apply to infrastructure as well.

She mentioned spacing requirements for safety — “if they were to catch on fire, it takes days to put out the battery” — so larger garages would be needed as well.

On pre-kindergarten, Gonzalez-Parker said the district doesn’t have the space to house the classes and, rather than relying, as currently, on church and other programs, Guilderland should “formulate some sort of cooperative with other schools in the area,” as Superintendent Wiles had suggested.

“I think we’re going to have to help each other because we can’t afford to build right now,” she said.

Gonzalez-Parker concluded, “They tell you the legislation seems like it’s this wonderful thing but, just like the buses, the nitty-gritty, in my opinion, needs some work and some fine-tuning.”

Kaplan started by complimenting Gonzalez-Parker on her insights, noting “being faced with all of these wonderful ideas and initiatives, obviously the constant balance of having to work within budgetary confinements presents its issues.”

“Yes, of course, I support health for our children and the world,” said Kaplan. While she is “100 percent” in support of electric buses, Kaplan said, “I think there is going to be a long road ahead of us before that’s actually put into effect.”

She suggested the state should “figure it out” because the schools need to focus on the benefits to students.

Kaplan, who chaired an early childhood program, said, “I absolutely understand the benefits that students have from having pre-K. The students that are economically disadvantaged, unfortunately, come into our buildings without having the very basic psychological, social, emotional, fine motor skills, gross motor skills that kids need to be successful.”

Kaplan went on, “I believe that our district is now about 24 percent economically disadvantaged” and she noted that it can be difficult as well for families not in that category to afford childcare.

Kaplan concluded, “I agree that those families that are most in need should also have that benefit given to them because we want to make sure that our students have that equity.”

Molloy-Grocki said New York State United Teachers had looked at electric buses and she noted issues in the very cold Midwest where the buses weren’t working.

“We know it’s the right thing to do,” Molloy-Grocki said about zero-emission buses, “but we just have to be smart about it.”

She said the state teachers’ union had advocated for prekindergarten for many, many years.

As a second-grade teacher, Molloy-Grocki said, she could easily tell which kids had been to preschool “with the cutting and coloring and just all that fine motor [skill]; the social interaction, too, is just so important.”

She said she would love to advocate with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to work across districts. She noted how “spread out” the Guilderland district is and suggested, “Maybe there’s something we could do at Bethlehem or even Rotterdam …. Let’s work on this together.”

 

Budgeting

Floyd Mair said she would not recommend going over the tax cap because then a supermajority, or 60 percent, would be needed to pass the budget.

If a budget is rejected a second time, no tax increase is allowed. “That would be pretty difficult,” she said, calling it “uncharted waters.”

To pay for a floating nurse, she suggested having one of the unassigned teaching posts be used for that.

Floyd Mair said she was convinced by the nurses who spoke to the board about the need to have a nurse who knows the students.

On the frustrations expressed to the board by parents of special-education students, Floyd Mair said, “I think a lot of what the special-education parents are asking for is more transparency, more communication from the district and more of a voice …. That should be something that is doable.”

She went on, “And the district is trying to do that … We need to continue to try to work closely with those parents and families so that things do improve.”

On the tax refunds, Floyd Mair said, “I hope that Crossgates enjoys its $5 million from the school district.”

She also said that the mall’s owner, Pyramid, should consider “giving back to the school district in some way, shape, or form,” suggesting a scholarship fund or support of an academic program.

“If you think you can convince them, Elizabeth,” began Gonzalez-Parker, “but I’d like to see that happen.”

She said a floating nurse should be on top of the district’s wish list and also noted she had asked for a cost comparison and learned having an on-staff nurse costs almost $75,000 more than using an agency nurse.

As a nurse herself, Gonzalez-Parker said she understood the importance of consistency “but at the same time, I’m responsible to the taxpayers,” she said. “And we have one heck of a problem right now financially.”

Gonzalez-Parker said more aids are needed, especially for special-needs students. Besides wanting their children included, parents want “more hands in the classroom,” she said. “So we have to balance those needs.”

If she’s re-elected, Gonzalez-Parker, who was elected as the board’s vice president at its last meeting, said she would request an audit of the special-education program.

“I think those can be very helpful,” she said of audits. “Sometimes information can come out in terms of communication barriers that we may not be aware of.”

On the state-set levy limit, Gonzalez-Parker said, “People have said, please do not go over the tax cap. I personally feel like right now the economy is a disaster and people are struggling left and right. And it is highly insensitive, not only to that 24 percent and rising of students that live in poverty and are even homeless … it’s disrespectful to the voters who put us in office.”

Kaplan said, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for what goes into developing the budget.” Citing “inflationary concerns,” she said it was necessary to stay under the tax cap.

Kaplan said funding for special needs “is a very essential area.” She went on, “I believe that we can continue to dive deeper into what the district is doing for special ed.”

She also said that therapy dogs are “a really important, valuable asset.” She described “a tremendous turnaround” in a student who had used a therapy dog.

“We cannot forget the fact that we’re human, we’re people and with that comes … that need to be seen. And I feel that, as board members, we have an obligation to understand that about the people that we're working with.”

Kaplan concluded, “I feel that the board is basically a legislature for the people. And we want to give them a voice to be heard. And it can be done. I want to see that happen.”

Molloy-Grocki agreed that the budget should not go over the levy limit. “It’s just not a responsible thing to do.”

Not having the floating nurse, she said, is “breaking my heart.” At the same time, she said she understood the cost differential.

She went on, “The special-ed parents, my heart really broke for them and I thought that they were so brave coming forward at the board meetings and advocating for their children.”

She thought an audit was “a great idea” and went on, “I have a brother who is special needs and it’s hard, especially for a parent.”

Teachers, she said, have “to be very clear with parents and explain to them what’s going on with their child.”

Relating to tax certiorari cases, Molloy-Grocki said, “Shame on me personally. I didn’t really pay attention to what was happening at the town board level.”

She said that she and the board of education need to pay better attention. Molloy-Grocki questioned the breaks given to wealthy companies by the Industrial Development Agency.

She described Pyramid as a wealthy company and said, “They should pay their school taxes.”

While she said she understood the law, she said, “It’s killing me that we have to give $4 million back to them.

Dunagan said that he, too, would not recommend going over the tax cap.

He had to leave the forum early when his lunch break ended but emailed his response to the last question.

“There have been situations before where GCSD never went over the tax cap,” he wrote. “However my main and number-one priority is ensuring each and every student receives the services and resources.”

Dunagan also said that the federal government not renewing the pandemic-recovery aid “sends a wrong message.”

He went on, “We all know why they did not renew funds; they believe education is ‘indoctrination’ and that rhetoric sets up a dangerous precedent. We will see more lack of education funding. And I don’t stand for that.”

Dunagan also said he had heard and seen the parents of special-needs students at board meetings discuss the Comprehensive Skills class.

“That should not have been a discussion,” he wrote. “There should have been an additional FTE [full-time equivalent] so that position could have been filled.”

Dunagan added, “I do stand by those who say we need to have floating nurses.”

He concluded, “I think a lot about the question: ‘Is there nothing worth fighting for?’ Education and ensuring a bright future where we own the century is worth the fight. And these students are the ones that will take us into the future. And we have to now give them the necessities and essentials they need to succeed and see that happen.”

 


 

Questions for Guilderland School Board candidates

In addition to being asked about their goals and relevant background, the five Guilderland School Board candidates were asked these questions:

DEI: Every spring for the last several years, students at Guilderland High School have organized an anti-hate rally. Last year, several transgender students bravely spoke of the harassment they had suffered in school and out. In 2022, the district created a post for a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the school board has a DEI committee addressing issues revolving around race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and more. Is this a good use of district energies and resources and should the district be doing more to help students who are feeling hurt or isolated? If so, what? If not, why not?

State initiatives: Guilderland, like other districts in New York, has no choice but to meet requirements or initiatives set by the state. Two that Guilderland is currently wrestling with are electric buses and pre-kindergarten classes. Starting in 2027, schools must purchase only electric buses and by 2035, all school buses must be zero-emissions. The state has allocated unasked-for funds for universal pre-k to Guilderland for several years, some of which the district cannot use since there are not enough spaces in local out-of-school programs so an annual lottery is held. How should Guilderland deal with these state initiatives? 

Budgeting: The federal funds that Guilderland received because of the pandemic will no longer be in play. The district funded some of those services in its proposed $125 million budget for next year but not others like a floating nurse, an on-staff nurse to fill in as needed. At the same time during this budget season, parents of special-education students at the high school spoke repeatedly to the school board about needs they felt weren’t being met. While an extra Comprehensive Skills class was added, parents said their kids felt isolated and unwelcome. The district has never gone over the state-set tax cap since it was adopted over a decade ago and, in recent years, has drained its reserve for tax certiorari cases, having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a board member, what would be your priorities in answering these competing needs and would you recommend going over the tax cap?

 

 

Tara Molloy-Grocki

Tara Molloy-Grocki, who is retiring in June after 31 years of elementary school teaching, has three children. She has served as president of Guilderland’s teachers’ union and has been a public-school advocate at the local and state levels. “I have experience with how the district works as a whole,” she said, citing her ability to find common ground to move forward. 

Mateo Dunagan

Mateo Dunagan, who works as a customer service clerk at Hannaford Supermarket in Guilderland, said, “I always say as a man of faith that there’s no better calling than service to others, and especially our students in the district,” whom, he said, need “the resources and tools that are essential to their success in the 21st Century.” Despite progress, he said, there is more to do.

Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Elizabeth Floyd Mair, a Guilderland native with a daughter, lived in Japan for 15 years and has a “world view.” She was a reporter for The Altamont Enterprise for six years before leaving in 2020 to work for the county’s Department of Law, drafting legal documents related to child neglect and abuse. “I’m good at asking questions and making things transparent,” she said.

Blanca Gonzalez-Parker

Blanca Gonzalez-Parker started on the school board in 2020, “a tumultuous time,” when she was “very  much a part of responding to the pandemic.” The mother of three, she graduated from Guilderland in 1996 and works in public health. She has “not always agreed with everything,” she said, but dealt with differences amicably in pursuit of “the road to greatness.”

Nina Kaplan

Nina Kaplan, the mother of three children, has been a social studies teacher for 21 years and also works as a specialist for the State Education Department’s Office of Assessment. “I want to establish support systems within school buildings …,” she said. “I want to build bridges between families and the school district … I want to support policies that foster equity in education.”

 

More Guilderland News

  • Superintendent Marie Wiles says the hope is the added funds will increase the number of places available so that families who were disappointed in lottery results may still have a chance of their children attending. “This is a game changer for our partners,” she said of the preschools the district works with, “and for our community.”

  • The legal decision is the fifth in four years to uphold the town’s approval process of what was initially a three-site development proposal from Pyramid for over 200 apartments and townhomes; a 160,000-square-foot warehouse-price club; and only recently, a $55 million 120,000-square-foot regional cancer center. 

  • “This means a great deal to not only this community, but my family as well,” said Councilwoman Amanda Beedle on flying the pride flag. She said she had brought the matter to the board because she wanted “to show that this town is very open and inclusive and welcoming to all.”

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