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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, May 3, 2007

Bryan now accused of stealing $150K

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — David R. Bryan, a former Rensselaerville supervisor, is now accused of stealing three times more than last week.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Department estimates he embezzled nearly $150,000 from three non-profit institutions in the small, rural town — the library, church, and historical society.

After accusations last week that he stole approximately $40,000 from the Rensselaerville Library and $8,000 from the Rensselaerville Trinity Church, the sheriff’s department this week said Bryan also absconded with funds from the historical society and the Albany school where he is the house principal. He held leadership positions in all four institutions.

Bryan has stolen an estimated $80,000 from the Rensselaerville Historical Society, Chief Deputy Craig Apple of the sheriff’s department said yesterday. Irene Olson, the town’s historian and treasurer of the historical society, said records have been traced back to July of 2005, and about $80,000 is missing.

Bryan, 53, was arrested by the sheriff’s department last week and charged with third-degree grand larceny. No additional charges have been made, but several are pending, said Apple.

Bryan, a lay preacher at the Rensselaerville Trinity Church, was initially believed to have stolen $8,000 from the church and deposited the money in the Rensselaerville Library account to cover the larceny.

Bryan could not be reached for comment.

Bryan had indicated "he needed help with his kids’ college," said Apple, adding that it is "a very poor excuse," and there are "other avenues" than stealing taxpayers’ money.

Apple did not have information about how much Bryan, a house principal at Abrookin Vo-Tech in Albany, had taken from the school, nor was he aware of any prior arrests. The sheriff’s department, he said, will be handing the case over to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office "in the next couple of days for grand jury action," Apple said.

Berne talks to county about shared services

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Last week, Albany County officials and the town board began discussions about the town’s highway department sharing services with the county’s department of public works.

Last year, Supervisor Kevin Crosier pushed for a merger of the two departments, which was met with widespread opposition as no board member backed the plan and all town highway workers campaigned against it.

The shared-service proposal is trying to do everything the consolidation proposal would have done without the town’s highway workers becoming county employees, said Crosier, who was elected on the Republican ticket.

"I think looking at shared services is a good idea, but, before we move forward, we need to make sure it’s the sensible thing to do, and what has been discussed so far requires more research," said Councilman James Hamilton, a Democrat, yesterday. Hamilton has advocated for exploring options with other towns.

Hamilton said he favors "doing the simple things first." Sharing snowplow routes with the county, he said, "would be fairly easy to implement," and there would be "definite savings."

"There is some overlap there," he said of the town’s and county’s snowplow routes.

According to a report put together last year by Crosier and Michael Franchini, Albany County’s commissioner of public works, "Forty-seven-percent of the mileage in the town highway department snowplow routes consist of county roads."

Last month, the town board voted unanimously to be included on county bids. When the county purchases items — such as uniforms, cleaning products, and water — Berne has the option to be included in the bid and buy materials at county prices.

Crosier said purchasing cooperatively with the county "makes good sense," and "gives the county more purchasing power." It doesn’t make any sense, he said, for municipalities to purchase separately. "We need to make government more efficient and save taxpayers’ money," Crosier said.

Last week’s meeting was an opportunity for county officials to speak with the town about options, said Kerri Battle, spokeswoman for Albany County. "There’s nothing in writing," she said. Battle added that Deputy County Executive Joseph Pennisi suggested the town send ideas and information to the county.

If an agreement is made between the town and county, Albany County workers could also be housed at the town’s highway office on the west end of the hamlet, Crosier said. A pole barn, located next to the town building and approximately 100 feet by 40 feet, could be rehabilitated to house the county’s employees, he said.

"There’s been a strong push to put department of public works employees into our building," said Hamilton. The roof at the county’s building on Cole Hill, he said, needs to be repaired.

"It’s like circular logic," Hamilton said of county employees’ being housed at the town’s building. "I asked a lot of questions at the last two meetings, and I didn’t get answers," he said.

County officials, town officials, and town highway workers continue to speculate about union negotiations should the departments share services. Berne highway workers are members of Operating Engineers, and county workers are Civil Service Employees Association members.

"I know how my union would feel if I was sitting at home, and county employees were out plowing town roads," said Joe Welsh, a Berne highway worker and union shop steward.

Last year, while considering consolidation, residents and highway workers speculated that town roads would become a lower priority if the town and county departments combined their snowplow routes.

"That’s absolutely false. No one can prove that," Crosier said when asked if combining county and town snow routes would result in town roads becoming a lower priority. "That’s not a fact. That’s a fallacy," he said. All roads — town, county, and state — would be plowed "at the same time," Crosier said.

"State roads are always priority one, county roads are priority two, and town roads are priority three," Welsh said. Welsh said he doesn’t agree with the town and county departments combining their snowplow routes. The county, he said, uses carbide cutting edges, and the town uses steel cutting edges.

What happens if the town’s highway superintendent and the county’s subdivision foreman don’t agree" Welsh asked. "You’ve got two different foremen, and two different entities," he said. The two could disagree when prioritizing roads, he said.

Before meeting again with county officials, Berne trustees need to put a shared service proposal together for the county’s review, said Crosier. "We need to show a savings to get the grant money," Crosier said. "Six-hundred-thousand dollars is at stake."

Four run for two seats

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Four candidates are seeking two seats on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board.

While voters are at the polls May 15, they will also be asked to decide on a $19.3 million budget and $344,513 to buy six school buses. A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held Monday, May 7, at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium.

The PTA is hosting a meet-the-candidates night on Wednesday, May 9, at 6:30 p.m. in the elementary school cafeteria. Posts on the five-member board are unpaid.

The issues

The candidates for the BKW School Board are: incumbent Edward Ackroyd; PTA President Michelle Fusco; retired teacher and former school board member Helen Lounsbury; and Robert Rue, a BKW graduate making his second run.

Board member Janet Finke is not seeking a second term.

The Enterprise asked each candidate the same questions:

— Do you support the $19.3 million budget proposal for next year" Why or why not"

— If the budget is voted down on May 15, what direction should the school board take"

— The proposed budget adds a foreign-language program in the elementary school. The language has not yet been determined. What language do think should be taught and why"

— Are there classes or programs you think the school should be offering but isn’t" What are they"

— In the past, the school transported many autistic students outside the district. During the budgeting process, Superintendent Steven Schrade said BKW has more out-of-district placements than any other school in the Capital Region. The proposed budget calls for creating a BKW classroom similar to a self-contained BOCES classroom and would keep autistic students in the district. Is this a good idea" How do you think this would affect these students’ learning and the student body"

— The school board now has a three-year term for its members, shortened from a five year term to encourage more people to run. Some former board members have said three years are too few to be fully effective. Do you think the term should be a three-year or five-year term" Why"

Edward Ackroyd

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Edward Ackroyd, a Knox resident, is currently the vice president of the school board, a post he rotated into. He grew up on Thompson’s Lake Road in East Berne and owns Thor Power Supply, based in Schenectady, which he formed in 1985. Ackroyd said he has one United States patent; he sells industrial batteries, chargers, power back-up systems, and supplies.

Ackroyd, a member of the BKW class of 1968 class, ran for the school board unopposed in 2004 after Lynn Countryman stepped down; he is a veteran who left BKW to serve in Cambodia and Vietnam. He served in the United States Army from 1968 to 1971, and spent a year-and-a-half in Germany and one year in Vietnam.

"As vice president of the current school board and having worked on the current proposed budget with the administration, and the current school board, yes, I do support it," he said.

The proposed budget, Ackroyd said, is one of the smallest tax-levy increases in seven years and also the smallest spending increase since 2001. With this in mind, credit should be given to both the entire school board but also much more credit for this should go to the staff and administration of Berne-Knox-Westerlo School, he said.

"After looking at declining enrollment and available income to the residents of the district, I can’t help but wish that the budget is passed at the initial vote as it is fair to everyone in the district," he said.

Should the initial budget be voted down, Ackroyd said, he would go directly to a contingency budget. The difference between the $19.3 million budget and the contingency budget, which has a state-set cap, is only approximately $50,000, he said. "If the voters can’t OK that small amount, then we have more serious problems than just dollars," he said.

"This year, after we [the school board and administration] put the budget together, the state came out with a higher percentage for a contingency budget than we had figured," said Ackroyd. If the budget is voted down, he would not vote for a higher percentage.

Ackroyd said he "whole-heartedly" approves teaching foreign language at the elementary school. The language chosen, he said, should be the most beneficial to the children’s future and determined by a council of advisers.

"Having spoken and understood four languages"each had its own place and benefits," he said.

Ackroyd said there are classes or programs he would like to see added to the school’s curriculum.

"Looking at the available tax base and declining enrollment, I believe this should be watched very carefully so as not to put a large burden on the students or the taxpayer," he said. Ackroyd said he would like to look at the average or lower-than-average pupil and determine how the teaching staff can bring students’ percentages up.

"To me, that is what education is about," he said.

Ackroyd said he has "mixed feelings" about whether autistic students should be taught at BKW or be transported out of the district. "I have been advised that, by having these students in our buildings, it would be less expensive than transporting them," he said. Saving money, he said, is "everyone’s concern." "I would have to have more meetings with the experts in this field to determine which is best for the students concerned," he said.

A three-year term for board members is too short and a five-year term should be put back in place, Ackroyd said.

"I am the first of the three-year elected board members and would have run for"a five-year term," he said.

Ackroyd said he had spoken with current and former board members, and the majority of them think the change to a three-year term was "a mistake." He said it takes "at least two to three years" to understand procedures. "It seems a waste if the member leaves after the third year," he said.

Helen Lounsbury

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Helen Lounsbury, a Berne resident, was a BKW teacher and served one term on the school board just after she retired from teaching. She taught for 34 years at the district, and spent much of her career in the Berne elementary school teaching fourth and sixth grades. She wrote the grant for the for the Books ’R’ Us program and the storefronts throughout the BKW elementary school.

After retiring, Lounsbury said, it has been very difficult to distance herself from the students and the district. Lounsbury began tutoring BKW students two years ago.

"It kind of re-ignites the flames," she said. "I feel very attached to it"I’m a lifer."

Lounsbury said she respects the people involved in developing next year’s budget.

"I look forward to the opportunity to join them in constructing future budgets. I believe it is important to offer a quality program, good working conditions for employees at an affordable cost," she said.

Lounsbury said she is interested in hearing final details for the budget at the public hearing next week. "There is still the missing piece about the impact of the proposed addition — building, furnishings, heating — on the taxpayer," she said.

If the budget is voted down, Lounsbury said, the district should move to a contingency budget. "The voters’ decision should be respected," she said.

Lounsbury favors Spanish for the elementary-school foreign language program. "It is a practical choice in the U.S.A. today," she said.

Suggestions for additional classes should come from parents, students, staff, and the community at large — similar to the idea for teaching foreign language in the elementary school, she said. "The board needs to assure there is a well-thought-out system for not only evaluating our existing programs but also any proposed programs and electives."

"Saving money cannot be the driving force behind bringing autistic students back to the district," said Lounsbury. "Many researchers hold that children with autism need a program that can provide individually appropriate instruction, social interaction, and development, as well as support and respect," she said.

"We need to know how our program will compare to the current out-of-district placements and what spectrum of autism we are addressing. Issues such as in-district staffing, appropriate physical classroom space, support services of people trained to work with and evaluate autistic students, busing considerations, potential cafeteria issues, and needed resources must be carefully assessed," she said.

"We need to be sure we are not going to ‘disadvantage’ the students who are moved back to the district," Lounsbury said.

To have a successful program, she said, employees and students must be educated about autism and properly prepared for the new placements. "A program evaluation plan needs to be put in place in advance," she said. "We also need to take a look at the alternatives in the event the program is not as successful as anticipated. I am not privy to the thinking behind this decision but would believe that our trained professionals have already taken all of these factors into account," she said.

Lounsbury said she prefers five-year terms for school board members. "As a former five-year term board member, I know firsthand that the longer term provides more opportunity to become familiar with procedures and policies," she said.

Michelle Fusco

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Michelle Fusco, a Berne resident, has been the president of the Parent-Teacher Association for four years. She works at the Colonie Diner as a waitress. With flexible hours at the diner, Fusco said, she is able to be at her home when her children leave for school and when they come home. Fusco has a son is in the third grade, and a daughter in the 10th grade. Her daughter takes college-level Advanced Placement courses, and her son has taken extra classes, she said.

"I have one that’s gifted and one who struggles a little bit," she said.

Fusco said she supports the budget proposal for next year. "I feel it is one of the best budgets educationally that I have seen in the past few years. I think the board really focused on the importance of offering more diverse classes for the entire school body, from foreign language in the elementary school to more Advanced Placement courses in the high school," she said.

The school board, she said, did an excellent job of using its limited funds toward this end, and has kept the tax burden minimal for district residents.

"I cannot imagine why this particular budget would be voted down, especially since it is only $50,000 above the contingency cap," Fusco said. If voted down, Fusco said, she would like to see it put up for a second vote. "I do not see one line item that I would be willing to cut," she said.

Fusco said she would like to see Spanish taught in the elementary school. "I feel it would be the most useful to the students in the outside world. With America’s growing Spanish population, I think that this is a language that would most certainly be used by the students in the future," she said.

Fusco said she works with Spanish-speaking people from different Latino countries and has taken continuing-education courses to communicate better with her co-workers. "It would go without saying, however, that a firm grasp of our own English language would be first and foremost in the education of our kids," she said.

"We have had great experiences through the years here with teachers and staff that really go the extra mile for our kids," she said. However, speaking from her experience with her children in the school, she would like to see more special-education services and "much more offered to gifted and talented students at the elementary level."

"While we do have a small program for those children that I believe they can utilize in the fifth grade, I don’t feel that we or most any public school offer enough programs to challenge these students. Certainly at the high school level we have some amazing Advanced Placement opportunities, as well as the New Visions program, but I feel these students would be even better served by challenging them at the youngest age possible," she said.

She also would like to pursue improving the district’s special education services. BKW, she said, was instrumental in identifying her child’s needs early and gave him the best possible chance of success.

"However, there is a shortage of teachers and time for him to receive all of the services he was identified as needing. His own teacher has been fabulous in taking extra time to work with him, and has been a great advocate for him throughout the year, and"he has made tremendous progress," she said.

"Still, we have employed our own tutor to help with the areas he has been unable to receive enough services in. I do feel very strongly, though, that the help he has been receiving has been absolutely outstanding, and I think we, as a district, have been lucky to employ some truly wonderful educators," she said.

Fusco said she is "very interested" in seeing a study about the district’s high number of special-education students and out-of-district placements. Two years ago, she said, the district created a classroom to keep students within the district.

"I felt then and feel now that, not only by keeping students in their own school, we are exercising the most fiscally responsible course of action, but limiting added burden and stress on the students and parents. Certainly, I would think it would be easier for parents to be involved in the education of their children if they were kept in their own district school, limiting unnecessary travel for the parents and kids to an outside placement location. It also encourages community involvement. While all PTA events and programs are open to the district’s residents, including home-schooled children, I wonder how many families don’t take advantage of those opportunities either because of lack of notification, or a feeling of not belonging. And, of course, the monetary burden on the district to send students to other schools is huge," she said.

Fusco favors keeping three-year terms for school board members.

"I think a shorter term does encourage more people to run. I am not sure I would have chosen to run if the commitment was five years," she said.

"There is always the opportunity to run again," she said. A three year term "gives the community a chance to decide whether they believe the board member has done a competent job." It also allows board members to decide whether they wish to pursue being on the board longer, she said. "I think that board members will be as effective as they choose to be, and re-election would allow them to continue if the community agreed they had been effective," Fusco said.

Robert Rue

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Robert Rue, 44, a Knox resident, is running for the school board for the second year in a row.

A BKW graduate and a lifetime Hilltown resident, Rue is an active member of the elementary school PTA and the BKW Little League and Softball League. He has a daughter and a son in district schools and is very involved in his children’s activities, he said. He is employed by the town of Guilderland. Rue earned a degree in business at the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill.

Rue, concerned about security in the elementary and high school, said BKW’s security should be updated with added cameras. Anyone entering the schools, he said, should have to use either punch cards or swipe keys. Visitors should have to communicate with someone monitoring the school’s camera before being buzzed in, he said.

"Our children are our best resource and we have to do everything to protect them."

Rue said he supports the proposed budget. "I believe that the budget committee and the school business administrator has done a good job at holding the expenditure line."

If the budget is voted down, Rue said, he believes the district should automatically enact a contingency budget. "We would not gain anything by revoting on the proposed budget, due to the fact that there is not anything that could be taken out of this budget that would not be harmful to the students," he said. The proposed budget is close to a contingency budget as it now stands, Rue said.

Rue favors Spanish for the elementary foreign-language program "because statistics show that this is the second language used in this country." In the business world, Rue said, employees are asked to be bilingual. Job candidates who speak Spanish are often preferred for job openings because they are bilingual, he said.

If classes were added to the curriculum, Rue said, problem-solving classes should be offered. "Students should be able to come up with different techniques in order to solve a problem given to them. The goal of this class should be creativity and to broaden the student’s thinking capabilities," he said.

At the high school, a money-management class should be offered, at least as an after-school program, he said. "The goal of this class would be to teach students how to save and invest money wisely," Rue said.

"Keeping autistic and special-needs children in the district is a good idea. I believe the children would do better in familiar surroundings," said Rue. "The stress of having to ride a bus would be gone. Other school districts may want to use our school district for these services, which may help to offset expenditures to our district. I believe the student body would come to accept as well as embrace this new program."

Rue favors a three-year term for board members. If members would like to serve longer than their term, then they are more than welcome to seek re-election, Rue said.

"I think a five-year term would be a deterrent to anyone thinking about running for the board of education," he said. "In the past two years, there have been four candidates vying for positions on the school board. This tells me that more people are starting to get involved in the school board and what they do. I would hate to see this upswing in interest derailed or people frightened off by the commitment."

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