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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, July 31, 2008

The BKW School Board picks a new president and vice president

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Despite their differences, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board’s new leaders share a common goal: creating an environment where students can excel at all they do and taxpayers aren’t quite as pressed.

Helen Lounsbury, a retired BKW teacher, was elected president by a 4-1 vote, with board member Jack Harlow being the lone dissenter. Michelle Fusco, former president of the Parent Teacher Association, became the board’s vice president by a unanimous vote. The election ended a decades-long era where board members rotated in and out of office rather than voting each other into position.

Doing more with less

Fusco has spent a lot of time thinking about school budgets and state budgets, she said. In these increasingly hard economic times, she believes in ensuring low taxes for residents, while continuing to provide a well-rounded education for children in the district.

“On Tuesday evening,” Fusco said, “Governor [David] Patterson made an unprecedented move in calling lawmakers back from their vacations to work on a spending plan for New York State. He pledged that [New York’s] government would start doing what families [have] been challenged to do: to ‘do more with less.’”

With housing foreclosures on the rise, retirees are forced to return to the workplace, and some older residents are choosing to sell their homes because they can no longer afford the taxes, Fusco said.

Last year, Lounsbury’s goal was to keep the tax levy at a zero-percent increase. “I was unable to achieve that goal, but the board did keep the tax levy increase below 2 percent. I thought that was reasonable — much lower than most districts.”

As a board member, Lounsbury realizes that she is always spending other people’s money, she said. “That money has to be spent wisely. We’ll be carefully examining and reviewing the budget for next year, and that’s when the specifics will be worked out. The budget committee will probably start meeting around October.”

“I believe a hard look will need to be taken at spending, for all agencies that depend on taxpayer money to fund their endeavors,” said Fusco. “I want to make sure people continue to support school budgets, and feel confident in knowing that the people they elected are tuned into their concerns and struggles.”

The people they elected

This is the second year of Helen Lounsbury’s second term, which started in July of 2007. She served her first term from 1996 to 2001.

“I’ve had a longtime commitment to the district,” said Lounsbury. “I would say I know the ins and outs of the district.” Having been a high school student in Berne, a teacher in the district, a mother to students in the district, a taxpayer, and a school board member once before, Lounsbury has seen BKW from many different points of view.

“As a board member and president, I see my primary responsibility as working with my fellow board members and the entire BKW community cooperatively,” Lounsbury said. “By that I mean working with teachers, students, residents, and employees, with the idea that in the end, we would have a high performing district that would spend the taxpayers’ money in a prudent and effective way. Our children are the community’s fundamental resource, so we must provide these citizens of tomorrow with a quality education.”

The district, Lounsbury said, must continually reassess the effectiveness of its education program. The board as a whole also has a responsibility to the taxpayer, she said, “and many of us are already struggling to pay our bills, heat our houses, put fuel in our cars, and just generally keep afloat on what are becoming rough economic waters.”

Michelle Fusco is in the second year of her first term on the board, which, like Lounsbury’s, began last July.

“The people in the school district knew me through my five years as [Parent Teacher Association] president,” Fusco said. “I believe they saw my commitment to the school and the kids. I worked really hard with parents and staff to help support the needs and goals of our school, and in those five years, our PTA did some amazing things. I attended [board of education] meetings regularly as a representative of the PTA and carried that information back to our members, so they knew I was plugged into the business of the school as well.”

Fusco’s goals as vice president, she said, are “to help nurture an environment for students and staff that leads to excitement in teaching, learning, and getting and staying involved in our community.” The board’s long term goal is to improve student performance at all levels, she said. For Fusco, this means raising the graduation rate, and preparing students for competition in the global community.

Fusco also pointed out the needs of the substantial special education population in the district. It presents many challenges for the board as they try to provide the best education possible for all children in the district, she said. “We have been very fortunate in the employees we have hired to fulfill the roles of this department, and will have an additional part time teacher this year.” Fusco thinks that the district has handled these challenges well, and continues to improve in doing so, she said.

“So far, the new president has made sure I’m involved in many aspects of her role, such as helping to set the meeting agendas,” Fusco added. “I don’t think people realize how much goes into being a member of [the board of education]. I’ve had some sleepless nights, but it’s an important job. I’m trying my best to live up to the expectations of the people who elected me.”

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