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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 14, 2009

Guilderland Teachers’ Association supports incumbents

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland Teachers’ Association is supporting the two incumbents in a five-way race for three school board seats here.

Richard Weisz, the board’s president, a lawyer, is seeking a fourth three-year term, and Denise Eisele, a nurse, is running for a second term.

They are being challenged by three candidates making a first run for the board — Julie Cuneo, a nurse practitioner; Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior; and Allan Simpson, an accountant. The three challengers served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee this year and are not promoting the $85 million budget, which is backed by the two incumbents.

If voters pass the budget on May 19, taxes would increase .58 percent or 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for Guilderland residents. Simpson is urging residents to vote down the budget to send a message to the board; he wants to see no tax increase at all. Cuneo said she cannot support the budget because, with larger class sizes and cuts in teaching assistants, the quality of education will suffer. Sharma wouldn’t say whether he supports the budget or not, but said, rather, it is a matter of individual choice.

Each of the five candidates is running independently.

Candidates this year were invited by the GTA to fill out surveys on their views. Not all of the surveys were returned, said Maceo Dubose, the union’s president; he declined to name which ones were.

Sharma, who did submit a survey, questioned how many teachers were involved in the endorsement process, and was concerned the endorsement would perhaps unfairly brand himself or Cuneo or Simpson as not being pro-teacher.

Sharma shared an e-mail he received on May 8 from the GTA, thanking him for filling out the questionnaire and stating, “The executive council has decided — after much debate — to support incumbents (with a strong history of supporting teachers) this year. This has been our past practice.”

In recent years, the candidates backed by the teachers’ union have won. Last year, the GTA backed two incumbents who won and a third candidate who had been a long-time teaching assistant. The year before, the GTA backed one incumbent and a candidate who had been a Guilderland teacher for decades; both of them won.

Dubose said that the decision this year by the GTA’s executive council, based on Weisz’s and Eisele’s voting records, was unanimous.

Votes and views

The most controversial vote in the last year was in July after weeks of highly publicized protests over the transfer of two high school teachers to the middle school. In a 7-to-2 vote, the board decided not to review the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers. Weisz and Eisele voted with the majority. They both said in election interviews with The Enterprise last month that the board had behaved appropriately in the midst of the summer protests. (For the full story, go to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for April 23, 2009.)

Sharma, who helped organize the student protests, said he was “a friend of teachers” and had stood up for them. “Mrs. Fraterrigo and Dr. Dubowsky were voices of reason on the board,” he said of the two school board members — Barbara Fraterrigo and Hy Dubowsky — who wanted to review the superintendent’s decision. “The community asked them to review the decision. Those two really got it.”

Dubowsky died in March.

Cuneo, in an election interview, said, “The decision should have been reviewed by the board.” She suggested the board could have looked into the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers and investigated the situation.

Simpson, in an election interview, said he didn’t know enough about the protests to comment. He went on to speak in general terms, saying, “You have to look at the terms of the contract” and follow the process for relocating teachers. “There’s a whole process to go through before it escalates with everybody in an uproar,” he said.

Another, more recent, controversial split vote was over adding full-day kindergarten next year. Moving from the current half-day program to a full-day program would cost about $600,000 a year, although the first year would be covered by transition aid from the state. Board members agreed early on that they supported the full-day program, if finances allowed for it. After the governor proposed drastic cuts in aid, later restored with federal stimulus money, expected to last for two years, the board was divided on whether to add the full-day program.

During a lengthy discussion in April, most board members said they felt the district couldn’t afford the full-day program next year, that it would overburden the taxpayers. Weisz spoke forcefully in favor of the full-day program and, on its third vote, the board decided, 5-to-3, to include the full-day program in the budget. Eisele voted with the majority.

Sharma told The Enterprise that, while he personally supports full-day kindergarten, he would not support it as a board member because the community and budget committee members made it clear they couldn’t afford it.

Cuneo said money that would, in the long run, be spent for full-day kindergarten, which would benefit only a “very small group,” could better be used for “vital things” like small class size and teaching assistants.

Simpson said that the federal stimulus funds were not meant to start new programs. “We went in the opposite direction of the spirit of the law: Don’t put in infrastructure you can’t pay for,” he told The Enterprise.

At that same April session which the board hammered out the final budget proposal, the vote was split on reinstating some of the teaching assistants, which had been drastically cut. Weisz voted in favor of reinstating 6.25 elementary teaching assistants and Eisele voted against it.

Sharma opposes cutting teaching assistants. “We shouldn’t save money by cutting people in the front lines,” he told The Enterprise.

Cuneo said some reduction was necessary because of the decline in enrollment but that cutting 22 teaching assistants was “drastic and unnecessary.”

Simpson said that substantial evidence was not given to prove that cutting teaching assistants would cut “the quality of service.”

Meaning of union support

Dubose said that support from the GTA this year would take the form of two ads in local weekly newspapers — one in The Enterprise and the other in The Spotlight — announcing the candidates that the union is supporting.

For the school board elections in 2006 and again in 2007, the GTA used a list of addresses of students’ homes released by the district to mail cards in support of the candidates and the budget. When this practice was called into question last year, the union stopped the practice.

Two years ago, the GTA for the first time offered monetary support to the candidates, which one accepted.

In a five-way race for three seats in 2007, the GTA endorsed incumbent Colleen O’Connell and her running mate, Gloria Towel-Hilt, who was retiring as a long-time teacher in the district.

O’Connell accepted the support of the teachers’ union but not the money. “I don’t need the money,” she said at the time. “I’m just not comfortable with it.”

Towle-Hilt accepted both the endorsement and the funds. She bought election signs and palm cards printed with her picture to hand out to voters.

“It means they’re supporting me as an individual who thinks for herself,” Towle-Hilt said at the time. “No one has asked me how I stand on issues either way....I have a reputation for making the best possible choices for children.”

Towle-Hilt came in first in the election; O’Connell came in second; and Barbara Fraterrigo, an incumbent who was not supported by the GTA, retained her seat, coming in third.

Last year, the three candidates backed by the GTA — incumbents Catherine Barber and John Dornbush along with Judy Slack, a long-time teaching assistant — won handily.

Incumbent Peter Golden, who wasn’t supported by the union, was ousted. He came in last in a five-way race for three seats. He said on election night, “The results show what I’ve been trying to point out for three years. This is a company town. The school district is the largest employer. By continuing to put union-backed candidates on the board, it’s one of the reasons budgets are so big and hard to control.”

The Guilderland Teachers’ Association has about 750 members. Typically, about 3,000 people vote in a district that has over 30,000 residents.

Christine Kenefick, making her first run for school board as an independent, came in fourth last year. “It was an interesting and challenging race when the union came out and endorsed people...without interviewing everyone on an equal ground,” she said on election night. “I knew it would be an uphill battle.”

Responding to assertions that Golden had made during the campaign about school-district retirees and union-backed candidates packing the board, Dornbush said on election night, “That’s how he would like people to think of it. The numbers show that many more people supported us.”

Barber, the top vote-getter, said of election results, “I think the concept of conflict as a premise has been rejected.” During the campaign, Golden had said, “You’re not performing your mandate if you’re not willing to confront people. If you pretend you’re an extension of the administration, you shouldn’t be on the board.”

The three-year school-board posts are unpaid and the three highest vote-getters serve on the nine-member board.

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