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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 21, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The school district’s $85 million budget passed by a comfortable margin Tuesday, ushering in a full-day kindergarten program.
School board President Richard Weisz had said the budget vote would serve as a referendum on the controversial move from a half-day program.
Weisz, running for a fourth term, narrowly kept his seat, coming in third in a five-way race.
Julie Cuneo, a Guilderland native making her first run, was the top vote-getter by a wide margin. She was followed by incumbent Denise Eisele, who won a second three-year term.
Weisz and Eisele had backed the $85 million spending plan that will bring a .58-percent tax hike, estimated at 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for Guilderland residents. Eisele and Weisz were also both supported by the Guilderland Teachers’ Association.
Cuneo, who ran as an independent and did not seek endorsement from the teachers’ union, opposed the budget. She said she could not support the budget because, with larger class sizes and cuts in teaching assistants, the quality of education will suffer.
Allan Simpson, an accountant making his first run, also opposed the budget. He came in a close fourth. Simpson had urged residents to vote down the budget to send a message to the board; he wanted to see no tax increase at all.
Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior, came in fifth. He ran as an openly gay candidate on a platform that included putting an end to bullying, increasing transparency on the school board, keeping teaching assistants, and reducing class sizes. Sharma, who had helped lead massive student protests last summer over the transfer of two teachers, had said people should vote for him as opposed to voting down the budget as a sign of protest.
Applause greeted announcement of the budget tallies at Guilderland Elementary School on Tuesday night. The school budget passed at each of the five elementary school polling places for an overall vote, according to an official tally made by the district yesterday, of 1994 to 1423 58 percent of the vote.
The bus proposition passed by an even wider margin, 2,069 to 1,329 61 percent of the vote. This allows the district to purchase nine new buses and a plow truck at a total cost of $791,830. About 60 percent of the bus purchase comes back to Guilderland in state aid.
“I am very gratified at the support of our community,” said Superintendent John McGuire just after the tallies were read. Lauding “community input” on the budget, he said the “eight months of hard work” had been the most open process in a district known for its budget process.
Across the state, voters approved a record 97.3 percent of school district budgets on Tuesday, according to the New York State School Boards Association. The average passage rate since 1969 is 83 percent.
The budgets voted on statewide on Tuesday, for the 2009-10 school year, had an average tax levy increase of 1.89 percent, according to the association; the average tax-levy increase has been decreasing over the past five years from 6.89 percent in 2005.
Concerned about the governor’s proposal to cut state aid by $2.7 million, Guilderland had initially presented a citizens’ review committee with a budget that cut 47 jobs. Once federal stimulus money restored those funds, the district revised its plan. The cutting of teaching assistants and the implementation of a full-day kindergarten program became controversial issues. Board members agreed that the full-day program would be better than the current half-day program but were wary of the price about $600,000 annually with the first year to be covered by state transition aid.
“We’ve landed in a place that is very good for our students,” said McGuire on Tuesday night.
On the school board race, he said, “The idea our community generates such quality candidates doesn’t happen in every district. It’s very gratifying.”
As board members waited for results to be tallied after the polls closed, reports from different polling places came in. As it looked like Weisz’s losing his seat was a possibility, Weisz repeatedly commented that passing the budget, with full-day kindergarten, was what was important.
“They want me to win more than I want to win,” Weisz said of other board members.
“Yes, we do,” said board member Judy Slack.
“He showed a lot of courage this budget season by not sitting back and being careful,” said Eisele. “He really talked about how he believed in full-day kindergarten...He took a risk and I’m proud of him.”
“If I lose, it’s OK,” said Weisz, who works as a lawyer. “I have things to do with my life. To me, the most important thing is passing the budget.”
He said of bearing the brunt of media criticism over the way the student protests were handled last summer, “It goes with the job of being president...I did what I thought was the right thing to do.”
Voter turnout was up 8 percent this year over last; 3,417 people voted in a district that has over 30,000 residents. Several onlookers said more young people were voting, speculating that Sharma’s campaign had energized them. Sharma launched his campaign with a press conference and garnered endorsements from far-flung places. He created a web page and said he was using social networking sites and Twitter to promote his campaign.
“Whether he won or not, I think he increased awareness of the process for students,” said Yvette Terplak, a retired Altamont Elementary School teacher.
Karen Covert-Jones brought with her Tuesday a slip of paper she had found on her car on Monday night, the eve of the election. Several said the unsigned flyers, which targeted Weisz and Eisele, were distributed throughout western Guilderland.
“Stop Superintendent McGuire from Eliminating all Teaching Assistants,” it said. “Vote NO to Richard Weisz-McGuire and Denise Eisele-McGuire.”
“I’d rather have people who are concerned about issues come forward so there’s a dialogue,” said Eisele of the anonymous flyers.
The results reported here were tallied by the district on Wednesday and, according to board Clerk Linda Livingston, include 14 affidavit ballots as well as the voting-machine results. Altogether, 32 affidavit ballots were submitted, she said, but 18 could not be verified as qualified voters.
Julie Cuneo received 25.6 percent of the vote, garnering 2,266 in all for her first-place win.
She came in first at all five elementary school polling places.
“I’m stunned and delighted and at the same time humbled and cautious,” Cuneo said on election night, reached by phone in South Carolina in the midst of a family reunion.
A Guilderland High School graduate, Cuneo said she thought the fact that she grew up in, and has deep ties to, the community might have played a part in her besting the two incumbents.
A nurse practitioner, Cuneo and her husband, Brian, a lawyer, have four children.
Cuneo said during the campaign that she was running because she cares about quality education and she cares about kids.
She did not seek the endorsement of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, she said on Tuesday, because she “wanted to remain independent and not beholden.”
As a former union member, she went on, she supports unions and, now that she’s elected, plans to work productively with the GTA.
Cuneo said that, as she put her 6-year-old to bed Tuesday night, her daughter said, “Mom, I know you want small class sizes and teachers.”
“I was surprised she knew what I was most passionate about,” said Cuneo.
Her 5-year-old daughter then revealed that balloons were hidden in the closet to celebrate her win.
The balloons came out, Cuneo said with a laugh.
Denise Eisele got 21.1 percent of the vote, receiving 1,864 to come in second.
She came in second at Altamont, Guilderland, Pine Bush, and Westmere, and finished third at Lynnwood.
“I think I’ve shown people I work hard, I care about kids, and I listen to people,” Eisele said on election night.
A registered nurse, Eisele and her husband George, a doctor, have six adopted children.
In her upcoming term, Eisele, who chairs the board’s communication committee, said she looks forward to improving communication “on all levels.”
She said she is also interested in following up on a recent study the district had done on supervisors, particularly as it affects special education.
“It has the potential to be very controversial,” said Eisele. “I think there will be a sense of fear on what the change is going to be…That’s a big thing I’m personally very concerned about because my kids all have special needs.”
Eisele also said that she was “thrilled” the budget passed. “This was a tough year. To come in at that low a level,” she said of the 1.79-percent increase over the current year “was really well done.”
Richard Weisz got 18.8 percent of the vote, garnering 1,659 to come in third.
He was third at Altamont, Guilderland, and Westmere, and fourth at Lynnwood and Pine Bush.
After the election results were announced Tuesday night, Weisz noted, “I’ve always come in second or third.”
He had considered not seeking a fourth term but, because of the recession, decided his expertise would be valuable.
A partner in the Albany office of Hodgson Russ, LLP, Weisz said during the campaign that he had represented a lot of debtors and had worked with commercial restructuring.
With the federal stimulus money ending after two years, Weisz said, “It’s a chance for a transition to a brave new, possibly cold, world.” He added that, during his next three-year term, “Almost all of our contracts expire.”
Reviewing the voting results on Tuesday, Weisz said, “Things are pretty much as they always have been.”
He noted, “There’s a little higher number of voters.”
Allan Simpson garnered 18.3 percent of the vote, getting 1,618 votes, to come in fourth.
He was third at Lynnwood and Pine Bush, fourth at Guilderland and Westmere, and fifth at Altamont.
“I’m fine with it,” said Simpson on election night of his fourth-place finish. “You win some, you lose some.”
Simpson, who had served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, had advocated a budget with no tax increase.
In the 10 years that he and his family has lived in Windmill Estates, he said during the campaign, his taxes had doubled. “My wages didn’t double,” he said.
Simpson said Tuesday night that he was not disappointed in the election outcome. He pointed out that he was relatively new in town. “This is the first time I ever ran,” he said.
Asked if he planned to run again, Simpson replied, “We’ll see what next year brings.”
Elijah Sharma got 16.2 percent of the vote, garnering 1,431 to finish last.
He came in fourth in Altamont and fifth in Guilderland, Lynnwood, Pine Bush, and Westmere.
Sharma said he was disappointed with his finish but went on, “A lot of good things came out of the election. I started a lot of important dialogue…And I know of high school seniors who told me they had gone and registered and voted. Maybe that interest will keep up.”
He added, “Maybe I’ve paved the way to make it easier for a student to be on the board of education.”
Sharma said it was “too early to say” if he would run again.
He thinks his age played a part in his defeat.
“I was glad to see 1,400 did support me,” said Sharma. “It touched me, and I’m happy Julie was the top vote-getter.”