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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 24, 2009

Process questioned
School board recommends Genzano to fill vacant seat

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — From a field of eight candidates, the school board plans to appoint Emilio Genzano to fill the seat left vacant when John Dornbush died in July.

Genzano, who lost school board elections in 2001 and 2002, is the assistant vice president for engineering and construction at Albany Medical Center. He and his wife, Jill, have three children — a Guilderland graduate and two students still in the district.

“I told you I wouldn’t give up,” Genzano said during a televised session on Sept. 16, during which the eight candidates answered a series of questions prepared by two board members and the assistant superintendent for human resources.

The school board chose Genzano during a closed meeting directly after the televised session. A vote in public is scheduled for the board’s Oct. 6 meeting, at which time Genzano is to take office. He’ll serve until the May 18 election.

 “I was honored, of course, and somewhat surprised,” Genzano told The Enterprise this week. “The candidates were all qualified.”

The other candidates were: Stephen Anderson, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in public administration; Michael Borges, the director of the New York State Library Association; William Brinkman, a former school board member who owns a consulting business, the Center for Educational Funding; William Goergen, a retired architect; Elijah Sharma, who ran for the school board last year as a high school student and is now a college student studying political science; Allan Simpson, the comptroller for the New York State Insurance Fund, who ran for the school board last May; and Bruce Smith, the vice president for enrollment management at Excelsior College.

Asked what he thought made him stand out among the eight, Genzano answered, “I don’t like to talk about myself.” After reflecting a moment on the interview, he said, “One thing I made a point of — you learn from the experiences with your kids.”

Asked if he plans to run in the May election, Genzano said, “That is my intent as long as I know I’m doing a good job. It would be a waste of everybody’s time if I didn’t….I’ve got a lot to learn in a short time.”

Genzano concluded, “Hopefully, I can make a difference.”

Open process?

The board decided in August that a special election, at $4,000 to $7,000, would be too costly, and planned instead what members called an open and transparent appointment process. However, Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said the process used by the Guilderland board violates New York’s Open Meetings Law.

Board President Richard Weisz said on Friday that he was surprised the board had reached a decision so quickly; he had originally thought deliberations would extend to the Oct. 6 meeting.

Asked what led the board to select Genzano over the others, Weisz said that was “privileged” information from the executive session, and declined comment.

He did say, “We had eight superior candidates and we had to pick one.” (For profiles of all eight of the candidates, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Sept. 17, 2009.)

There are two ways in which the process used by Guilderland runs afoul of the law, Freeman said. The first is that, although the law allows matters leading to the appointment of an employee to be discussed in closed session, that exception does not apply to elected positions, where part of the election process is “telling the world,” said Freeman. There is one, and only one, judicial decision on the issue, from the state’s Supreme Court in Sullivan County.

“The court said that the process of filling a vacancy for an elected position does not qualify,” for discussion in closed session, said Freeman.

However, he went on, “It’s not clear to me that every court would reach the same conclusion.”

Superintendent John McGuire responded through The Enterprise, “We’re fortunate to live in a community where eight people would step forward…Think of the impact on volunteerism if a board would deliberate on their relative merits in public. I’m very comfortable with how the district handled the process.”

While the first violation may be debatable, Freeman said the second is “crystal clear.”

The district sent out a press release on Sept. 17, the day after the televised session and closed meeting, stating that the board “recommended” Genzano for the post and noting, “Genzano is expected to be formally appointed by the board at its meeting on Oct. 6….”

The law requires that elected boards take action in public.

“They have not voted,” McGuire said on Friday.  “They’ve settled.”

He also said Genzano had accepted the expected appointment and that the other candidates had been told of the recommendation.

Freeman said that case law dealing with a board’s reaching consensus to choose someone makes clear that it needs to be done in public session. “The board could not have validly done so any place but an open session,” he said. “It’s obvious if they announced a choice that action was taken.”

Asked how the board will likely vote on Oct. 6, McGuire said, “I think it will probably be unanimous.” He added, “I don’t want to presume what the board will do.”

He also said that deliberating about candidates in public was not how things were done at Guilderland.

History of filling vacancies

Dornbush, who had served on the nine-member school board for a decade, died after a four-and-a-half year battle with cancer. Earlier in the year, in March, school board member Hy Dubowsky died of cancer. No appointment was made then; the post was filled after the May election.

Earlier, two other board members — Victor Duma in 2004 and Laura Letson in 1996 — resigned before their three-year terms expired and, in both of those cases, the board decided not to appoint but rather decided to wait for the next general election to fill the posts.

The last time the board made an appointment unrelated to an election was in 1995 when Alan Kotmel resigned before his term was up. The board appointed a recently retired member, Gordon Purrington, who said he had no plans to run again, and didn’t. Discussion about that appointment was in public as was the vote.

Genzano had run for the Guilderland School board twice before. In 2001, Genzano came in last in a four-way race for three seats; he ran against Victor Duma and incumbents Thomas Nachod and Barbara Fraterrigo.  The next year, he came in fifth in a six-way race. Incumbents William Brinkman, David Picker, and John Dornbush kept their seats; Carol Kaelin finished fourth and David Langenbach was last.

Genzano’s views

During the televised session on Sept. 16, candidates were asked seven questions by student moderator Katie Bender while the school board members listened and took notes.

When candidates were asked to tell about themselves, Genzano described himself as a father of three with a background of architectural engineering and a degree from Penn State.

He said his oldest son, Emilio Jr., graduated from Guilderland in 2009 and is now a student at the State University of New York College at Brockport. His second son, Joseph, is in the BOCES program, and his daughter, Maria, is a student at Westmere Elementary School.

Genzano has been a Guilderland Pop Warner board member and helped found the Challenger League for players with special needs. Because he has a son with muscular dystrophy, he told The Enterprise last week, “I understand special needs.”

“Education is paramount,” said Genzano during the Sept. 16 interview. “It’s very important to our family…Our children are our best teachers.”

He said his son had texted him that evening to ask, “Why are you doing this?” Genzano told his son that he had gotten help when he needed it and now Genzano wanted to give that opportunity to others. “I have a passion for helping,” he said.

Asked how the board of education balances the needs of students, staff, and taxpayers, Genzano said, “You start by listening,” which he said was “the number-one thing.” Board members must “have the ability to analyze the data and feedback from the community,” he said.

“You have to trust, and trust the people…are telling you exactly what they’re experiencing,” he said. “You have to trust the superintendent...our educational leader,” he went on. “Adapt that to the ultimate piece, taking care of the kids.”

Asked to describe the primary responsibilities of the board of education and its individual members, Genzano said, “I’m a team player kind of guy.” He said each member of the board has to do what he or she is best at, and work together.

He named four issues that the board as a whole must grapple with — governing, reviewing policy, watching dollars, and following laws and regulations.

Asked how he would weigh community input when making decisions on the board, Genzano said, “Of course, weighing community input is very important…You have to make sure facts are presented in the right…context. So, when you get that input back, it is useable.”

Genzano also said, “Kids are very powerful. They have a lot of energy. They can make their input.”

Asked about his participation on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee and how its structure could be improved, Genzano said he had served on the committee twice and found the sessions “enlightening.”

He called the committee “an opportunity for us to learn more about our district.” He went on, “Although some would want immediate gratification for change,” that might not be possible but the committee discussion allowed for the “opportunity for change next time.”

On the relationship between a board and a superintendent, Genzano said the goal is “to be the best that we can be.” He continued, “There is trust; there is support; there is understanding.”

Genzano concluded, “We try to be the best that we can be so we trust and support each other; it’s that simple.”

For the final question, the eight candidates were asked why they wanted to be on the board and what were their three priorities for the district.

“Education, to me, means opportunity,” said Genzano. “Some of us learn that while we’re in school. Some of us learn that later. But at some point, it always boils down to education is opportunity.”

He went on, “I was the first one in my family to graduate from college.”

Having just turned 50, and feeling some effects of age, Genzanao said, “I wouldn’t want to be doing what my father was doing.”

He went on, “I want to instill that in my kids…and other kids in our district. I want to try to better the district with the qualities and values I have.”

His second priority, Genzano said, is to “try to instill … pride and desire in parents and children and staff…to be proud of what they accomplish and to be patient. You don’t always get something in a year. Sometimes, it takes four years; sometimes, it takes eight years.” What’s important, he said is not to “lose that vision, but have pride in yourself. That will keep going.”

Third, Genzano concluded, “Try to give education regardless of ability or disability.”

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