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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 6, 2010

BKW School Board candidate: Thomas Gagnon

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Thomas Gagnon, 55, has lived in Berne for 14 years, and wants to combine his experience teaching and his creativity as a visual artist to work as a school board member towards a better district.

“The visual arts are all about creative problem solving,” Gagnon told The Enterprise, “and I think that quality is probably a valuable feature on the school board, especially at this time, with things that are changing, and trying to find new ways to solve the problems ahead.”

Gagnon has taught art classes in Albany, Lake George, and Kinderhook, among other places, for preschool up through college, and has substituted at Berne-Knox-Westerlo; he has two children attending school in the district.

What spurred Gagnon’s run for school board was the March 18 school board meeting, the most widely attended meeting this year, where hundreds of district taxpayers and parents poured into the high school auditorium to speak their minds on the district’s budgetary efforts for the 2010-11 school year.

“I think my biggest concern was that the students, the children, were getting lost in the business of education,” Gagnon said. “That was a big concern of mine, as well as whether they and the taxpayers had proper representation, or an advocate, as far as how the school board does the budget, or how they’re negotiating contracts — what effect this process has on them.”

As a school board member, Gagnon would consider himself an advocate for the children, but also as an official that must answer to the community. “So, there’re two sides to that coin,” he said.

Further, Gagnon thinks the next superintendent will take on an important leadership position, and must have a vision for the district.

“It’s my understanding that the superintendent is the chief educational officer in the district, and that kind of leadership is extremely important,” Gagnon said. “This is someone who is able to reach out to all the different groups, building a bridge between either the school board and the community, or the teachers and the administration, or the teachers and the school board, but having that kind of leadership potential.”

Gagnon went on to say that he is not in support of the budget that the district adopted last month.

“I’m not in favor of the budget because I’m not in favor of increasing taxes on one end, and also cutting services on the other end,” he said. “It’s a rural district, and you have people that would have a hard time with a 6.7-percent or 7.5-percent [tax-levy] increase because there are residents that are older, living on assistance, and have 600 to 700 acres; that would be hard to sustain.”

Cutting programs, firing employees, and throwing money at the problem is not the solution, he went on.

“It would be nice to see something in regard to teachers and administration,” said Gagnon, “and what can be dealt with in that section of the budget, and whether that can give some relief.”

Should the budget get voted down on May 18, Gagnon would rather see it taken back to the drawing board, than having the board adopt a contingency budget.

“I think they should continue to work on the budget and put it up again in June and see what happens with that version, and work at whatever they’re hearing from the community until then,” Gagnon said.

He hopes that the May 10 public budget forum will yield some constructive feedback from the community, and that the negotiations between the school board and the teachers’ union are “a little more fruitful.”

“But I’m thinking more in terms of the teachers themselves, as a collective group, coming to some agreement on a real salary freeze, or anything else within their benefit package that would help either alleviate a tax increase, or would put some more services back into the school system,” he said.

The petition that was presented to the school, Gagnon went on, should be encouraging to the school board as a symbol of the district’s involvement in its government.

“I think maybe what’s to be gleaned from this petition is that you have a community who’s actually seriously looking at the problems the district is facing, and the problems that we’re having with the budget in general,” Gagnon said. “I would really hope that this continues, that people continue going to these meetings, and continue speaking out, because there should be that back and forth where the board is hearing that from the community.”

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