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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 10, 2011

Creating a stir
School board president write political letter “as a private citizen”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Colleen O’Connell believes that her role as president of the Guilderland School Board does not negate her role as a citizen.

She wrote a letter critical of Peter Golden, who ran against Bryan Clenahan to represent the 30th District in the Albany County Legislature. The cost of circulating the letter was borne by the Clenahan campaign.

Golden ran on the Republican line to challenge Clenahan, the incumbent Democrat, and lost; he received 39 percent of the vote to Clenahan’s 61 percent. (See related story.)

“I don’t think by being on the school board for the past seven years, I’ve given up my right to be an active citizen,” O’Connell told The Enterprise on Election Day.

Asked yesterday what effect he thought O’Connell’s letter had on his victory, Clenahan said, “You’d have to ask the voters.”

Both Clenahan and O’Connell are lawyers.

Clenahan stressed, “The campaign paid for the letter, did the production, and mailed it out. The school district was not involved in any way, shape, or form. Colleen wrote it as a private citizen, acting on her First Amendment rights.”

Tim Burke, a school district resident who has been active in Guilderland budget sessions, wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week stating that school board members should not be involved in party politics and that O’Connell’s letter “raises serious questions” about her continuing on the school board.

O’Connell points out that the letter ends with an italicized sentence under her signature stating, “This letter is written by me as a private citizen and not as a member of the Guilderland School Board.”

“This claim strikes me as disingenuous,” states Burke. “In her role as a private citizen, Ms. O’Connell would not know Mr. Golden or have any real influence in the community.”

Golden was elected to the Guilderland School Board for one term, from 2005 to 2008; he was defeated in his bid for re-election. Golden was frequently outspoken on the board and used a confrontational style.

At his very first meeting as a school board member in July 2005, Golden spoke in favor of a proposal to keep elementary school doors locked for security. When some board members objected to this plan, Golden proposed that, if a child were to be harmed by an intruder who would have been kept out by a locked door, then one of the board members who voted against the locked-door policy should be required to inform the family of the tragedy. That motion was soundly defeated.

Sometimes his prodding was effective; for example, it led the board to reevaluate the way it handled health-insurance coverage.

While many of the board members came to their posts through rising up the ranks of school PTAs, cabinet posts, or volunteer budget advisors, Golden stressed his views as an outsider to the system. And Golden strenuously disagreed, when there were differences, with presenting a unified public stance. For example, when the board was split, 6 to 3, in 2007 on hiring John McGuire as a superintendent, the board president at the time made a motion for “a unanimous ballot” after the initial split vote. Golden cast the sole dissenting vote.

“No conscientious board member would work at cross purposes to a superintendent just because he didn’t vote for him,” Golden told The Enterprise at the time. “That would be terrible for the district and the community.” The meeting to appoint McGuire was held in the early morning at the district office rather than at the regularly scheduled Tuesday evening meeting, which is televised. Golden called to alert the press about the morning meeting.

Carol Kaelin, the widow of school board member Hy Dubowsky and a former Enterprise reporter, also wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week detailing some of the issues in the two years her husband and Golden served together on the school board. Describing O’Connell as a “dedicated school board member,” Kaelin outlines some of the differences O’Connell and the board majority had with Golden and Dubowsky.

“Contextually,” Kaelin writes, “the board at the time seemed too willing to accept the superintendent’s recommendations without thorough examination.” Kaelin concludes, “…if our political system is to yield effective governance, elected officials must be open to alternate views. At the time, the Guilderland school board simply was not.”

O’Connell’s letter

In her election letter, O’Connell describes herself as a Guilderland resident and a registered member of the Republican Party. She twice refers to Golden’s failed bid for re-election to the Guilderland School board and to his failed bid for town supervisor, also on the GOP line, in 2009.

She writes that Golden brought “no experience with school operations” to his school board post and likens it to his lack of knowledge about county government in the current race.

Secondly, O’Connell states that Golden does not work collaboratively with others and describes a “circus-like atmosphere” at many school board meetings during his tenure. “This was ‘gotcha’ politics at its worst,” she writes. “Conflict for its own sake as an approach is, I would submit, unproductive at best and destructive at worst.”

Asked what prompted her to write the letter, which was mailed earlier this week, O’Connell said, “I know Bryan Clenahan and think he’s doing a great job for his district.” She went on, referring to a letter she wrote to the Enterprise editor, published in 2009 when Golden was running for Guilderland supervisor, “Some people remembered the letter I wrote two years ago…I offered to recast it.”

O’Connell also said, “I’m not a frequent letter writer to The Altamont Enterprise. I’m not trying to use my school board service in any way.”

O’Connell lives in the 28th District, not in the 3oth District where Golden challenged Clenahan. O’Connell said that, as an at-large school board member, “I represent the people in Bryan Clenahan’s district. I wanted them to be aware of my three-year experience with Mr. Golden.”

Burke criticizes O’Connell’s letter for not mentioning her husband’s connection with Albany County. Her husband is a lawyer with Hodgson Russ, working on municipal finance.

“My husband does do work for the town of Guilderland,” O’Connell said on Tuesday, noting that it was “a very small part of his client base.” O’Connell went on, “I’m not involved with his business. He may well do business with the county. I don’t believe he works with the legislature. I certainly wasn’t trying to hide that,” she said.

Golden, an author, said yesterday of O’Connell’s letter, “It’s so inappropriate on so many different levels…Historically, the people who created school boards went out of their way to separate politics from schools boards…Forget the personal nature; the greater concern for the community is the school board president is not supposed to be in politics, particularly if there’s any hint of a conflict of interest…I would have said that even if she were supporting me.”

“If I reflect upon my current school board experience in the past year,” concluded O’Connell, who was unanimously elected president in July,  “and how collaborative it’s been with my colleagues, and how much we’ve accomplished…and then I reflect on the three years Mr. Golden was on the school board, his behavior was so disruptive and extreme…that I felt compelled to write.”

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