Five of the six candidates running for three Board of Education seats met at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on April 30. Incumbents Thomas Ham and Donald Tucker and challengers Robert Thomann, James Mooney and Raymond Michael Maclary answered questions on a variety of topics, from taxes to education policy in Albany. Incumbent Richard Petramale did not attend.
Candidates were asked what they would say to Gov. Cuomo if he were standing before them. All expressed unhappiness with Cuomo’s policies.
Thomann, who meets with legislators as part of his work as a school administrator, took Cuomo to task for not meeting with teachers and administrators when crafting policy.
Ham said he was “disgusted” with the manipulation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and how much funding districts have lost. Maclary said funding should be fairly distributed to school districts so every child is able to get needed services.
Mooney said it was wrong for public money to be used for private charter schools and alleged that the cost of all the mandates, as well as the funding lost through the GEA, were an attempt to cripple public schools.
Involving parents and community
There were several questions submitted by the audience about the relationship between the board and parents, including how the candidates would handle disagreements with parents and how to foster better communication.
One sticking point was the issue of calling parents a “special-interest group,” a name which has been applied in particular to parents critical of testing and recent district policy. Thomann took issue with this label, saying it doesn’t foster a culture where parents are appreciated. Ham disagreed that the label was problematic, explaining that calling people a special-interest group didn’t have to be a negative thing. Ham said he enjoyed hearing from such groups, who tend to be knowledgeable about the subjects they discuss.
Another issue of contention was transparency. The incumbents disagreed with the charge that the board was not transparent. They said all their meetings, including committee meetings, are publicized. Ham added that all regular board meetings eventually air on the public access channel.
Challengers gave examples of how the district could be more transparent. Maclary noted that other districts like Onteora make information, such as how to run for the Board of Education, easily accessible on their website.
Mooney agreed that the Saugerties district website was not user-friendly, and also brought up the opt-out numbers, which other districts readily made public to the community. Thomann, too, touched on the opt-out numbers, asking why the district delayed in releasing those numbers when they might have helped parents make a decision about whether or not to have their child take the test. He also wondered why the Local Assistance Plan (a state-required document to address shortfalls identified in testing) at the junior high school had not been made public for the community to view.
Thomann also spoke of his experiences as a parent coming before the board. He said he had been “rebuffed.” He pointed to other local districts that held forums that engaged parents in dialogue. Maclary said he had witnessed the stifling of parents who sought to speak before the board, and agreed that a forum would be a good way to begin an open dialogue.
The incumbents said they listen respectfully to those who address the board. Ham said the board had never stifled a parent, though they were constrained by the three-minute speaking time allotted by policy, and that additional minutes were always approved by the board if requested. He acknowledged that additional special meetings without such constraints would be a good idea. Tucker said that a better effort could be made to listen to the PTA. He gave credit to those parents who have advocated for their children before the board.
When asked how they would work to keep taxes low, several candidates noted that the bulk of the district’s expenditures are fixed due to contractual obligations. Tucker pointed out that, as part of those contractual obligations, teachers had not received a raise for the last two years, noting they had been “respectful” of the need for the district to reduce costs.
The candidates raised several possible ways the district could save additional funds. Ham mentioned the importance of being proactive with building and grounds maintenance. Maclary suggested collaborating with other groups to pool resources. Mooney raised the topic of testing, and said a reduction in testing could save funds.
The election for Board of Education trustees will be held on May 19 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the district’s four elementary schools.