SARATOGA SPRINGS — This year’s Board of Education elections have proven to be politically charged, as it’s captivated the attention of opinionated community members. Thursday, April 10, Saratoga Unites Inc., an organization that hosts open forums for local elections, extended this activity to the Saratoga Springs School Board election’s candidates.
“It’s so important to get the community out here and hear what they have to say,” said Nora Brennan, the Executive Vice President of Saratoga Unites, and the moderator of the evening.
Five of the seven invited candidates in attendance were given two minutes to introduce themselves and their platform, followed by an anonymous question portion where the attendees wrote questions that were placed anonymously in a jar for a drawing.
“Safety, we all know that’s sort of the elephant in the room tonight,” said Shaun Wiggins, the most recent candidate to join the race. That elephant got addressed early in the night when a question read, “Do you favor armed school grounds monitors or do you agree with the board decision against arming them? Please provide information, facts, and research to support your position and please explain why those who disagree with you are wrong.”
Heather Reynolds, the only one of the seven candidates who is a current sitting board trustee stated, “I supported the hiring of another SRO. I did not vote to continue the practice of having armed grounds monitors.”
Reynolds continued to summarize that the focus needs to be on establishing preventative methods including comprehensive threat assessments, bullying intervention and creating a positive school climate.
Wiggens and Ed Cubanski, who are endorsed by Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools (SPFSS) agree that there needs to be armed security within the schools; however, Cubanski who served 28 years in the United States Coast Guard, believes the medium should be through arming the grounds monitors preferably to SROs, and Wiggens is in favor of SROs as they are supervised by the Sherriff’s department.
“The Saratoga model has two resource officers who are active police officers. And the grounds monitors are retired law enforcement professionals…I know what it takes to get weapon proficient and judgment proficient. Having those experienced grounds monitors gives you that experience. Nothing beats experience,” said Cubanski.
Natalya Lakhtakia, a Speech and Language Pathologist, and John Brueggemann, a sociology professor at Skidmore College, both agree that the grounds monitors should not be armed but agree with the current presence of the two SRO’s in the district.
“I believe that anybody who’s carrying a lethal weapon around children needs ongoing and comprehensive training. I think that ongoing is the key word there,” said Lakhtakia.
"The grounds monitors do not work for the police department or the sheriff’s department. They work for the school district,” said Brueggermann. “As retired law enforcement they have no special training for working with young people or special needs kids. School Resource Officers have had some of that training.”
The first question of the night was conveniently, “What is the purpose of the school board?”
In their own way, the candidates were able to decipher that the board’s responsibility is to regulate and influence policies that affect the wellbeing and prosperity of all students in the district. This doesn’t pose as an easy task if there are noticeable disparities due to access and income. Each candidate stated they would like to take the time to research, learn and educate on how to rid this concern.
When asked, “What issues are you concerned about that you feel are not getting enough focus since the grounds monitor issues have overshadowed all others?” Answers ranged from identifying at-risk students, racial disparities regarding discipline, economic disparities, youth mental health, and budget.
Both Cubanski and Brueggermann stated that there needs to be a focus on identifying and assisting at-risk students, and mitigating daily threats to a student’s safety, and overall wellbeing.
Lakhtakia mentioned that students interested in taking an AP (advanced placement) class, are required to take the AP test, which is at a cost per AP subject. “What that means is that AP classes which are more challenging become inaccessible to children who are from lower socio-economic classes, or for whatever reason cannot pay for the test.... that feeds into a larger topic about accessibility.”
Reynolds cited statements from the Office for Civil Rights through the Department of Education showing racial disparities when it comes to suspension rates across the Capital Region.
“Saratoga is one of the larger ones in terms of suspension rates when you compare African Americans and white students,” said Reynolds. “This is a problem across the country, but it is a problem in our own school. That’s something as well as some state testing data that came out this spring, which is suggesting that we are not doing what we need to do for certain groups of students."
“What I primarily want to focus on besides safety, education, transparency is really budget, because everything we’re talking about now ladders up to the budget, period. We want to do a lot of things but guess what, we’ve got to pay for it,” said Wiggens.
Due to the abundance of questions submitted only nine of the questions were asked at the forum. However, Saratoga Unites has transcribed and published the unasked questions of the night on their website in addition to sending them to the candidates. The remaining unanswered questions may be addressed at the candidates’ discretion.
There are three seats available on the Board of Education. Voting for the School Board candidates will be held May 21, 2019.