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School’s In

Candidates for Albany School Board share their visions for the struggling district

by Darryl McGrath on October 27, 2011

Education funding has been shredded in the past two fiscal years, thousands of teachers in New York have lost their jobs in the last 18 months, and school budgets are barely squeezing in under the new property tax cap. All this begs the question, why would anyone want to serve on a school board right now?

In Albany, three school board candidates of very different backgrounds and experiences have one answer to that question: To make the school system a better place for its students, and by extension make the city a better place for everyone. Voters will choose which two of these three will help guide Albany through the selection of a new superintendent, preliminary discussions of a possible new high school, and the enduring challenges of system that even its staunchest defenders describe as divided by economics, race and achievement.

The school board race comes at an especially difficult time for the school system. The current $206.5 million budget eliminated 37.5 positions, most of them among the instructional staff. The district has cut about 250 positions in the last three years, while straining to meet mandatory programs and expenses and still provide enrichment throughout the district and special help for high-need students. The district expects to send more than $30 million this year to the city’s 11 charter schools—the portion of the local public funding to which they are entitled.

Incumbent Melissa Mackey, a research director who has specialized in criminal justice and social-science data analysis at various public and private agencies, is running for reelection. Also running are Sue Adler, an attorney and longtime community volunteer who has served on several Albany High School committees, and Ginnie Farrell, who worked as a grants writer for arts programs in the Buffalo city schools and served as president of the Albany City Council PTA. All three candidates have children in the school system and all three have a long history of volunteer service in Albany schools.

A series of public forums sponsored by various civic and service organizations in the last two weeks of the race offered the public the best opportunity to hear the candidates sketch out their broad philosophies. In recent interviews outside of the forums, the candidates talked about those philosophies in greater detail.

Mackey wants the school system to continue improving its data analysis of the demographics of different schools, the workings of disciplinary and enrichment programs, and student achievement and placement in academic tiers. Last year, Albany High School opened up admission to its honors courses to all students, no matter what their past academic performance had been—a move that angered and confused a number of parents of children already in the honors program.

“For a long time, it’s been a two-tier system,” Mackey said. “No one is saying, ‘Throw the doors open and come one, come all.’ We’re saying, we need to look at the policies that determine who gets to get into these classes.”

Adler, who cites her background in consensus-building as a board member of the Albany Jewish Community Center, would like to see the school board work more directly with the state to increase state funding on a level more comparable with the so-called “Big Five Districts”— Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City—which receive the majority of their funding from the state in recognition of high levels of poverty and special needs among their students.

Even though Albany is a small city, many of its indicators of high need among school students are proportionately in line with those of the Big Five, Adler notes.

“As a school board member, while I [would be] sensitive to the plight of other districts, I must and will be sensitive to the needs of Albany school children,” Adler said. “Mayor Jennings was able to access money for the city through the PILOT [Payments In Lieu Of Taxes] program. I believe it’s in his best interest and the city’s to get some of that money for the schools.”

Ginnie Farrell is intimately familiar with the needs of a large urban district, based on her work eight years ago as a grants writer for an arts coalition in Buffalo that obtained funding for arts programs in the Buffalo city schools. She has a strong interest in connecting children with arts and enrichment programs, both within the schools and in the community. In Albany, her volunteer work in the schools has included the presidency of the Albany City Council PTA. Her campaign has emphasized meeting the needs of children on a case-by-case basis as much as possible, and she believes that at a time of decreased public funding that businesses and community organizations, as well as the city, have a responsibility to work with the schools.

“We’re talking about looking at students as individuals; it’s not actually happening,” Farrell said.

“It’s not just the school district’s mantle to take this on—it has to be the community’s, too. We need to really say, ‘We can’t do this alone.’”

Whoever ends up filling the two seats on the board will most likely find that exigencies will often supersede long-range dreams for the school system, said board President Dan Egan. It happened to him—he recalls realizing early on that he was spending more time explaining budget cuts than proposing new programs—and it will probably happen to any other board member, especially a first-time member, he said. But he said the entirely volunteer job of school board member can also provide deep satisfaction and a strong connection to the best parts of the city: promising, bright children; involved parents; and committed, activist volunteers.

“I think [serving] is more important than ever when it’s such a tough time,” Egan said. “This is when we find out what our community is made of—when the chips are down.”