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Education Choices

Four candidates vie for two seats on the Albany School Board

School-board races tend to at tract idealists—people who rise from the ranks of parents’ groups and grassroots movements at their children’s schools—even as they tout their experience in management and budget operations in their day jobs.

So it is with the Albany School Board race, where four candidates are vying for the vacancy that occurred when board president Teneka Frost quit last spring, and the additional opening created by current president Bill Barnette’s decision not to run for another term.

The four candidates are Rose Brandon, Dan Egan, Edith Leet and Dan McGinn. None seems fazed at the prospect of taking on what might charitably be called the most thankless volunteer job in the city. A $1.5 billion state budget deficit that’s only going to get larger almost certainly will cut into funding for local school systems. The district is considering closing the underenrolled Livingston Middle School, and may need to address whether Albany still needs a dozen elementary schools, when at least three of them are underenrolled. And 10 charter schools that draw 1,600 students have created the equivalent of two school systems operating in one city.

Brandon is the only black candidate, and would be one of two black members of the seven-member board—along with Melissa Mackey—if elected. In a school system where the population is overwhelmingly low-income children of color, and where some schools are almost entirely black, the racial makeup of the school board is a sensitive topic that many observers recognize, but few discuss publicly.

Brandon graduated from Philip Schuyler High School and the Mildred Elley Business College in Albany. She worked for 38 years at Albany International Press Fabrics, and also earned her master’s and doctorate in theology from the Mid-Hudson Bible Institute in Poughkeepsie. After she retired, she worked for two years as a substitute teacher, and then spent eight years as a teacher’s assistant at Livingston.

“I have experience in the actual classroom,” Brandon says. “I feel this puts me in a unique position to advise the board and the district administration as they advise these groups.”

First among Brandon’s proposals: instituting personalized education plans that assess each student’s academic, social and emotional well being.

At a recent candidates’ forum at the Albany Public Library, Brandon was the only one of the four to say she thinks that public schools “have taken something of a dive” since the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibited official prayers in public schools. That answer came in response to an audience member who noted that she hadn’t heard any of the candidates express their views on the role of faith in the school system, and then asked all four whether they thought the removal of God from the schools was why the schools had “gone downhill.”

Leet and Egan responded by extolling the need for the schools, community-based groups and social-justice efforts in the city to work together for the betterment of schoolchildren, but never directly addressed the removal of prayers from public classrooms. Egan refused to answer the question, saying that candidates’ religious views had no place in a public discussion on the schools because the United States upholds constitutionally protected separation of church and state. Several audience members applauded his response.

Egan holds a master’s degree in secondary education, but works as a division administrator at the Wadsworth Center, which is one of the state health department’s public laboratories. All five of his children went to Montessori Magnet, which he describes as a “magnificent school.” But Egan says he is “really dissatisfied with the way things are running in Albany, both in the city and the school system” and that he feels compelled to be more than an observer.

He says his “data driven” experience at Wadsworth—which includes budget and personnel management, and experience with contracts and procurement—equips him for dealing with the school system’s $206 million budget. He predicts that state and federal aid will remain static for now and says that “we need to be sure we’re really getting the best result for every dollar that we have, and I don’t think we’re doing that right now.”

Egan agrees that Livingston should be closed—although he wishes there had been more public input as the board moved toward that decision. He favors the concept of a K-through-8 school—modeled after North Albany Academy—and says this model would relieve parents of the concern that their children “would be bussed all over town” to a middle school if Livingston closes.

Leet has a master’s degree in English and is certified to teach English and Social Studies in grades 7-12. She is retired from the State Education Department, where she was involved in writing and editing curricula and Regent’s exams. She still runs her own educational editing firm. Her two children went through the Albany Public Schools, and she has more than two decades of experience as a volunteer in the school system.

Leet describes herself as having a “very strong social-justice view” and she sees a connection between the poverty in the city and many of the problems in the school system.

She is running, she said, “because I have been increasingly upset at the reputation the schools have and the growth of the charter schools. . . . We’re the capital of New York state and the motto of the state is ‘Excelsior,’ and we should have schools that are second to none.”

Leet favors creating a volunteer coordinator’s position for the school system, and would like to improve the communications between Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and School Superintendent Eva Joseph.

Dan McGinn acknowledges that he used to say he would move out of Albany as soon as the oldest of his four children approached middle school. But with two children now at the Albany School of Humanities, and two more getting ready to enter the Albany school system, McGinn says he’s seeing the schools as one of the city’s strongest assets.

“Our schools are good,” says McGinn, an administrative law judge for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. “The middle schools and the high school have some incredible programs. I’m here for the long run.”

McGinn isn’t sure the much-discussed idea of developing more “feeder schools” that keep the same group of children from kindergarten through middle school is practical, because many Albany elementary schools have large numbers of transient students. Instead, McGinn suggests that the school system find a way to keep children who start at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year in that school for the entire year, even if their family moves to a different part of the city.

He also would like to see the creation of a citizen advisory board of parents and community leaders for the school budget process.

“There’s seven of us on the school board,” McGinn says. “We need that independent input.”

—Darryl McGrath

What a Week

One to Rule Them All

Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian finally won out over the City Council commission in the lengthy battle over whether or not one, or both, of their charters would be on the Nov. 4 ballot. The state Appellate Division ruled 4 to1 that Supreme Court Judge John Egan had misruled, based on the Municipal Home Rule Law, when he allowed that both charter propositions could be on the ballot. This is, more than likely, the end of the contentious fight to rewrite Troy’s laws, and now it is up to the voters. See what we at Metroland think of the mayor’s commission’s charter in our endorsements section.

Stimulate the States

Gov. David Paterson was in Washington this week trying to convince members of the House of Representatives to pass a bailout package that would benefit states. Paterson testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, saying, “The great states of this country are facing huge deficits, without the resources to affect them.” Paterson asked Congress to invest money in rebuilding infrastructure like bridges and roads, increase spending and access to food stamps and increase the number of federal block grants to states. “The most essential way the House and Senate can help our country is to reinvest and reignite the engine of our economy, which we see as our states.”

Rudy for Sandy

Rudy Giuliani was scheduled to visit the 20th Congressional District to endorse Republican candidate Sandy Treadwell as of press time on Wednesday. Treadwell, who has been fighting an image of being a rich outsider in his primarily rural district, will have the help of New York City’s most famous tough-on-crime, cross-dressing mayor. His opponent, Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, counts New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as an ally, and Clinton has been sending out e-mail requests for donations on behalf of Gillibrand lately. Clinton so far is not scheduled to visit the region.

The One to Watch

The race for the 112th is drawing big money and big interests

Tony Jordan and Ian McGaughey are clear about one thing: Neither of them are career politicians. They are just two small businessmen running for the 112th New York State Assembly District, which comprises the strip of Washington, Saratoga and Rensselaer Counties that borders Vermont. While the area’s race may seem the same as any other in the area, the bottom line that separates the fight for the 112th is money. The district is facing a potential economic boom, and as a result, these candidates are among some of the most well-funded by both the Republican and Democratic election committees in the state.

The town of Malta has just been named as the site for the new Advanced Micro Devices plant. The California-based AMD is one of the world’s largest producers of computer hardware, and its plans for a new location in Saratoga County have left both Jordan and McGaughey smiling.

“AMD will be a great thing for this region,” said Democrat McGaughey. “I think it shows what happens when you have state government, our education system and the high-tech industry come together and work together. Not only does it mean 1,400 jobs right on the Luther Forest site, but we also anticipate 5,000 spin-off jobs.” Whether the spin-off jobs are for delivery companies or local restaurants, McGaughey said that “the jobs will be the engine that will drive existing small businesses to grow, and help new businesses realize their dreams.”

Jordan, a Republican, said, “The AMD announcement has certainly been received with great excitement in Malta. It provides wonderful opportunities for Malta and the surrounding communities.” His vision for improving the district also includes an investment in farming. “When you think of cheese, do you think of New York, or do you think of Vermont and Wisconsin? When you think of maple syrup, what comes to your mind?”

Jordan said the success of those farmers outside New York and their products was brought about by effective branding, and that is something Jordan, who married into a family of dairy farmers, wants to bring to upstate New York.

“That doesn’t happen by accident,” said Jordan. “That’s an investment of true economic development. . . . The state should be out in front as a partner, not an obstacle to the success of those businesses.”

McGaughey, while supporting the $1.2 billion in tax breaks that attracted AMD, also wants to put small-business initiatives through the Assembly.

“If we can loosen some of the regulations that tie the hands of small business. . . . We can increase the accessibility of low-interest loans to help entrepreneurs make their dreams reality,” he said. McGaughey also explained his plan to foster nascent businesses using incubator centers, which help entrepreneurs learn how to build their business.

“When I started my businesses, there wasn’t one location to find out everything you needed to know about insurance and worker’s comp,” McGaughey said. With these incubators, he hopes to “provide the resources to folks so they know what they’re up against, and give them a helping hand along the way.”

But surrounding the candidates and issues themselves is the outpouring of money from the Republican and Democratic Assembly campaign committees into this one race. According to disclosure reports, the DACC so far has given McGaughey $300,000, and Jordan has received $303,000 from the RACC.

This makes McGaughey the most well-funded Democrat in this year’s Assembly races. Assemblyman Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes), co-chair of the DACC, explained the investment. “He is doing very well. It’s a competitive race, and we think he can win it. And I’m willing to invest in his campaign.”

Rensselaer County Democratic Chairman Tom Wade echoed that rationale. “They must feel that he’s a winner. I think he’s a very viable candidate, for starters. There’s no incumbent running. We have a candidate with a proven record of successful runs for office,” he said, referring to McGaughey’s involvement with the Wilton Town Board since 2001. On the other hand, “the Republicans nominated an unknown. He’s not from the area; to my knowledge, very few people know him.”

Wade said he and Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Larry Bulman talked McGaughey into running because “he’s a progressive young guy. He has a record in office. In fact, the last time he ran he was elected in a town where Democrats haven’t won in years and years.”

Originally, McGaughey was set to run against longtime incumbent Republican Roy McDonald, who is vacating his 112th seat for a shot at the 43rd Senate District, previously held by Joe Bruno.

“When Roy dropped out, things changed, and then it became an open seat, which makes [McGaughey] a more viable candidate than if he was running against an incumbent,” Wade said. “It was a benefit, certainly. I know the DACC wouldn’t be as heavily involved if he was running against an incumbent Republican. But once it becomes an open seat, then it’s a whole new game.”

—Allie Garcia

Loose Ends

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