SARANAC LAKE - Voters in the Saranac Lake Central School District have six candidates to consider for three seats on the district's Board of Education.
The race pits three incumbents - Katie Fischer, Debra Lennon and Tracey Schrader - against former board member Miles Van Nortwick and newcomers Nathan Cox and Michelle Hill. Each seat carries a three-year term.
The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the district offices near the Saranac Lake High School auditorium.
Voters will also be asked to approve the district's $27 million budget for the 2012-13 school year, which carries a 2.13 percent increase in the tax levy, as well as the purchase of two school buses for $220,000 and the $134,776 levy for the Saranac Lake Free Library .
The candidates are presented in alphabetical order by last name.
Cox, 26, is the executive director of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living. This is his first attempt at elected office and he's been putting signs up around town. He is married and is in the process of adopting two children who attend school in the district; one in middle school and one in elementary school.
Asked what motivated him to run for school board, Cox said his initial impression was that the school system was "wonderful." As his children got into the district, however, he said he realized that while it has strong teachers and good programs, there are still a lot of problems.
"I was faced with, 'Do I want to be standing outside complaining, or do I want to do something to fix it,' and that's ultimately why I decided to run," he said.
Cox said the biggest problems he sees are with the proposed cuts in the district's 2012-13 budget.
"I was shocked at the areas the district was willing to cut, like special education funding and the teaching and TA positions, but I noticed there were no cuts in administration," Cox said. "I thought, 'We're going to be cutting art, but we're not asking the administration to take cuts?' The consolidation of administrative positions may be a good way to save money without cutting teaching positions or services to students."
Referencing the fact that the district has been trying to address bullying problems, Cox also said it doesn't make sense to cut teachers and teaching assistants, which means less staff patrolling the hallways and classrooms.
Cox said he recognizes that he would be just one vote on the seven-member board if elected, but he said he wouldn't be shy about making his opinion known.
"Everyone on the board has an obligation to the taxpayers, but ultimately the schools exist to educate the children in the district," Cox said. "The biggest thing for me is I don't have any loyalties to the district other than to the children of the school. I don't have any close friends or family that work for the district, and I don't have any agenda outside of seeing the schools be the best possible thing they can be for the kids."
Fischer, 52, is wrapping up her first term on the board. She and her family run the Fireside Steakhouse in Lake Placid. She is married and has three children in the district: a high-school sophomore, an eighth-grader and a fifth-grader.
"I like it, and it's great to be responsible for what happens in our district and have a voice in how things are done," Fischer said. "I love Saranac Lake, and I love our district."
Fischer said the current board works well together and is very transparent. She said it has tried to deliver the best possible education for the district's students in tough fiscal times. The board has closed two elementary schools and cut dozens of positions, mostly through attrition, during her tenure, but Fischer said she doesn't have any regrets.
"It has been painful making those hard choices, but we've looked everywhere we can to try and save money, and I'm very proud of what we've done," she said. "And we're not out of the woods. We've got more tough choices in front of us, and I want to work to stabilize and maintain the quality of education that we've been able to deliver."
One of the biggest issues the board has had to deal with over the last two years was an incident of racially charged-bullying at the middle school in 2010 that spawned a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the district, a tightening up of bullying prevention policies and an aggressive campaign by school officials to promote diversity.
"It was an unfortunate incident, but I think the board and administration was spot-on in handling the situation and seeking out help," Fischer said. "I think we handled the situation the best we could have."
The biggest asset she brings to the job, Fischer said, is her involvement in the schools.
"I'm in the trenches," she said, "whether it's planting flowers or collecting Box Tops. I've got one kid in each school. I care. I'm very visible."
Fischer lived outside of the school district in Lake Placid for about six months starting in August, because she sold her home in Saranac Lake and her new house was still being built. She and her family moved back inside the district in April.
Hill, 46, is the practice manager of Adirondack Surgical Group. She and her husband have four children.
Hill did not return several telephone and Facebook messages left by the Enterprise for this story, but she did provide information to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican and Denton Publications about why she's running.
"I think there has been a real lack of focus by the school board on what it needs to accomplish," Hill told the Press-Republican." I think we need to pare down and do one thing at a time rather than being fragmented in our approach."
Hill said the search for a new superintendent should be a priority for the district.
She also said she thinks the district's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program at the middle school needs to be changed "in order to find a happy medium for current behavior modification practice at the school.
"For me, being involved is very important," Hill told the Press-Republican. "I have a great sense of responsibility with my kids, and I feel the need to become more involved at this stage in their education."
Hill also said she has experience managing budgets and finances in a large organization.
Lennon, 46, is an eight-year veteran of the board and is seeking her third term. She's been board president for the past four years. She is the co-owner of Darrah Cooper Jewelers in Lake Placid, and she and her husband have two daughters, both now in college.
"I decided to run again because our board is working so well together and we need to maintain that continuity, and because next year is going to be a turning point for the district," Lennon said. "We're going to be looking for a new superintendent, and we have to have people on the board who understand what the district is facing. I've been there for eight years, and I know the kind of person our district is looking for, and it's so important to get the right person."
During her tenure, Lennon said the district has seen declining enrollment, closed two schools and cut its budget dramatically, but she said that work has been done without losing any programs.
"In my opinion, we're coming through this relatively unscathed," she said. "It's all done in a very methodical way. Nothing is just hacked because there's no place to hack. Everything is thought out, and there's a reason for it."
Lennon listed the team approach the board has taken to issues over the last three years as an accomplishment. The board is also getting regular reports and presentations on student performance in reading and math, Lennon said, and is trying to foster "a kindler, gentler culture in our schools.
"We're trying to teach kids about respect and integrity, and we have core values we've been stressing for the last two years," Lennon said. "We're trying, as a board, to lead by example."
In dealing with bullying and diversity issues, Lennon said the district has educated its staff and put the appropriate policies in place. She said the school climate has improved.
Asked why the voters should pick her, Lennon cited her experience.
"I don't have an agenda," she said. "I'm going to work hard to make sure our programs stay intact and our taxpayers can afford their tax bills."
Schrader, 46, is wrapping up her first term on the board, and she's also the co-owner of Schrader General Contracting. She and her husband have one son in the district, a junior at the high school.
"I'm running again because I love the job I do," Schrader said. "I feel like we've accomplished a lot of things, particularly with the group that's there right now, like the reading program and the math program. I'd just like to keep the momentum going."
Schrader said she brings the experience of a business owner to the board, which she said has helped in understanding the budget crunch the district has faced the last three years.
"In a perfect world, I wish money and the tax cap weren't issues," she said. "I wish we could offer everything under the sun to our students. But the last few budgets have been difficult, and the next few years are going to be challenging, too.
"I hope people, when they go to the polls, will remember the youth of the community and how important a good education is, and that we as a district have worked extremely hard to bring this budget in line. When you consider the increases in health insurance, pensions and other increases, I hope the taxpayers will see we've worked hard to keep the budget down while providing the best education we can for our children."
Although the district is being sued over a case of bullying, Schrader said school officials handled the incident at the middle school, and its aftermath, as best as they could by bringing in the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, training teachers and staff, and updating school policies.
"I feel we've made great strides," Schrader said.
Schrader is a member of the board's contract negotiating team, and described herself as "seasoned" with five years of experience.
"The most important thing is I'm not running on any agenda, period. And truth be told, I'm not sure that's the case with everyone running. I just care about this district."
Miles Van Nortwick
Van Nortwick, 55, previously served on the board for 10 years, including three as its president. He's a heating and electrical contractor and a camp caretaker. His wife is a third-grade teacher at Petrova Elementary School. They have two children, both of whom have graduated from SLHS.
"I do miss being on the board," Van Nortwick said. "I'm a little concerned, too, with the tough financial times the district is facing. We've cut people that work under the teachers' contract, we've cut support staff on the CSEA contract, but we have not cut anybody under the administrative contract. We're cutting programs, and I'd like to take a more in-depth look at that."
Van Nortwick also said his past experience in superintendent searches could help in the process of replacing Gerald Goldman, who plans to retire at the end of the next school year. Van Nortwick previously took part in the searches that resulted in the hiring of Goldman and former Superintendent Scott Amo.
"One thing that bothers people is the residency thing; I do believe the superintendent should reside in the district," Van Nortwick said. "I was one of the ones who stuck to my guns when Scott Amo moved to Plattsburgh. I would not vote to alter things. I think it's very important that that individual reside in the district."
Van Nortwick also said he's concerned about the state's reliance on standardized testing and said teaching staff have been forced to dedicate too much time on teaching for these tests.
"There isn't a lot I can do about that as a board member, but collectively, if the districts got together and approached the New York State School Boards Association, they could pressure the governor and the Department of Education to make some changes," Van Nortwick said.
Van Nortwick described himself as an advocate for the district's students as well as its taxpayers.
"I think I can jump right in," he said. "I've been attending almost every meeting since December or January. With all the budget cuts, I think a lot of people are demoralized. This is a time when we need to work with our teachers and staff, encourage them and keep a positive attitude."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.