Three incumbents - James Steinhilber, Mark Thompson and board president George Heidcamp - are each running for a second three-year term. Three challengers - Robert Davies, Michael MacIsaac and Timothy Scott Jr. - are hoping to bring some new ideas to the board. The election will be held Tuesday, May 18 at the district's four elementary schools. Absentee ballots are available at the Hildebrant Building on the Junior/Senior High campus, Washington Avenue. Voters will also decide the fate of a $55.1 million budget that carries a tax increase of 21.1 percent. If defeated, the district will face cuts to its sports programs, art and music departments, and many extra-curricular activities.
The candidates were first asked what they hoped to accomplish as a member of the School Board. Of the challengers, MacIsaac is the lone candidate with past experience as a trustee, having served on the board from 2003-2007.
"Foremost, I just want to be an effective board member by working hard for the district and contributing positively to all school district matters," said MacIsaac, a 49, who works in management and mainframe development at IBM. "More specifically, I would like to help improve relations among the teachers, the assistants, the administration and the board, such that drastic measures are not needed to agree on contracts. We as a district can come together more amicably and reach fair and equitable agreements."
Scott, an 18-year-old senior at Saugerties High, also feels there should be a shift in tone.
"First I would like to help establish a better working relationship between the board and the community that it serves," he said. "I would also like to make sure that our district and its students are kept on the path to prosperity. Both of these are an absolute must if any school district is to function properly."
Davies, 36, a New York State corrections officer, cited communication and a need for emergency planning.
"As a board member I would like to maintain the open communication with the board members, administration, and the citizens of the district," he said. "One frontline goal I would like to see is for the board to establish a plan for future emergencies such as the current financial hurdle we are experiencing so there would be minimal impact on the taxpayers and our educational system within Saugerties."
Steinhilber, a 50-year-old corrections officer elected alongside both Heidcamp and Thompson three years ago, stated his case for being afforded the opportunity to continue his work on the board.
"I would like to continue to create a balance between the best education, including a safe and clean environment, for all our students," he said. "But at this end, not create an atmosphere which overburdens our district taxpayers."
Thompson, a 44-year-old IBM employee who works in global procurement and strategic business sourcing, said he'd like to focus on the fiscal situation.
"My continued priority is finance," he said. "To make sure we can afford the education we want our children to have; most importantly, what they ultimately deserve to have. Additionally, raising student achievement is a critical mission for our school system."
Heidcamp, a 63-year-old law enforcement veteran currently on disability, has served as president of the board for the past year after serving two years as vice president.
"I look forward to continuing the process of ensuring that the children of Saugerties are provided with the best possible education," he said. "At the same point, I want to ensure the community that their tax dollars are spent in the most efficient way to provide this education."
MacIsaac and the three incumbents obviously have direct experience serving on this board of education. But each candidate offered a wide range of responses when asked about prior experience that would prepare them to serve.
Scott cited recent on-the-ground familiarity among his qualifications.
"I have always lived and gone to school here in Saugerties," he said. "I have a good understanding of what the tax payers are looking for. Lastly, I have a very good understanding of the inner workings of government and governing bodies, which is what the Board of Education really is."
Davies noted not only personal history in the district, but also that of his children.
"I have lived in Saugerties most of my life, graduating SHS in 1991," he said. "As a single father raising my two girls, ages 11 and 15, in this district I am constantly involved with their activities not only within the school but also with softball, soccer, and various other activities. I also volunteer as a coach, a firefighter, and a member of Eagle Valley Search Dogs."
Steinhilber focused on his board experience.
"I am currently an incumbent candidate who can fully appreciates the task at hand, one who knows albeit from a Board of Education member's perspective, the inner and outer workings of our school district," he said. "I have made difficult decisions and not so difficult decisions while always being mindful they have affected everybody in our district, not just a few."
Thompson cited his trustee, military and professional experience.
"I have spent the last three years as a board member learning all of the ins and outs of the district operations," he said. "The amount of knowledge and experience that I have gained will allow me to be a more effective and contributing member in the future... I have a vast experience in negotiation skills, working large dollar budgets, cost reduction measures and working in large program teams."
He highlighted the importance of experience dealing with labor unions, noting that he has experience negotiating contracts and grievances and hiring new administrators. He also mentioned his experience in the navy, where he worked in the field of electronics warfare, leading "a team in a combat atmosphere responsible for threat identification and providing countermeasure recommendations directly to the Commanding Officer."
He said this experience helped him advance in the corporate world. He began at IBM as a cost engineer, and advanced to a position where he now makes "complex and strategic business sourcing decisions for power systems used in IBM's high end servers."
Heidcamp stuck primarily to district matters in his summation, both as a trustee and a member of the community. He also noted similarities in his professional law enforcement experience.
"I first started attending school board meetings faithfully in the latter part of 2005 and decided to run for a seat in 2007," he said. "During my three years on the board I have maintained a perfect attendance record, and have never missed a board or special board meeting, grievance or P.E.R.B. hearing, negotiations or committee meeting. For the first two years of my term, I served as vice president of the board and was then elected as its president for my third year, where I currently serve. I also served on several sub-committees such as labor relations, facilities, policy, negotiations and grievance committees, as well as liaison to all unions. In my role as police union president, I have had 18 years experience in contract negotiations, grievance procedures, and other labor-related matters, which would be useful to the district, not only generally, but in the upcoming STA [the teacher's union] contract negotiations in particular. By virtue of my position as board president, I serve as ex-officio member of all district committees."
MacIsaac listed four points in response to the question of experience.
"School Board member 2003-2007; Parent of three children in the district; Volunteer presenter during IBM Engineer's Week; Some limited PTA interaction."
Voters will also decide the fate of an operating budget proposal for the 2010-11 school year, which includes an estimated tax levy increase of around 21 percent despite a very modest spending increase and the elimination of over a dozen positions. If the spending plan is voted down, further cuts to personnel and programs have been discussed. Asked how the district can continue to provide a quality education in the face of rising costs, falling state aid and a static tax base, the candidates offered a variety of responses.
Davies said he believed that the district has the personnel in place to deal with the challenges ahead, whatever they might be.
"We have an incredibly vast resource of teachers and staff who are dedicated to their jobs and the children of our community," he said. "I have complete confidence in their abilities with the support from the community to overcome any obstacle put before them. While cutting resources is never a good plan, we will continue to move forward as we develop a resolution to our economic problems."
Steinhilber also expressed confidence in district employees to do whatever necessary to move the district forward, both in the present and future.
"We must persist on managing with whatever is within our means as taxpayers to continue to provide a quality education for our children and grandchildren," he said. "Our district's administration, faculty and staff, I am proud to say, are working tirelessly attempting to thwart off the consequences from cuts to personnel and programs in our school system. I believe failure is not an option, in spite of the erosion of our tax base and other revenues."
Thompson noted the difficulties of finding a balance between the needs of the district to educate children and the ability of the local taxpayer to foot their portion of the bill.
"I feel that that there's two critical objectives that a school board needs to accomplish; How to continue to improve the quality of our children's education while ensuring our system is one that the taxpayers can afford," he said. "The only real way we can respond to the situation is to significantly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs. That means that some programs will be eliminated, others will be reduced and others will be combined...It's a matter of evaluating the impact and the number of students potentially affected and understanding the associated cost benefit...You can spin it any way you want, but in the end, if the Board has to further cut X number of dollars, then how the Board makes those cuts needs to be done judiciously and effectively for the education of our children. On the other hand, if there needs to be a tax increase to assure that our system remains highly effective, then that is what I believe the voters will approve."
Heidcamp spoke of the need for the district to pull together to see the way through the storm.
"These tough fiscal times have placed the Board of Education in a very difficult position," he said. "Only through the collaborative efforts of the Board of Education, the administration, the teachers, and support personnel of the district can we make certain that students are provided with the quality education they deserve."
MacIsaac said he believed whatever happens to the district's budget proposal at the polls, moving forward would be difficult but not impossible.
"If the voters turn down the proposed budget - let's call it 'option A' - then I feel the best course of action is for the board to put up the second budget the administration has supplied - call it 'option B. This will give the voters a chance to choose this option so that the district won't have to go to the extremely drastic cuts required under a contingency budget - 'option C.' Regardless of whether the voters choose option A, B or C, the administrators and the teachers will have to provide the highest quality education possible given the resources they have."
Scott said he believed it was important in times of crisis to look at all available solutions, especially as a means of maintaining academics.
"This district can continue to provide a quality education for every student," he said. "We can do this by making sure that academics and curriculum come first. If anything is to be cut academics should be the absolute last, or shouldn't even make the list of things to be cut at all. Energy conservation is a big way that this district could save money. I think the district should seriously look into it."
SHOULD CUTS BE MADE?
With the possibility of lean operations in upcoming budgets, candidates were asked how they would prefer to make concessions in order to keep the district afloat. Among the options in the questionnaire were reductions in staffing, curriculum and extra-curricular activities, as well as raising the local tax levy.
Steinhilber said he'd prefer to take it on a case-by-case basis rather than speculating on what the future might bring.
"I do not make decisions based on hypotheticals," he said. "I need to have all the data and other relevant information before me, and with that wrestle and ruminate until I am able to make an informed decision for our district."
Scott was willing to be specific cost-saving measures.
"Cut athletic programs but offer a pay-to-play option, cut all other extra-curricular activities, put a freeze on teacher salaries, ask that the highest paid teachers and administrators take a reduction in pay, and ask that staff start paying in a small amount towards their own health insurance," he said.
Thompson said the key to any budget process is to proceed with caution, especially during rough financial times.
"Our district is already financially lean and any further changes will have a drastic impact to our children. The combination of rapidly rising costs, less state aid and unbearable tax burdens underscores the unsustainability of our current system of running and financing of our public school district. Can our community continue to afford it? Should our children get less? As a community, we need to execute new ideas to keep Saugerties a place where we all want to live and can afford to live, but most importantly, where our children get the best education possible."
Anything that is within the board's control should be given considerable attention.
"The Board has to scrutinize every aspect of the budget, with no area considered untouchable," he said. "We need to rethink our models and re-envision how we deliver or can offer services."
Thompson added that he worries that recent necessities in the district might become an unavoidable trend. "What's most concerning to me is the potentially looming slow dismantling of our district, program by program, in order to address the skyrocketing property taxes that Saugerties residents are paying," he said. "It's an extremely hard task to accept and balance."
Heidcamp was also reluctant to lean in any one direction without having more specific information to go on.
"While none of the options are very appealing, each would have to be looked at in totality with all other existing circumstances," he said. "It would be unfair to respond to a question that only presents part of the scenario. We would have to look at the whole picture in its entirety in order to make such a decision."
MacIsaac also said he'd be able to more definitively answer the question when faced with an actual scenario, though he did say he hoped to see changes in the future that would offer relief to taxpayers.
"It is difficult to be specific when there are so many variables and possibilities," he said. "One area I do believe tax relief should be enacted is when property owners have a fixed and limited income. Ideally, such relief would be enacted on a statewide basis. A 'circuit-breaker' bill has been proposed, however, our state government in Albany seems to be in gridlock so we cannot rely on them to accomplish this. There can be some property tax reform enacted at the local level. In fact, when I was on the board, we were able to pass a measure whereby taxpayers earning less than $21,000 a year were able to get a school tax reduction which was gradually decreased as income moved to $27,000 a year. If elected, I would work to try to pass a similar measure, because it is simply not fair to ask those on a fixed income to absorb tax increases in the area of 20 percent."
Davies said any cuts must be approached cautiously.
"Any change or reduction in staff, curriculum, sports, or extra-curricular activities has potential for drastic consequences within the district," he said. "I feel that every member of the community would like to offer our children as many opportunities as possible to help them succeed. I see no sure-fire way to save the required money in any one area. If future cuts are required to help stabilize our budget, all areas would have to be considered including contractual negotiations."
ON THE RIGHT TRACK?
Finally, the candidates were asked if they felt the current Board of Education was on the right track.
"I think the current Board is very much a dedicated team of individuals and are on the right track," Thompson said. "There's a lot of good collaboration going on and ideas being presented. To further improve the operations of the board, I feel that the focus needs to be taken to a higher level and needs to extend further out. The Board needs to reach out more to the community and talk about what the community values long-term instead of just costs; even though the financial situation of the district has been the most consuming and important task at hand. With all of the actions that the Board has taken recently and may potentially take in the near future, the quality of the learning environment must be maintained and be a primary focus. I do not think the Board should ever be satisfied with the status quo. We need to get parents and the overall community more involved. I see our district as being made up of four parts; the school, community, teachers and students. All four have to work together."
Heidcamp also said he feels the board is a strong group moving the district in the right direction.
"The current Board of Education is a dedicated group of hard-working individuals," he said. "Each has their own strengths and ideas, but together the group has proven to handle one of the most difficult and unprecedented situations in the history of the school district. Therefore, my answer would have to be 'Yes.'"
"I believe we all bring something to the table," he said. "I make many of my decisions after hearing from my fellow Board of Education members. I do believe this current Board of Education member configuration will get through these difficult times."
MacIsaac, one of three candidates hoping to alter that configuration to at least include themselves, saw the need for some change.
"This is a tough question," he said. "Without a doubt, the current board has worked hard to do the best job they can. They have worked many hours just covering regular meetings, and have scheduled many additional meetings in an attempt to be even more thorough. One area that I do feel they could have performed better in is with the concept of open meetings. It seems a lot of time and effort has been spent talking with lawyers and state officials as to what exactly defines an 'open meeting.' The board leadership could have used more common sense and just enacted meetings that were open in spirit. This would have prevented the need to argue over technicalities, which seems to have hurt the progress in contract talks with the teachers."
Like MacIsaac, Davies said he appreciated the work of the current board, but would also like an opportunity to be a part of its future.
"Give the current situation this district has had put before them I feel the current Board of Education has done what they can," he said. "Now we need to continue moving forward in the best interest of the children."
Scott was more critical.
"I feel that the current Board of Education isn't on the right track," he said. "This community wants the best education that their hard earned money, and the people it's entrusted to, can provide for its children. That is something that is not happening at this time. The Board simply doesn't have its priorities straight."