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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 1, 2008
One seat, two contenders, no incumbent in V’ville school board race
By David S. Lewis
VOORHEESVILLE Lisa Henkel and Michael Snyder are running for the school board, vying for a seat Thomas McKenna is vacating after a decade. Both candidates are members of the Voorheesville School and Community Foundation, the fundraising organization founded by McKenna.
“They’re both great people,” said. “You can quote me on that.”
Snyder, 53, is the president of a meeting-professionals group with members from 13 counties. He ran for the school board four years ago, coming in third in a four-way race. His son is a junior at Voorheesville’s high school; he plays both varsity basketball and football.
Formerly the deputy mayor of Buchanan, a village in Westchester, Snyder is currently the director of marketing for the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. Snyder said he is proud of his work with the Voorheesville School and Community Foundation, and says that it has been able to give $75,000 back to the community.
“I think trust is the key word out there,” said Snyder. He said he considers openness an important quality for school boards.
“We are entering into an era with a potential for a leadership void," said Snyder, noting that term lengths for board members could be re-determined at the May 20 election, when voters will decide whether terms should be shortened from five years to four. "I think I could be useful and productive in a short time frame."
Snyder graduated from Pace University in New York City with a master’s of sciences degree in industrial relations and human resources.
Lisa Henkel, 46, says her primary reason for running is to offer assistance to the district, where her children will attend school in the fall.
“I have no agenda, but a willingness to be helpful,” said Henkel in a phone interview last week. With a background in education, Henkel has taught and worked in school administration. An adjunct professor at State University of New York’s College at Plattsburgh, Henkel says she considers her background to be her strongest asset.
"I am somebody who was a building principal, but, when I had my second child, after maternity leave I decided to resign and work part-time," she said. "I am a part-time person who wants to be home while my kids are little.
“There’s nothing more important to me than working in my own district where my kids are going in the fall.”
At the college at Plattsburgh, Henkel works with student teachers. She said she is familiar with the Voorheesville district, and has two children, one who will be entering kindergarten in the fall. Henkel said that people have encouraged her to run for the board.
"The people who are encouraging me to undertake the race are interested in my experience as an educator," said Henkel. One of those people, Kathy Fiero, is the president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association. Although the union does not endorse candidates, Fiero did say that she had encouraged Henkel to run.
“I was glad to hear that she was running,” said Fiero. “She brings a lot of experience as a school administrator.”
Henkel said that, as she works part-time, she would have the time to dedicate, but declined to say how much time that was, merely that it would be sufficient.
"As a parent, I have the same interest that many parents have, which is to ensure that there is a quality education, but as a taxpayer I want that quality education to come at a reasonable price," said Henkel, who received her doctorate in educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York in 2000.
What makes for the ideal school board trustee? Where do the candidates stand on the issues most important to voters? The Enterprise posed these questions to each of the candidates running.
What do you see as the most critical function of the school board? Opinions differ on the basic purpose and intention of a school board; some see it as a check to school administrator power while others consider its goal the assurance of a quality education for children in the district.
“Well, right now, they are going to be hiring a new superintendent,” said Snyder. “Obviously there is an interview process, and I think that will be the biggest thing confronting the board, finding a new superintendent.” The current superintendent, Linda Langevin, announced her retirement last week, to take care of an illness in her family. She has been the superintendent of the Voorheesville school district since 2006.
“Secondarily, there are always budget concerns and finances; I think they were a little generous on how they were going forward with pensions. Obviously, fuel prices are going up, and everything else is, too; I think we may be looking at some budget issues this next year. Those are the two biggest issues for this year,” he said.
“The most critical function of the board is to provide high-quality education at the most reasonable cost possible,” said Henkel. “As the overseer of the district and its goals and objectives, you try to be responsible to the tax-payers with regards to those goals.”
Supporting Tech Valley High: There was some controversy on whether the district should send a second student to Tech Valley High School, the regional avant-garde tech-based school in the Troy tech park. The district has one student who, next year, will attend her sophomore year at the school. The school board voted not to send a second student in an attempt to keep spending down. Both candidates were asked whether they would support or oppose sending additional students from the district to Tech Valley High.
“I questioned the rationale behind sending the first student; rather than sending resources somewhere else,” replied Snyder. “Voorheesville has been considered the “tech valley” school…Why can’t we raise our curriculum so we can be considered the “tech school” in the area, rather than sending students elsewhere? Yeah, it’s nice to teach them Mandarin Chinese in one class, or sending them over to Troy to collect data on whatever they’re building…
I wish the first student much success, but I am not sure about the wisdom of sending a second student over there until we actually get some results from what they’ve taught the first year, and until we know what they got out of it the first year.
“I think the concept of the Tech Valley school was a great marketing concept, and they got everyone very excited, but I am not sure the results are out there yet,” he concluded.
“It is controversial and expensive to send students outside the district like that. I am not trying to avoid the question, but not having all the information others have had, I can’t say I am leaning one way or the other,” said Henkel. “My hope and dream would be that at some point, we would be able to make our district one that would provide for all of our students.”
She was careful to acknowledge that she would not want to “weigh in” before having all of the information; this sentiment was echoed by Snyder, but less emphatically.
BOCES programs: With the economy in turmoil, it is very possible that state aid through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services will be cut next year. Which BOCES programs would be priorities, and which would you cut first?
“I think I would evaluate the current BOCES programs and determine which ones to cut,” Henkel said. “If faced with that dilemma, I would first evaluate the current programs in order to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs.”
“I haven’t made a top-10 list, to determine which ones we cut first and which ones we don’t, but I would tell you if I thought I had some idea,” said Snyder. “I would rather come to a decision as a board. You offer what you can, but I am not in favor of raising taxes tremendously, either.”
Should the district see reductions in the amount of BOCES aid, would you be in favor of sending special-needs students out of the district?
“Not unless the district couldn’t provide the treatment programs required by their IEPs,” said Henkel of Individualized Education Programs. “I am very much in favor of keeping kids in their neighborhood’s schools.”
“If they are our students, boy...I don’t think so,” said Snyder thoughtfully. “I know some of those students that are considered special needs, and…I don’t think so. That’s a definite no,” he said.
“I think everyone learns at different levels. I think that would be moving backwards. What do you do, make everyone walk to school, if you run out of money?”
Class size: Enrollment is down in the district, but class sizes are high in the elementary school. This is something the parents of the fifth-grade class have struggled with since their children were in kindergarten. What do you think is an ideal class size, and, how important is maintaining that size class?
“I don’t know if the economics is there to say you need to have a class size of 15, but I think 30 is too high; right now we’re contending with 20 to 22 kids in a class, and enrollment is going down,” mused Snyder. “We may not have to approach that for a while.”
“I think 18 to 23 is a good range,” he concluded.
“The whole topic of class size is very controversial,” said Henkel. “In an ideal world, we would have small classes, but on the other hand, when you have to increase the section, you are talking about a sizable increase to the school budget. You have to balance the need with the impact on the financial end.
“You don’t like to see class size grow over 25, and, when you get to that, you really have to take a look,” she said.
“You have to listen to what the teachers and administrators are saying, and you also have to listen to parents,” she went on. I understand that, at least this year, they are not going with an extra section. Well, you will have to, at some point, defer to the teachers and the administrator. The magic number is not always going to be effective. Is 25 too big a class? Well, it depends.”
What would you consider an “unacceptably high” tax rate increase for Voorheesville?
Henkel said anything over 3 percent, including the cost of living increase, would “require attention,” while Snyder’s number was 1 percent. Both candidates said this number could be higher or lower, depending on the demands of a given year. The $22 million budget for next year will bring a tax rate increase of 1.12 percent, which represents a 2.8 percent increase for the total budget. The consumer price index, which is used to measure inflation, is currently at 2.8 percent. According to Sarita Winchell, the district’s assistant superintendent, that is a coincidence. With the recent drastic increases in the cost of fuel and food, 2.8 percent is not an accurate number for the consumer price index, said Winchell; the actual number would be much higher, so the district’s budget falls well below the cost of living increase.
What value do you place on transparency for the board?
“I think that’s a very appropriate question and I have always been open and honest in what I tell people; I think that as a board member I would do the same thing,” said Snyder. “…I think that honest answers can be given to people and you don’t always have to hide behind closed door sessions; I don’t think it is as necessary as often as the board sometimes uses it.”
There are things the public has a right to know, and there are things they should know, he said, concluding, “I think the public has a right to know some of these things; hell, it’s their tax dollars.”
Henkel was more guarded.
“You definitely have to protect the confidentiality of the people you employ; issues with personnel like that, you can’t discuss those issues publicly,” she said. “That’s part of the function of the board. You take recommendations from the administrators you are working with, and you have to have trust in those recommendations. I think it can be hard sometimes to not get the answers but those answers are confidential. It is hard to let go of a teacher that is well-liked but may not be a good fit for the district.”
What do you consider your greatest strength?
Snyder chuckled at this question.
“You are probably going to laugh, but I think it is my age. Over time, I have learned quite a few life lessons, and I have learned from experiences, from mistakes, and from working hard, so I think that has given me the ability to reflect on things and to make wiser decisions than those who are 20 years younger,” he said. “I don’t consider myself an old man, but I have a wealth of experiences that I can bring to the board.”
“I think my greatest strength is the educational background I bring as a teacher and an administrator, and now as a consultant in the field of education,” said Henkel. “I think that it is really important to bring balance to the board and I don’t think there is currently a single person with the educational background, and it is important, if you are making decision, to have that background. That, and being a parent and a taxpayer.” She also said that she considered herself a strong “team player.”
What do you consider your greatest weakness?
Both candidates had the same answer: their passion for their work.
“Sometimes I get overly involved in a lot of things, and though I have learned to say ‘no’ to some things, I tend to really immerse myself,” said Snyder. “I probably don’t spend enough time staying at home, mowing the grass, doing the things you do at home, and I think I balance that well, but, when you immerse yourself in things, they can get out of hand. I used to love to cook, you know, and when I don’t have the time to cook those home-cooked meals for my family. The good news is my wife has learned to cook quite well in my absence.”
“I get really passionate about things,” said Henkel. “Like the quality of education we provide to our kids, and sometimes I think I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew with the workload, and I want to have balance, staying at home and being a part-time employee…I am just trying to find balance in my life, and that is not always easy. I quit my job as an elementary principle to stay at home and work part-time.”
The new board member shall be elected on May 20. Voters will also to cast their ballots for or against the $22 million budget for the 2008-2009 school year; a proposition to acquire three new buses for the district for $189,000; shortening school board members’ terms from five years to four years, and the transfer of $95,000 from the general fund to pay debt accrued by the school lunch fund over the last five years.
Gospel Train rolls from Civil War to Civil Rights era
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND The Gospel Train, which performs old American spiritual music with songs dating from the Civil War era up through the Civil Rights era, will play in New Scotland next week. Singer and guitarist Tom Lindsay performs with Michael Eck, who plays everything from banjo, mandolin, and dobro guitar to the autoharp, “just for spite,” said Lindsay.
He was careful to point out the difference between the Gospel Train and other gospel acts.
“We sing very few hymns,” he said. “Most of what we play are folk songs and popular songs of their times that have subject matter regarding heaven and hell, life and death, God and the Devil, sin and redemption…Those were popular topics that found their way into a lot of the music of that time.”
Lindsay said that many people have asked if they were Christians performing a ministry; he declared that wasn’t the case.
“We are musicians who are playing historic Christian music,” said Lindsay. “One of us is a Christian, and one of us isn’t.”
“For that matter, one of us is a liberal, and one is a conservative,” he said, ignoring the advice of the late, great country singer Johnny Cash to keep politics out of folk music.
The Gospel Train counts among its influences the legendary Carter family, whose often-spiritual songs are considered some of the most important in American history.
“We play ‘Keep on the Sunnyside’, which is a Carter song, but it doesn’t even mention God until the last verse,” said Lindsay.
The group endorses the Loar, a company that crafts replicas of historic instruments. The Gospel Train is featured on the front page of the Loar’s website.
“I had purchased one of their guitars at a fraction of the cost of an original from that era,” said Lindsay, who went on to say that the endorsement is especially exciting to Michael Eck, who has played music for years. Eck has played with the likes of Patti Smith, Pete Seeger, and members of 10,000 Maniacs, but had never before been invited to endorse an instrument company before.
So, what is a “Gospel Train”?
“We find songs where devices and inventions are used as metaphors, and certainly the train is a popular metaphor used in song of all kinds, like the blues,” said Lindsay. “Especially for slaves, the train was a metaphor for escape, and the ability to travel somewhere different.”
The New Scotland Historical Association will host a free concert by the Gospel Train on Tuesday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wyman Osterhout Community Center in New Salem. The program, which will feature the two musicians performing and leading the audience in song, as well as telling the history of the music, will be free and open to the public.
Voorheesville proposes $1.9M budget
By Zach Simeone
VOORHEESVILLE As more money comes in to the village, water is contributing less and less to that flow.
Last week, a $1.9 million preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year was passed unanimously by the village board. The new budget will be about $10,000 lower than the current one.
“I think it’s a good, balanced budget,” Mayor Robert Conway told The Enterprise.
“There’s about a 5-percent increase in taxes,” Mayor Conway said at last week’s village board meeting, noting the increase in the real-property tax levy, from $214,367 in the current budget, to $226,144 in the new budget. The tax rate has risen to $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed value.
“That’s about $10 more for homeowners,” added Trustee David Cardona. Cardona acts as the budget officer for the village. He made the motion to pass the budget, seconded by Deputy Mayor William Hotaling.
“Each year, we deal with pretty much the same challenge, which is to continue to provide the services our residents need, and to try to do that without incurring additional costs,” Mayor Conway said. “We make decisions on which services to continue providing, and what services to curtail, though none were curtailed this year. I think we’ve done that with a relatively small impact on the tax rate.”
Software for hardware guys
While the new budget will be more trim than the one in effect now, not every annual expenditure is following the downward trend. An additional $10,400 is going towards bolstering the building department.
“This year, we’re upgrading the building department’s software package to be compatible with that of the village clerk’s office so that there will be an interface between the two offices,” said Trustee Cardona. He thinks that the existing computer system is terribly outdated, and communication between the clerk’s office and the building department is vital, he said.
“This software will automate the permit process. Everything that the building department does now will be automated with state-of-the-art software,” Cardona explained. “We spend too much time opening up a filing cabinet to find a file. We just can’t operate like that anymore.”
On the rise
Accompanying the smaller budget is an increase in revenues, totaling roughly $1.6 million. This is largely due to a dramatic difference in the water budget; the water main under the railroad tracks on Voorheesville Avenue, just down the road from the village hall, was replaced late last year.
So, while the village had appropriated close to $90,000 for water projects for the current fiscal year, the new budget looks to spend only $5,000.
The bulk of the budget, though, is funded by sales tax, which is distributed by the county to municipalities based on population. Voorheesville has budgeted for $820,000 in sales tax revenue.
Another contributing factor to the rise in revenue is the additional $7,500 from mortgage taxes, bringing its total to $37,500. Cardona, however, was a bit puzzled in regards to the increase. “I’ve been wondering about that, myself,” he said.
“In today’s economy, no one seems to be buying homes. If nobody’s buying homes, why is the mortgage tax going up?” Cardona asked. “I assume that most of it is from people refinancing their homes; that’s the only thing I can attribute it to. When the market’s up, and everyone’s buying new homes, the village brings in more mortgage tax, so there’s more mortgage recording tax paid. In an economy like this, when not so many homes are being sold, you tend to wonder why we’re receiving more mortgage tax.”
There is, however, an ever-widening hole in Voorheesville’s revenue pool. Metered water sales are down $30,000.
“Atlas Copco is recycling their water now, which is wonderful on the one hand, but it hurts our revenues because they are not buying as much water from us,” said Cardona. “Water conservation is great for our water supply, but as Atlas Copco slowly weans away from purchasing our water, and starts to recycle more, we see our revenues drop drastically. This is our biggest issue right now,” he said.
Still, with the rising cost of fuel, “which has driven up the cost of just about everything else,” Cardona believes that the board has put together a fiscally responsible budget. “We controlled our spending the best we could. The board insured that the services that all of us have become accustomed to will still be provided.” It’s basically the same budget that it’s been in the past, he said. “We’re watching every dime that we spend.”
In other business, at the April 22 village board meeting, the village board:
Sent its condolences to the families of Harold Flansburg, Neil Luther, and Evelyn Mitchell;
Congratulated Lauren Finnessey, Christopher Mancuso, and Alexis Moore on receiving Outstanding Student Awards from the YMCA;
Voted unanimously to raise the water usage rate for the first 25 gallons to $130 minimum, paid in advance; and
Scheduled a workshop meeting for 6 p.m. on May 7 to finalize plans for the village’s Memorial Day celebrations.