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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, May 8, 2008

Residents question bar tabs
Convention costs $8k for eight officials

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Eight officials spent close to $8,000 on a recent convention trip.   

In February, from the 17th to the 19th, eight elected and appointed Rensselaerville officials attended the Association of Towns’ annual meeting in New York City. 

Altogether, the town spent $7,978.39 on registration fees, lodging, mileage, parking fees, cab fares, and meals, according to documents recently obtained by The Enterprise through a Freedom Of Information Law request. 

Hotel bills total $4,842 for six rooms for three nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan; registration fees for the meeting total $835.

Just days before the meeting, on Valentine’s Day, the Rensselaerville Town Board’s five members voted unanimously in an executive session to reimburse officials for up to $400 each with receipts for their transportation and meals, according to town minutes.  Those vouchers total $2,301.39.

Officials who attended the association’s meeting this year were: G. Jon Chase, the town’s highway superintendent; his sons, Councilman Gary Chase and Bradley Chase, who serves on the town’s board of assessment review; his son-in-law, Roger Gifford, a member of the town’s zoning board of appeals; Councilwoman Sherri Pine and her husband and town assessor Jeff Pine; the town’s attorney, Joseph Catalano; and planning-board member Alfred Stettner.

All are Democrats except for Catalano, who is not enrolled in a party and was appointed by the Democrats on New Year’s Day. 

 “Some were honest with their receipts but the majority were not,” says a letter to The Enterprise editor from 10 Rensselaerville residents.  “We’ll leave it to your imaginations on who the dishonest ones are.”

Chase’s view

Councilman Gary Chase, now serving his third four-year term, was the town’s delegate at the meeting.

He said yesterday of the meeting, “It’s a benefit to the people that need some of the classes and courses to go there because you’re going to take in a whole lot more there than that particular class.”

Chase said, “Everything is so costly down there that we try to cut a little bit by driving to Poughkeepsie and take the train in for $12.  If you take the train in from Hudson, it’s $70.  So we tried to cut costs there.”

A lot of people who attend the meeting drive, he said.  If Rensselaerville officials did, said Chase, each would be up to $200 or $250 in reimbursement costs for mileage before doing anything.

“We pretty much, together as a town, go out to dinner…so we split all the costs.  It makes it a little bit cheaper,” he said.  “We do a lot of walking instead of taking cabs.” 

Chase said, “There’s a lot of things that the town actually gets from the meeting.  One, we have somebody there that represents the town on a New York State basis.  We’re actually going through and voting on the proposals.  So that’s one good thing that shows affiliation with the Association of Towns.” 

Booths, he said, are set up with companies in security, engineering, and updates for clerks’ and judges’ records as well as new voting machines and equipment are on display. 

“Anything that pertains to a town,” said Chase.


In this small, rural town, the Democratic and Republican parties are polarized; in recent months, residents and officials have clashed over nepotism. 

The town is currently considering a law on conflicts of interest, and Rensselaerville’s Republican supervisor, Jost Nickelsberg, has questioned whether Councilman Chase’s voting on the appointments of members of his family, including his brother, brother-in-law, and mother, is legal; in all votes, the councilman did not recuse himself. 

At the request of the town board, the town’s attorney requested and recently obtained an opinion from the Office of the New York State Attorney General on whether Councilman Chase can vote on the appointment of his mother as his father’s clerk.  He can, according to a non-binding opinion recently handed down by the attorney general’s office.  

Varied vouchers

For the February meeting in New York City, money spent by the eight Rensselaerville officials and their methods of calculating their expenses varies. 

Each voucher for travel and parking expenses and meals for Gifford and each of the three members of the Chase family amounts to $400.  Bradley Chase included a note that says, “Other transportation, food, tips, etc. exceed the $400 allowance for the Association of Towns annual meeting.” 

Stettner, a former zoning-board member who now serves on the town’s planning board, spent $77.35 for a round trip train ticket and did not charge the town for lodging or food.  Catalano, who included an itemized list of his expenses on his voucher, spent $201 for his train and cab fares, parking, and meals. 

Jeff Pine also gave the town an itemized list; his voucher totals $261.54 for parking, meals, taxi services, a train ticket, and mileage from Rensselaerville to the Poughkeepsie train station — 150 miles at the Internal Revenue Service’s rate of reimbursement of 50.5 cents per mile.

His wife, Councilwoman Sherri Pine, spent $161.50 on train fares and meals. 

While questioning officials’ spending, the 10 Rensselaerville letter-writers also find fault with officials’ spending town funds on alcohol. 

“Now we all have spent ‘our time and our dimes’ drinking alcoholic beverages but apparently some of your representatives feel they can spend your dimes, too,” they say.

Richard Tollner, the town’s deputy supervisor, also questioned spending.  He wrote on an official’s voucher, “Advise town board to have stipulation [of] $100 per day and no alcohol.” 

Expenditures for the purchase of alcoholic beverages may not be considered a proper or necessary travel or meeting expense of the local government, according to the Office of the State Comptroller’s financial management guide. 

The guide says, “Meals would be a proper charge if a business meeting is of an immediate nature and a meeting at mealtime is essential.”

Officials on spending

Last year, three Rensselaerville officials attended the association’s meeting; four went in 2006, and seven attended in 2005. 

Councilman Gary Chase said he believes there are years in which 12 or 15 officials attended. 

“If you investigated that farther, you’d find out that there was a lot,” he said.  There have been different arrangements for reimbursement under different supervisors, he said. 

“It used to be you were given $350, and that was it.  Mr. Lansing,” said Chase of the Republican councilman, “when he was supervisor, decided that we’d all go down and just bring back all receipts and be reimbursed.  Well, that got us a little out of hand because people were turning in receipts for $600, $700…I brought that up last year and a cap was put back on.”

While he was at the meeting, Chase talked to officials from a few towns, and most set up a policy, which the comptroller’s office said was a good idea, he said, and is much like the state’s: officials are allowed $75 per day plus travel expenses. 

“And most towns that I talked to down there, that’s what they get,” Chase said.

Jeff Pine, a town assessor who attended the February meeting, said this week he kept track of his and his wife’s meals.  His meals total $144.27, and Councilwoman Pine’s amount to $137.28. 

“For four days in New York, I don’t think that’s extravagant,” said Jeff Pine. 

He said he has all expenses documented, and the letter-writers “took a receipt” for five people dining and “picked apart all the people’s meals and tried to blame it on us.”

Last year, at a Rensselaerville meeting, Pine questioned the supervisor’s spending at the association’s meeting. 

In 2006, Nickelsberg charged the town $91 for a breakfast in bed when there was a free breakfast by the association hosted by the governor, he said. 

“I brought that up at a meeting and these same people didn’t have an issue with that,” said Pine.

“I’m all in favor of Sex on the Beach...That’s their big issue.  Someone had a drink called Sex on the Beach,” Pine said.  “So, I’m in favor of that.” 

Nickelsberg questioned the use of town funds the week of the meeting and the accuracy of the minutes from Feb. 14; a resolution shows all members of the town board, including Nickelsberg, voted to reimburse each official up to $400 for expenses. 

“My vote, of course, was in last year’s budget,” said Nickelsberg this week.  “And that is that we wouldn’t send anybody or that we would send serious people from planning boards and zoning boards for their continuing education.” 

He said, “I have yet to hear the first good idea coming from this, and we spent $10,000 on it, and our contingency fund, with four months gone in the year, is almost depleted.”

Gary Chase responded through The Enterprise.

“First of all, he has no clue on how much money, I believe, that we have, and I questioned him last night on the spot,” said Chase. 

The Rensselaerville Town Board meets the Tuesday before its regular meeting.

“We haven’t had a report from the supervisor for about six months now, maybe even seven,” said Chase.  “He’s supposed to have a monthly report that shows every dollar that’s taken in by the town and every dollar that’s spent.”

He said he has no idea where any money is in the town. 

“If he says that [the contingency’s] low, I doubt it, because I have no way to prove different.  If I’d seen some kind of record from him for the last six or seven months, maybe I’d know,” said Chase.

On reporting back with ideas from the meeting, Chase said, “At the last town board meeting, I told some of the things I did at the meeting, and that’s what he’s going to get.”  The highway superintendent has reported on Consolidated Highway Improvement Programs funding and Jeff Pine has also reported, he said. 

“When [Nickelsberg] went down there, he made a big deal about it, and he wanted everybody to make a report out — an in-depth report on what you did, where you went, what you learned, and how it was better for the town.  He wanted this,” Chase said.  “Four of them went, including himself, and I never, ever got a report.  I questioned that report every month for a year, and he never, ever gave me one.”

Nickelsberg said, “We’re going to have higher school taxes, higher county taxes, higher state taxes, higher federal income taxes.  And what are we doing?  How can we do this to people that make decisions all winter long — whether or not to use medicine or use their money for food?”

Nickelsberg said, “I had no idea that eight [would be going], especially from one family.”

Asked how the eight were chosen, Chase said each department has monies allotted during budgeting for at least one person to attend the meeting.  “If a new person gets on the board, they try to send them,” he said. 

Nickelsberg questioned whether officials’ being reimbursed for alcohol is legal and said he’d contacted state agencies. 

Asked how the board decided on $400 for officials’ reimbursement, he said, “I was not at that meeting, and I have no idea.  It’s unbelievable.” 

Told again of the resolution, Nickelsberg said, “That’s just incorrect, first of all…The reason that we didn’t put it in the budget and the reason that we didn’t allow this to happen last year and the year before is because we knew what was going to happen.”

In other Hilltowns

In other Helderberg Hilltowns, views are markedly different on the Association of Town’s annual meeting. 

“We haven’t sent anybody in years,” said Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp.  “I’ve never been and I won’t go.” 

He called the meeting “a waste of money.”  He said he thinks the last Westerlo officials to attend were Gertrude Smith, the town’s longtime clerk, and Peter Hotaling, the town’s former highway superintendent; John Nevins, Westerlo’s current highway superintendent, has never attended.  “We seldom go,” said Rapp.

The town of Knox did not send anyone to the New York City convention this year, and hasn’t in quite a few years in the past, said Michael Hammond, the Knox’s supervisor.  The policy has changed to the point where the town board looks at the calendar and finds that training sessions are available locally, said Hammond, and individuals go to local presentations rather than to New York City. 

In Berne, the town’s supervisor, Kevin Crosier; the town’s longtime clerk, Patricia Favreau; and the town’s two justices typically attend.  This year, Berne’s planning-board chairman, a planning board member, and two judges attended; Crosier and Favreau did not.

Like Rensselaerville, Berne officials are reimbursed for transportation to and from New York City and for their lodging and meals.  Some drove to the train station in Poughkeepsie “because it was cheaper,” Crosier said, and some parked at the station in Rensselaer; the town got a governmental rate when traveling by train and for hotel rooms.  Crosier said he would have to go back and look at records to see whether the town paid for alcoholic drinks. 

“We didn’t pay for six beers and a night out at a club,” he said.

This year, the cost for sending the Berne planning-board chairman amounted to $1,353, and $1,226 and $1,401 for the town’s two judges.  Last year, the cost for one justice was $1,080.

“It’s good education,” said Crosier.  “You’re in class most of the time.” 

The town’s justices go to get their required training, Crosier said, and spend eight hours a day “in the classroom.”  He tried to get the town’s newly-elected officials to attend, he said, because there are a lot of good educational classes for newly-elected officials.  Crosier said he went for the first six years he was in office, but, this year, saw no need to go back.

Crosier cited the meeting’s location in the city and the high costs there. 

“You could get a hamburger, and it could cost you $20,” he said.  New York City, he said, “is not centrally located.”

“It was hard because some people come all the way from Buffalo,” Crosier said.  He added, “I was hoping, when they built the convention center in Albany, it could be held there.”

Three run for two open seats on BKW board

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The race is on for two open seats on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school board.  Both seats are for three-year terms.  At BKW, school board members rotate into the roles of president and vice-president.  The posts are unpaid. 

The candidates — Edward Ackroyd, a semi-retired veteran and former BKW board member from Knox; Sean O’Connor, a financial advisor who is making his first run and lives in East Berne; and Maureen Sikule, the board’s president who has long worked for the Thruway Authority and lives in Westerlo — were asked this week where they stand on a variety of issues. 

On May 20, voters will go to the polls, where they will also decide on a $20.3 million budget for the 2008-09 school year. 

The Enterprise asked each candidate the following questions:

Length of terms for board members: The BKW school board last month revisited the length of terms for board members; three years and five years.  Candidates were asked what they feel is the appropriate length of a term;

Budget committee: This year, during the budget process, three members of the community worked with the school’s administration and members of the school board to design BKW’s 2008-09 spending plan.  Candidates were asked whether they feel the committee was effective.  They were also asked if BKW should continue to have a budget committee in the future and whether they would make any changes, either in the number of members or the process by which the committee gives input to the board;

Student recognition: BKW will be recognizing its valedictorian and salutatorian this year and next year and then will no longer recognize them.  Candidates were asked if they felt this change is good for the school;

Programs: Candidates were asked whether any new programs should be added or if any should be cut;

Taxes: During the budget process this year, board members cited unfunded mandates, costs handed down by the state to the local level, driving up taxes.  Candidates were asked whether there is anything BKW can do to curb unfunded mandates or to lower taxes.  They were also asked if the district needs tax relief; and

Special-needs students: There are many special-education students at BKW.  Candidates were asked how they feel the school should react to the large number of students and the costs associated with these students.

Edward Ackroyd

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — Edward Ackroyd was elected to the board in 2004 and voted out in 2007.  He is making a run to reclaim a seat he lost in a four-way race for two seats last year.

Ackroyd formed his own business in 1985.  A veteran who left Berne-Knox-Westerlo to serve in Cambodia and Vietnam, he is now semi-retired and lives on the Berne-Knox border.  Ackroyd is married and has four grown children.

He said he prefers five-year terms to three-year terms for board members.

“In all honesty, it takes you two to three years on the board before you really understand thoroughly what’s going on,” he said.  “Three years, in my opinion, is too short.

“In discussions with the people who actually voted onto it — the last time we changed it from five to three — the board members who were there at the time said, ‘You know, we made a mistake,’” Ackroyd said. 

It’s since been put up for a revote once, he said, and it was voted down. 

“[I’m] hoping they’ll put it back up again and get it to change back to five years,” Ackroyd said.  “This board here, actually, for the last two years, has neglected to do that — to get it on the ballot in time for a revote.”

This spring, Ackroyd was one of three members from the community who served on BKW’s budget advisory committee.  The committee, with the school board and administration, designed the school’s proposed budget for next year.   

“The committee that I was on gave a lot of input in discussions,” Ackroyd said.  “The majority of the information that was given to us was given to us by the business administrator and the administration.  In all honesty, they were the ones who brought up the figures,” he said.  “With a little bit of guidance from the advisory committee?  Yes.  And one particular member of the board who wanted a low tax increase.”

During budgeting, school board member Helen Lounsbury advocated for a zero-percent tax-levy increase.  Her proposal was defeated 3-2.  As BKW’s budget now stands, the tax levy — the amount to be raised from property taxes — will increase 1.95 percent if the budget is approved on May 20. 

“In my opinion,” Ackroyd said, “I think the board should be more involved into it, with an understanding of the budget and how the budget works.  In all honesty, I don’t believe most of them know how it works.”

On the number of residents who served on the committee, Ackroyd said, “Three was fine.  And, again, in all honesty, it was the administration and the business agent that put it together,” he said.  “We offered our discussions…We didn’t go into the books of the school.”

The budget committee was put into place a number of years ago by a previous administration and a different board, he said, after a budget shortfall was discovered.  “Got the district in trouble, and it took a number of years to get out of trouble,” he said. 

On recognizing BKW’s top two graduates, Ackroyd said, “I was on the board, I believe, when they changed it over to, I think it was a top 10 or a certain percentage, versus just two people.

“I’ve seen most schools are getting away from the valedictorian and salutatorian and agree with it,” he said.  The only thing it would hurt, he said, is when scholarships are available to only those two people. 

“I think that should be looked into and see if it is going to hurt any of the future students at the district.  If it is, then we may have to go back to it,” Ackroyd said.   

“Can we still use this?” he asked.  “Can the students still get this scholarship if they’re seeking it or if they’re qualified?”

On BKW’s programs, Ackroyd said, “I don’t know of any to be added.  I would look at the administration, also the PTA, to come in with any suggestions of new programs, similar to when they brought in…the language in the elementary school.” 

Last year, PTA leaders approached the board and encouraged them to offer foreign language during school hours and said the school’s after-school program had outgrown itself.  Foreign language is now offered in the elementary school. 

“I was on the board then, and we wholeheartedly OK’d it,” Ackroyd said.  “I believe that some of the programs that are going on now, and also classes that are going on now, should be looked at to see if they are still needed,” he said.  “Many times, things are added on and nothing is ever taken away.  And with the population, as we’re seeing, of students going down, do we, in fact, need all the courses that we have now available?”

On unfunded mandates, Ackroyd said, “That’s with working with the legislature mostly and local legislation.  As far as lobbying to have more funded mandates from the state, I am nervous about that happening, just looking at the tax rolls, the taxes in the state, and our new governor looking at cutting expenses for the state.  That makes me nervous on what’s going to be happening to school districts throughout the state.

“In time,” he said, “the school will need tax relief.”

Fuel costs are now going up and fewer people may be moving to rural areas, which would mean less tax revenue and higher taxes for the people who are there, said Ackroyd. 

“So, do we need tax relief?  Sure we do,” he said.

On special-needs students, Ackroyd said, “I would say again that we approach the legislature to grant us money or help us with relief for that.  There’s been an effort in the past to keep as many of the handicapped children with us into the schools to keep the costs down.

“I’m sensitive to this area.  I carry handi-capped myself,” he said,  “and think that every effort should be given to give them the best quality education that they can be given and request…as much help as we can get.”

Sean O’Connor

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Sean O’Connor is making his first run for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board. 

“Looking at kind of the ebb and flow of the economy, we’re coming into a period, I think, where there’s going to be quite a bit of strain on the financial resources in the community, not only for individuals,” he said. 

Originally from Voorheesville, O’Connor has lived in East Berne for about 15 years. 

He is married and has two daughters in the BKW schools.

O’Connor graduated in 1980 from Clayton A. Bouton High School in Voorheesville and received his bachelor of fine arts degree from the State University of New York College at Purchase. 

He is one of three partners of Hudson Financial, LLC, based in Hudson (Columbia County).

“I’ve been in the financial-services industry about 11 years now,” said O’Connor.  “Sort of happened into it, but found that it’s really an intriguing line of work.”  He said he hopes to use some of his resources to help the board in its decisions.

This spring, O’Connor was one of three community members who served on BKW’s budget advisory committee. 

O’Connor said he thinks that a number of people, including some of the farmers in the area, are starting to talk about their expenses escalating dramatically, and he’s looking at the continual increases in the budget and the strain that it is putting on the tax base.

“Having lived in various parts of the country and even around the world, I have a serious concern and worry that people don’t take Berne-Knox-Westerlo as seriously as they should,” said O’Connor.  “I think there are a huge number of positives in the area that haven’t been tapped…and I think it’s important for the students to realize that they can do anything…anything whatsoever.”

 On the length of board members’ terms, O’Connor said, “I think a three-year term is actually appropriate.”  He said he thinks three years is plenty of time for a board member to become acclimated and to start to be an effective member of the board. 

“I think the five-year time period is actually onerous in that that’s a gigantic commitment, not that being on the board isn’t,” he said.  But, O’Connor said, it’s important to at least give the community a reasonable amount of time to find out if they’re ineffective or not happy with their situation.

He said he thinks it’s very important that board members’ terms are staggered to make sure that there’s continuity year to year. 

On budgeting, O’Connor said, “I think the advisory committee was a terrific tool for the school to use…I would have liked to have seen a little more transparency — the reaction of the advisory committee with some publication or some reporting so the public could see what was happening and how the committee was affecting the budget.” 

He said he thinks, overall, that the committee provided good oversight.  However, he said, the actual effect that it could have on the budget was limited “in that the budget was so heavily weighted to the compensation and benefits.”

It’s difficult for the advisory committee to have a real effect on the budget other than trying to guide some of the more minor issues, said O’Connor.

“I think you’ve got some immense talent in Tim Holmes and Steve Schrade,” he said of the school’s business administrator and superintendent.  “It’s difficult when you’re sitting inside all the time to maybe get the entire picture so it can be good to get some outside opinions.”

O’Connor said he can appreciate what the district was trying to get done — get other opinions and other points of view. 

“However, again, it comes back to: How much effect does the committee have?” he said.  “I think the number of people on the committee is perfect,” he said.  “Again, I’d just love to see more public input….”

On no longer recognizing the school’s valedictorian and salutatorian, O’Connor said, “I know other school systems are struggling with the same problem.  How do you come up with an effective way of recognizing the valedictorian and salutatorian?  I actually think there needs to be a valedictorian and salutatorian.

“However,” he said, “there needs to be some sort of objective way of rating, or scaling, the entire class on an even playing field so that it’s a true honor and recognition.”

On programs, O’Connor said, “I have not finished examining all of the programs in the system.  I think there are some programs that have been cut…that, I think, are a little more important than people realize.  And I think it’s very important to have a more well-rounded selection of courses and programs for the student body.  I think budget-wise we’re going to be restricted in the future from how much we can actually add, and my worry is that we’re going to be more on the cost-cutting side rather than the addition side.” 

Right now, he said, he thinks it is up to the board to start looking at the effectiveness of certain programs and what has to be protected going forward. 

Additional programs? he asked.  “Certainly anything that involves other languages, other cultures” is incredibly important, he said.

“But at the same time, right now, I think we’ve got to be more mindful of protecting what we have,” he said. 

On unfunded mandates and taxes, O’Connor said, “Looking at the entire rural [situation] in New York State, I think they’re getting the short end of the stick from the state budgeting side.”

He said he questions the effectiveness of a lot of money being funneled into the inner-city schools.

“I don’t want to be lost in the state budget process, but I think…part of the job of the board at this point is to create a clear voice to the state as to how we feel,” he said.  “It’s time to receive some [money] back.” 

With the addition of rising fuel prices and increased cost of living, he said, there’s no reason BKW can’t be demanding more from the state in terms of funding.  The state debt burden is starting to haunt it. 

“In looking at the tax revenues from this past quarter and the disparity between this year and last year,” he asked, “where’s the state going to come up with that money?  Obviously, it’s going to be budget cuts or tax increases on a state-wide level.”

On special education, O’Connor said, “I think we have an onerous burden on special education.  I’m not against special education.  However, we certainly need to examine why we currently have approximately 20 percent exposure of our student body that’s in some sort of special education.”

Whether it’s the program system, the state requirements, whatever it may be, we are certainly burdened with a heavy load in this state, he said.

“It has become such a large part of the budget that we can’t ignore it.  It’s like an 800-pound gorilla in our budget allotment,” O’Connor said.  “We’ve got to examine it at some point.”

Maureen Sikule

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Maureen Sikule, the president of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school board, is making a second run for a three-year term. 

“In the three years that I’ve been on the board, I think I’ve learned a lot,” said Sikule.  “I’ve never been afraid to ask a question, and I think that that’s really important — to at least be willing to ask the questions. 

“And I think that, having my three children go through the school, I understand the process.  And I’ve always advocated for all of the students, and I think that that’s important,” she said.  “Sometimes you get all these ideas and you try and do too much too fast.  And that’s what you realize — that it’s kind of a slow process.  But I think that it can be very rewarding.”

Originally from Buffalo, Sikule attended Mount Mercy Academy and earned her bachelor’s of science degree, majoring in accounting, from the University at Buffalo.  She moved to Westerlo in 1985 and is in her 30th year working for the state’s Thruway Authority. 

Sikule is married and has three children.  Her son is a junior at the BKW high school, and her two daughters, now in college, graduated from BKW. 

“I had wished that the community had gone back to the five-year term,” Sikule said of board members’ terms, “because I truly believe it takes a little bit of time to get acclimated to being a board member and understanding everything that’s involved. 

“However,” she said, “I did speak to a few members of the community that indicated that, if someone is elected that they decide that they’re not happy with, they didn’t want to see them on five years.  I can understand that viewpoint also.

“But I do think it’s very difficult to be an effective board member if you’re just on for one three-year term,” she said.  “Hence, I’ve decided to run again and, if they are happy with me….”

On budgeting, Sikule said, “I do think that the committee is a good idea.  What the board attempted to do, and I think we were successful, was to have a representative from each of the three towns.  And we tried to get representatives that had some kind of a financial background, which, I think, is very important in the budget process because you don’t  necessarily have that expertise on the board,” she said. 

“And, so, we were looking for that for input.  It was difficult this year because we were without a business administrator until January, and, so, it was difficult to get the process started any sooner,” she said.  “I do want to see the committee continue, but I would like to see the budget process started a little bit earlier and have the committee’s involvement in it.”

Sikule said she’d like to see budgeting start around October. 

“Even through you don’t have numbers,” she said, “I think there’s a lot of expenses and things that they can review to get an idea of where we should be going with the budget.”

On no longer recognizing the BKW’s top two graduates, Sikule said, “It was not my personal choice.  I, personally, voted against eliminating it.  But it was the wish of the majority of the board.

“There have been some questions about it but not a great deal.  So, I’m not really sure that you’re going to be able to gauge the reaction until the year it actually happens,” she said.  “But what I do think is good about the new process is that we’re going to recognize — I believe the grades are going to be 93 and above for the high honors — so we’re hopefully getting a good group of students,” she said.  “I don’t think we’ve decided exactly what we’re going to do for graduation to replace the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches.  I don’t think we’ve addressed that yet.”

On BKW’s programs, Sikule said, “In the last couple of years, we’ve added a couple of [Advanced Placement] programs, which I think was very important for some of the students.  I’d like to see, also, a broad range of classes offered.”

Sikule gave an example.

“When my daughter was here, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to go into in college.  She liked math.  She liked science,” she said. 

Her daughter, Sikule said, had the opportunity to take accounting courses “besides the regular math courses,” and she was able to take a design and drawing class to get an idea if she liked architecture. 

“I think those kinds of opportunities are important and we need to encourage the kids to explore a lot of different areas,” said Sikule.  “They’re doing that with the new science program next year that’s going to be kind of engineering-related.”

She thinks those kinds of opportunities, where BKW can get the students to find areas of interest, are important, she said. 

“But,” said Sikule, “I do think that we need to look at some of the programs that might have become outdated.  I think we used to have a keyboarding class.  Now, you do the Microsoft-Office kind of stuff,” she said.  “So I think we need to look at our programs and make sure that we’re changing with technology and with the opportunities that are out there — that we’re not giving them outdated classes.  And I think I’d like to see an assessment of that to make sure that the classes are all appropriate.” 

On unfunded mandates, Sikule said, “I think the school is in a very difficult position because we don’t have much of a commercial base.  And I think that that’s what makes it so difficult with our tax base. 

“I do think that we need to lobby the legislators.  We always have the annual trip down to visit the legislators, but, in addition to that, I would encourage the community to do some letter-writing and things like that,” Sikule said. 

She said BKW could try and spearhead a movement, possibly with the PTA, and become more involved with the New York State School Boards Association and advocate for the association to pass resolutions at its convention.

“That might be something that we could also do,” she said. 

Asked if the school needs tax relief, Sikule said, “Yes, in some ways…There’s the elderly of the community that are on fixed incomes.”

She said the income base of the community is certainly not as high as that of Voorheesville or Guilderland or Bethlehem. 

“In some cases, I think it makes it very difficult for us to have our residents fund the education,” Sikule said.  “And I guess that’s why I’ve been such an advocate of trying to curb the tax increase in the budget.  I think that we need to find new ways to do things instead of just adding positions.  And I think that’s going to be the challenge — to try and keep the taxes low.” 

On special-education students and the costs associated with these students, Sikule said, “I know Kim [LaBelle] has worked very diligently to try and bring as many of those back into the district as possible.  And I think she’s continuing to do that. 

“You know, it’s very difficult,” she said.  “They’re entitled to the services.  And, again, I think that we’re going to have to look at ways that we can do that, that might not just be adding staff,” she said.  “I think Kim has done a good job of looking at technology — assistive technology — and items like that to try and help the special-ed. population.”

Raising money and consciousness
Families Together: Walking, talking, supporting each other

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — People will be walking to raise awareness of children’s mental health problems and to fight stigmas tomorrow at the First Annual 5k Benefit Walk for Children’s Mental Health at the Crossings of Colonie.

Families Together in Albany County, which works to support and empower children and youth with social, emotional, or behavioral concerns and to support their families, too, collaborated with multiple organizations for the May 9 event.

“The outcome that we’re hoping [for], is to bring more awareness to children’s mental health because, in a lot of ways, children’s mental health is very stigmatizing,” said Brooke Schewe, the director of Families Together.

“People don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We’re hoping that this walk will not only raise funds for the program — because, of course, that’s always needed — but also bring this awareness and eliminate stigma and get people talking about it.”

This month is Mental Health Month and today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

Schewe said it’s up to a parent or youngster to contact Families Together, which serves children and teens from birth to age 21.

“None of our services are mandated or forced upon anybody,” she said. Families Together provides information and referrals, she said, to a broad range of families and youth with needs.

They include a 4-year-old, who might be getting kicked out of a day-care program; a 10-year-old, who might have trouble with schoolwork and trouble focusing; a 15-year-old who might be at risk of harming himself or committing suicide; and a 17-year-old, who is getting in trouble and kicked out of school.

A couple of years ago, Schewe said, the United States Surgeon General’s office estimated in a report that one in 10 children have a diagnosable, serious, emotional disturbance and about half of them are not receiving treatment and do not have the ability to access treatment.

“True community organization”

Tomorrow’s walk will benefit children and youth in Families Together’s youth program — the Youth Empowerment Project, which aims to help those who are 12 to 21 years old with social, emotional, or behavioral concerns through social and recreational programs and peer-to-peer counseling and support.

“Some of the families that we work with may not necessarily have the economic means to make a pledge, to make a donation, and we don’t want to exclude anyone to come and participate, not just in the walk but in anything that we do,” said Sean Wyse, the social marketing coordinator for Families Together.

“We really want our organization to be a true community organization that is open to everyone,” he said. “And not just the families and the youth that we work with but to any person who might actually be at the park that day, casually walking their dog or whatever they might be doing. We would like them to come by and learn a little bit more about what we do at Families Together and also learn, through our exhibitors’ fair, what some of our partners do as well.”

Many organizations will be on hand, including Medicaid, Parsons Child and Family Center, Albany County Probation, Albany County Early Intervention, and Albany County Youth Bureau.

Albany County Executive Michael Breslin, District Attorney David Soares, and Colonie Supervisor Paula Mahan have been invited to speak at the event.

“Our expectations are high for our first walk, but we know this walk is not going to be as large as our walks in the future,” said Wyse. “But this is a great starting point,” he said, “and having the commitment from local dignitaries is really exciting because we could use that for media attention the day of, and then more people will become aware of our walk, our organization, and the work that we do and the work that our parent partners do.”


Families Together has three sites in Albany County — in Albany, Colonie, and the Hilltowns. Mary Beth Peterson and Kathy Bishop are parent partners — mothers with children who have special needs — at the Hilltown site in East Berne.

There are social workers at each site, who can give psycho-social behavioral assessments. Families Together offers short-term therapy and parent support groups and workshops. A mothers’ group meets at the Hilltown site on Tuesday mornings.

“We all are parents with children with special needs,” said Peterson. “So one of the things we can help a parent with is: We’ve walked the road already and we’ve struggled and we’ve found our way.”

That is how they really help parents get through what could be a devastating point in their lives, said Peterson.

She said they are working very closely with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District and starting to work with Greenville schools.

“We go to school meetings, we go to doctors’ appointments if necessary, we’ll make the phone calls with them and for them. We go to family court,” Peterson said.

She said families have found the Circle-of-Support extremely helpful. The circle is Families Together’s system in which social workers, ministers, teachers, extended family members, and agencies overlap to help children or youth succeed.

“If there is multi-agency involvement, we will bring all of the agencies to our table and we just come together as a team,” said Peterson. “We’re looking at it from a team point of view,” she said, “and we all come up with a common goal, and we make a plan for the family, and it’s family-driven so they have who they want at the table and they are pretty much running the plan.”

Peterson said they try to meet every four to six weeks with the families so that they can stay on top of the plan and make sure everybody understands and knows what is going on.

“Our goal is to make it less cumbersome on the family,” Schewe said, “because, when you have a child with special needs or a child who requires any kind of special attention, no matter what age they are, it can become a full-time job just keeping up with all the appointments through the various systems and the different providers,” she said. “So we really cut through the chase and make it more seamless in bringing everybody together at the table.”

Schewe said, “Our parent partners are parents with personal experience. You just can’t beat that. You can’t ever read in a book and learn what it’s like to walk in the shoes of some of these parents and what they’ve been through.”

Schewe has a son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; he started early intervention at age 2.

“And now, he’s 11,” she said. “He’s doing well. And only through knowing how to navigate the school system and the various systems, is he thriving and doing well and I feel supported.”

Just like parents know what their children need, kids know what they want, Schewe said.

“We need to listen to them as well,” she said. “It’s something that should be so natural and come so easily, but that’s not how our society and culture has been conditioned. We don’t listen to family. Providers just assume: ‘We went to school. We know what’s best. I’m going to tell you what to do,’” Schewe said. “And then we set people up to fail. We set youth up to fail if we don’t listen to [them] and we don’t listen to the parents.”

“What happens a lot of times is providers — schools — they tell us, as parents, what is best for our children,” said Schewe, adding that she’s not saying they don’t have children’s best interests in mind.

But, she said, a child has been living with his parent for his whole life. There’s nothing, she said, like another parent sharing their story with her — that therapeutic value and commonality.

Families Together receives its funding through a federal grant, which it was awarded in 2004. The grant expires in 2010. Schewe is confident the program will be refunded because of “evidence” from an evaluation program through the University of Albany.

She said results are showing that caregiver strain is down, school performance and attendance is increasing, and the risk of self-injury is significantly reduced once youth are involved in the program.

Reaching out

“We are trying to reach out to the community,” said Peterson, adding that the Hilltowns cover a vast area. There is a part of the community that hasn’t yet been served, she said, and one of Families Togethers’ goals is to try and set up satellites around the Hill.

On May 15, the Hilltown site will again start up a support group and have a barbecue that will be open to everyone, she said.

“We also offer Medicaid and food stamps and HEAP [Home Energy Assistance Program] applications here at this site once a month,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to accommodate the families up here because it is a long distance down to Albany, and there isn’t a lot of agencies up here.”

She said they see families that are homeless.

“We turn no one away,” Peterson said. “We’ll hook up with SafeHaven, and we’re in communication with other agencies. “

“We’re really just trying to reach out and try to form friendships with our community,” she said. “Relationships.”


The First Annual 5k Benefit Walk for Children’s Mental Health, organized by the Children’s Mental Health System of Care in Albany County, will be held on May 9 at the Crossings of Colonie. Registration and an exhibitors’ fair will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m., the opening ceremony will be at 5:45, and the walk will begin at 6 p.m. The walk is dog friendly and will occur regardless of the weather. Two local bands, Corn Bred and Acoustic Trauma, will play during the walk and at a post-walk celebration. For pledge forms and information, visit www.ftalb.org or call 432-0333 ext. 23.

The Hilltown site is located at 96 Main Street in East Berne. For more information, call 872-1460.

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