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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 30, 2008
“The Guilderland Tea Party”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior, will turn 18 in February. The first election he’ll vote in will be in May for the school board and school budget.
He plans to vote against the budget as a matter of protest if four demands of a group he founded aren’t met. The group will also look to endorse school board candidates, he said.
Sharma and McKenzie Bourque founded United for McManus and Nelligan this summer to funnel support for two high-school, social-studies teachers Ann Marie McManus and Matthew Nelligan who rallied students to fight their transfer to the middle school. Nelligan submitted a letter of resignation in September after two days of teaching at Farnsworth Middle School. He is working for the New York State Senate as a member services coordinator, assisting senators’ offices with special projects. McManus has settled into teaching at Farnsworth.
But Sharma is undeterred.
Last week, United for McManus and Nelligan held what he called “a visibility event to launch our new campaign.” Sharma dubbed it “The Guilderland Tea Party” after the revolutionary one in Boston.
A half-dozen students stood by the road in front of the high school last Wednesday, holding signs that said “Shame,” and “Vote No on School Budget.”
“Since we believe there’s a tradition of tax resistance in America when people ignore their constituents,” Sharma said this week, “we’re urging people to vote down the budget unless our demands are met.”
Asked earlier if voting down the budget wouldn’t harm students rather than promote change, Sharma said, “We’ve pursued all of the other appropriate avenues...The superintendent and board are behaving improperly.”
The Guilderland school budget was last voted down after a citizens’ group protesting high taxes fielded candidates and campaigned against the budget.
Sharma’s group is demanding a formal apology from the school board and district to McManus, Nelligan, and the community; a plan from the board on how to deal with similar situations; the re-instatement of McManus at the high school; and the resignation of the superintendent, John McGuire.
McGuire had ordered the transfers and other changes in the high school social studies department after an outside consultant issued a report that found a hostile work environment there. Ultimately backed by a majority of the board, McGuire denied Nelligan’s claim that the move was punitive.
Packed board sessions this summer with hundreds of students, recent graduates, and community members demanding the transfers be reversed got heavy media coverage. This fall, attendance at board meetings has dwindled to the usual handful and media coverage has dwindled as well.
Sharma said that 1,300 signatures had been gathered this summer of people demanding the transfers be reversed and “a few hundred Internet signatures” were gathered demanding the superintendent resign.
McGuire told The Enterprise last week, with the summer’s controversies behind him, “We’re in a very good place right now.”
While the summer’s protests were largely generated by social networking online, Sharma said this week, the plan now is to have students go door-to-door in Guilderland, a town with a population of about 34,000, largely within the school district. Typically, about three thousand people vote in school elections.
Asked how many people are in his group, Sharma said, “We have e-mails and phone numbers of hundreds of people.”
Those going door-to-door, he said, will try to register new voters and bring up the turnout for the elections.
“We’re hoping to organize an information meeting in January at a neutral location like the library to see who’s interested in running,” said Sharma.
The board has nine members who serve, unpaid, for three-year terms. The three members who are up for re-election this year are Richard Weisz, who was elected in 2000 and Hy Dubowsky and Denise Eisele, who were both elected in 2006. Dubowsky and Eisele said this week that they will seek re-election; Weisz is undecided. (See related story.)
Dubowsky was one of only two school board members (the other was Barbara Fraterrigo) who voted to review the decision to transfer the two teachers. He was also one of three board members (the others were Fraterrigo and Peter Golden, who was not re-elected) who favored a candidate besides McGuire for superintendent.
In past elections, Weisz had been backed by the teachers’ union while Eisele and Dubowsky have not.
Dubowsky said this week of United for McManus and Nelligan, “I think these kids care about education. I think they’re young and idealistic.”
While he admired the students’ exuberance and their plans to go door-to-door, Dubowsky said, “I can’t support using the budget as a weapon…That would be a step backwards.”
Eisele said she wouldn’t be seeking support from United for McManus and Nelligan. She declined commenting on their demands, but stated, “My base of constituency is the entire community.”
Weisz, the school board president who has already served three terms, came under fire from protesters this summer as the spokesman for the board.
He said this week, “I understand voting people out of office. That’s great,” he concluded, referring to the democratic process.
But Weisz parted ways with the group’s proposal to try to get the budget defeated if its demands are not met. He noted that those in United for McManus and Nelligan who can vote are probably seniors and wouldn’t be around next year to feel the harm inflicted by a budget defeat.
Change in life plans
Organizing this summer’s protests has changed Sharma’s life. He began his work as an activist three years ago, as a freshman, when he helped found an animal-rights group at the high school. He was honored earlier this year with an Outstanding Activist Award from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
At that time, he told The Enterprise he wanted to be a makeup artist. “I want to focus on youth and cosmetics and fashion as linked to animal welfare,” he said.
He had planned to start his career training in a vo-tech program and, after graduating from high school, going to beauty school.
This week, he said, he wants to go to college to study political science. “The months over the summer showed me an interest I didn’t know I had,” he said.
“Hillary’s campaign first made me realize I was interested in politics,” he said, of Clinton’s historic presidential bid. His views matched hers, Sharma said, and, as the first serious female candidate, “She showed anyone can be president.”
Sharma read biographies of Hillary Clinton, he said, and related to her on a personal level.
“All my friends were Obama supporters and I was laughed at,” Sharma said matter-of-factly.
He describes himself now as a “strong Obama supporter.”
Sharma is a member of the Young Democrats, and took the position of the northeast regional director for the high school caucus. “We have one delegate,” he said.
Much as Sharma hasn’t given up on Clinton, he hasn’t given up on McManus and Nelligan either.
“I hope to see her as president in four years,” he said of Clinton.
He also said, “We are considering, if Mr. Nelligan is still interested in working at Guilderland, all these supporters would want him back.”
About McManus, he said, “Although she’s doing well at the middle school, she still loves the high school. She’s still the advisor for the class of 2010 and she was there Saturday for Trick-or-Treat Street. She loves the high school,” he said, “and the school loves her.”