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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 23, 2009

Elijah Sharma

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior, launched his run for school board with a press conference last Thursday.

The student activist who has decided on a life of public service is using current technology — on-line social network sites and twitter — to get out his message.

“I’ve grown up in a time when constant communication is the norm,” he said.

Sharma used the Internet last summer as well as the television and print media to help galvanize support for two high school teachers who objected to their transfer to the middle school.

A dozen student supporters were at Thursday’s press conference along with the media. Sharma stood at a library podium with an American flag and carefully arranged red, white, and blue campaign signs behind him to announce his run.  His campaign manager, another student, introduced him.

Sharma has said he is the first openly gay candidate to run for school board and that one of his goals is to “make bullying history.”

Student supporters at the press conference told The Enterprise that gay and lesbian students are frequently bullied at the high school and they believe that Sharma can make a difference.

Sharma was disappointed with the TV reports on his candidacy, he said; he wasn’t asked questions of substance but rather about whether he had a curfew or if his run was a senior prank.

To the contrary, his campaign is a serious effort. Sharma, 18, who lives in Altamont, will attend Hudson Valley Community College next year — a cost-saving move, he said — and then plans to transfer to the University at Albany. He wants to study political science, he said, and plans a career in public service.

He sites as relevant background the two national boards he’s served on — the Student Peace Alliance and the Young Democrats of America. He has also served as vice president of his class and is currently vice president of the local chapter of Amnesty International.

He also said he has a black belt in tae kwon do.

His freshman year, Sharma helped found Last Chance for Animals, which got vegetarian burgers on the school menu, and raised awareness that students have a choice about dissecting animals in science labs.

“As I grew up more in high school,” he said, “I became more interested in public service rather than being an activist, pushing for change from the outside.”

He served this year as one of the two score of volunteers on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee and wrote several letters to the Enterprise editor on the budget — one advocating cuts in spending on computers rather than cutting teaching assistant jobs, and another in support of full-day kindergarten.

The issues

Asked which constituency he would primarily serve, Sharma said the community.  “An elected official is to represent the views of those who elected him,” said Sharma.

“Over the summer, the community wanted the board to re-open the decision,” he said of the teacher transfers and people were frustrated with the board’s lack of response.

“Mrs. Fraterrigo and Dr. Dubowsky were voices of reason on the board,” he said of the two school board members — Barbara Fraterrigo and the late Hy Dubowsky — who wanted to review the superintendent's decision. “The community asked them to review the decision. Those two really got it.”

Sharma went on, referring to the board’s decision not to listen in public to comments from a retired department chairwoman, “I would have never in a million years considered gaveling a speaker down...It’s rude to a person who has given years to the district.”

He also said, “Executive session has a purpose but it should never be used to sidestep an issue, or to avoid criticism...The two teachers didn’t want that privacy. I would have allowed public comment. People were frustrated because they wanted to be listened to.”

Sharma concluded that the way the board handled the situation was “a huge mistake.” He said, “It really polarized the community from the board. I would have reviewed the decision. Administrative decisions should be checked by those elected by the public.

“Some board members said the board shouldn’t second guess the superintendent’s decision. Reviewing is not an insult or an attack on authority. Really, it’s just part of the system.”

Sharma concluded that the experience was “a sad lesson in government for the students.”

About bullying, Sharma said the district needs to address it differently than it does now.

“GLBT bullying, we need to address in a completely different way than we are,” he said of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. “As someone who walks the halls, I can say bullying occurs daily...Posters saying, ‘Bullying is not OK’ aren’t going to change how people think.””

Sharma is a trainer in the National Coalition Building Institute and said of that model, “Peer to peer is more effective than punishment from an administrator.”

He went on, “We need more peer-to-peer programs and workshops. Not everyone who bullies understands the impact. People don’t understand how words have power...We have to work with teachers and staff...

“One of the biggest issues is homo-negative remarks,” he said, explaining that he uses that term because it more accurately describes the remarks than “homophobic.”

“If you use racial epithets in school, you will get in trouble,” Sharma said. “But people use homo-negative comments in class and don’t get in trouble. People have to learn that’s not OK.”

He concluded, “Drop-out and suicide rates in both rich and poor districts are higher for GBLT. It affects every district. It’s a national problem. We don’t have time to wait.”

About inequities in student performance, Sharma said, “We need to make sure we give students everything they need to learn, and teachers everything they need to teach. In low-income homes, kids are facing more.”

He suggested the district could purchase supplies in bulk and sell them to students at a savings over what commercial stores would charge. And, said Sharma, “We must make sure our curriculum doesn’t have inequalities embedded in it.”

He suggested doing research to see “how different groups of people learn better” and to “use different methods to reach students.”

Sharma also stressed the need for having social workers in the schools to help when “there is stress in the homes.”

Last summer, Sharma said that he would lead a campaign to vote down the school budget unless the board made certain concessions but he later decided that was unwise in tough economic times.

“Now that I’m running for the board of education,” he said this week, “anyone that wants to send a message that they were upset over the summer, they don’t have to vote ‘no’ for the budget; they can send a message by voting for me.”

He also said, “Voting down a budget is not in the best interest of a school, but people shouldn’t be strong-armed into it.”

Sharma wouldn’t say whether he supported the budget or not but said, rather, it is a matter of individual voter choice.

He called cutting 22 teaching assistants “irresponsible.” “There was clear support for the teaching assistants on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee and in the community,” he said. “We shouldn’t save money by cutting people in the front lines.”

Sharma also said, “We can’t compare ourselves to other districts. We’ve integrated them into our programs,” he said of the teaching assistants. “I don’t remember any teachers publicly saying they’re OK with the cuts. The TAs should have been fully restored; it will impact our programs.”

Sharma also said that, personally, he was “fully supportive” of all-day kindergarten but, as a board member, he would separate his personal interests from “what the community wants.”

“I don’t think the community wanted full-day kindergarten,” he said. In cutting the teaching assistants and in putting full-day kindergarten into the budget, Sharma said, the board ignored the will of the community and of the budget committee. He asked of the work done by the budget committee, “What’s the point if you completely disregard what they think?”

Sharma concluded, “There’s a lot about the budget I don’t support...I don’t want my words to be responsible for people voting ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ People should do their research and vote how they feel.”

If the budget were to be voted down, Sharma said, “I would ask why...I’d hold meetings and talk to the community.”

About employee contracts, Sharma said, “Contracts should be fair and represent the cost of living.” He went on, “Budgets should be responsible. We should make sure we’re not overspending. School employees give a lot. We spend way too much on luxuries...Technology spending is inflated. My argument has been: How can anyone say a computer is more valuable than a teaching assistant?...The board should be advocates for the teachers and the teaching assistants.”

He also said that Guilderland’s teaching assistants are paid “embarrassingly low wages.” He added, “They do so much for so little; dismissing them is a slap in the face.”

Sharma concluded, “I’m a friend to teachers.” Referring to events last summer, he went on, “I have no problem sticking up for teachers, even against an entire board and superintendent.”

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