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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 23, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Julie Fletcher Cuneo, a Guilderland High School graduate, says she’s making her first run for the school board because she cares about quality education and she cares about kids.
She’d bring to the board the perspective of a native and the perspective of a parent of young children.
“Our policies and resources should be targeted to promote achievement for all students,” Cuneo said. “Keeping things simple can be effective...Sometimes we change without knowing what is effective. We should look at outcomes of our programs compared to other districts and gauge how we’re performing.”
A nurse practitioner, Cuneo and her husband, Brian, a lawyer, have four children a first-grader at Guilderland Elementary, a special-education kindergarten student at Pine Bush Elementary, and two children too young for school.
“I got a great education at Guilderland,” said Cuneo, “and I want to give back.”
Her goal, she said, is to “maintain the quality of our programs in this challenging economic climate. It’s certainly not a time for branching out.”
Cuneo does not support the $85 million budget because she believes with the larger class sizes and cuts in teaching assistants the quality of education will suffer. And, although she supports full-day kindergarten for educational reasons, she says this was not the year to add it.
“I’m running as an independent,” Cuneo said. “I know in the past, independent candidates haven’t done as well...I would be a unique voice. I’m someone with deep roots in the community.”
After graduating from Guilderland High School in 1990, she earned a bachelor of science degree from Hartwick College with a major in nursing. A registered nurse, Cuneo worked at St. Peter’s and Ellis hospitals. She went on to earn a master’s degree in acute care at the University of Pittsburgh in 2000.
“We returned here to be with family,” said Cuneo. “It feels like home.”
She noted there are currently no board members with young children and she would bring that perspective to the board. But she added, “My focus is for all children of all abilities.”
Cuneo has been active in the PTA at Guilderland Elementary School and serves as a Girl Scout leader for first-grade Daisies.
She values scouting and there was no one to lead a troop for her daughter. “I thought, ‘Why not me?’ If I value something,” said Cuneo, “I’ll step up.”
If elected, Cuneo said, “My allegiance would be to the students. The role of a school board is to address students first and foremost and to further the quality of education.”
On the situation last summer, Cuneo said, “The decision should have been reviewed by the board.” She suggested the board could have looked into the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers and investigated the situation.
On tolerance, Cuneo said, “The current program is great. It’s a first step. What needs to be done to have change, you need to start with students accepting themselves. It’s important to respect yourself and then you can respect others.”
She stressed the worth of training to improve students’ self-esteem.
“It’s an important issue,” she concluded of harassment. “It should be discussed and addressed.”
On the $85 million budget proposal, Cuneo said, “I regret to say, I don’t support the current budget, primarily because of the impact on student learning.”
She called the estimated tax hike of .58 percent “acceptable to most in the community,” but went on, “We could have that same low tax-rate impact but have restored our teachers and teaching assistants.”
Cuneo continued, “They’re taking too much away and it will hurt the quality of education. I don’t support adding full-day kindergarten at this time for economic reasons...Maybe the state will mandate it, but this year they didn’t. We should pull back from any new programs.
“The stimulus money was not for new programs, just to get through tough times. Because of that, I don’t support the budget. I think it’s a shame.”
Cuneo, who served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, said that most members of the committee “valued teaching assistants and small class sizes.”
She believes money that would, in the long run, be spent for full-day kindergarten, which would benefit only a “very small group,” could better be used for “vital things” like small class size and teaching assistants.
“I’m a parent of a kindergartner myself,” said Cuneo. “I support full-day kindergarten but not this year. We’ve been doing well...Our kids are good to go right now. We’re also giving up things that do matter to most parents.”
On teaching assistants, Cuneo said, “I think some TA reduction was necessary because of the declining enrollment. But, she said, cutting 22 teaching assistants was “drastic and unnecessary.”
Teaching assistants, she said, are “part of the instructional model for reading and writing.” Cutting the teaching assistants without evaluating and restructuring the program is “putting the cart before the horse,” she said.
“TAs are underpaid and do a tremendous amount of work,” Cuneo said. “They really help our teachers. It’s a double hit for students. We’ve made our class sizes larger and taken away TAs. Who will help focus the student who is lost?” she asked. “That will negatively impact learning.”
Asked what course the board should take if the budget were voted down, Cuneo said, “I would like to take the money for full-day kindergarten and use it to restore TAs and teachers” so class size is reduced. She went on, “I don’t mind using the fund balance,” thereby keeping the tax hike low.
Contracts, said Cuneo, should be re-opened and looked at. “We may need to make changes in keeping with our beliefs,” she said, “but we shouldn’t compromise quality.”
She also said, “The community is saying, we can’t keep going as we have.”
Any inequities in student learning, Cuneo said, should be dealt with on “a case-by-case basis.” She said of students, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or economic background, “If they’re struggling, they should be helped.”
Sometimes simple conversations in which students are asked, “Do you have a computer at home?” or “Do your parents speak English at home?” could lead to solutions, she said.