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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 22, 2010

Colleen O’Connell

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Colleen O’Connell is looking for a new superintendent who will share the decision-making process.

“We do not need a top-down manager,” she said. “That, to me, is non-negotiable.”

O’Connell, who is running for a third three-year term, heads a board committee of four that is spearheading the search for a new superintendent.

A mother and lawyer, O’Connell describes herself currently as a community volunteer.

“The most important quality in a new superintendent is someone who truly believes in shared decision-making, someone who knows how to work with people in groups, someone who can build consensus and has educational vision.”

The public — in two community feedback sessions and through the district’s website, have said that sharing decision-making is important, she said.

O’Connell’s committee will be sure candidates — 32 have expressed interest so far — have these qualities by “posing pointed questions about shared decision-making” and by checking references to “dig deep on the person’s background,” she said.

Community feedback has also shown people would like a superintendent who would stay for five to seven years, O’Connell said.

“We can’t legally bind someone to do that,” she said, noting that the current superintendent, who is staying less than three years, had said he would stay longer.

O’Connell also said, “A successful candidate will learn about our district before suggesting changes. And, she concluded, “The superintendent is the board’s only employee; a cordial relationship is essential.”

On the role of a school-board member, O’Connell said, “In the past budget cycle, we’ve had to balance the needs of kids, K through 12, with the needs of the taxpayer…I think we got it as right as we could with the resources we had.”

“I absolutely support the budget,” said O’Connell. “It restored essential programs for K through 12….And a 3.5 percent tax hike is reasonable after the small ones we’ve had.”

She mentioned two things she wished had been done differently in the budget. “I would not have fully restored co-curriculars,” she said of clubs and activities at the middle school and high school. “I would like to see a little more ownership on the part of the kids.”

Secondly, O’Connell said, “Going forward, I would like to revisit freshmen sports.” O’Connell had voted against the $73,000 cut to sports and said, as she had during the board’s final budget meeting, that she would prefer cutting modified rather than freshmen sports. She pointed out that middle-school students can play in community leagues while freshmen can’t.

Also, she said that, if eighth-graders are absorbed into junior varsity teams, there “may be safety issues.” Finally, she said the Bethlehem budget proposal calls for cutting modified rather than freshman sports and it would be wise to have parallel cuts in the suburban council so teams can play each other.

Referring to the athletic director, O’Connell concluded, “I hope we can persuade Mr. [Wayne] Bertrand to switch the funds.”

If Guilderland were to get additional state aid, O’Connell said she would advise returning some to the taxpayers and putting some into reserve funds.

If the $87.4 million budget were defeated, she said, “I would sit down and listen with my colleagues to get feedback on why the budget failed and then correct the perceived flaw.”

On the tax hike, O’Connell said of board President Richard Weisz’s idea that a 4-percent hike is the third rail in Guilderland, “I do agree with Dick’s statement.”

She went on to note that members of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee had conflicting advice on the proposed tax hike, with some saying it needed to be lower and others saying they would go higher to maintain programs.

O’Connell said she was sure many parents with children in the schools would go higher but, she said, she is “always mindful” of the 65 or 70 percent of residents that have no children in the schools.

On contracts, O’Connell said, “Next year, the negotiating teams will meet and discuss what’s important. Certainly, salary increase and contributions to health insurance are up there. I’m not going to pre-suppose the economic condition or what will be important to teachers.”

While O’Connell said she was not sure she would agree with “zero percent raises,” the raises under the current contract in the neighborhood of 4 percent “seem very generous compared to those in the private sector with frozen pay.”

She concluded, “The public sector has long been immune. This economic crisis is making the problem bleed into the public sector.”

On the question of full-day kindergarten, O’Connell said, “I believe in full-day kindergarten. I served on the committee that researched the issue and recommended its adoption.”

She said that the proposal had been thoughtful and well researched.

Reaction to the full-day program from parents, teachers, and administrators have all been favorable, she said.

The full-day program allows for more learning, she said. “Kindergarten teachers said that, for the first time this year, they can do the entire Everyday Math curriculum,” said O’Connell.

She said she also believes that the early intervention afforded by the full-day program will lower special-education costs later on.

“Teaching assistants are essential to the way Guilderland delivers services,” said O’Connell. After the superintendent’s original budget proposed cutting 36 special-education teaching assistants, the board, O’Connell noted, restored five at the elementary schools, three at the middle school, and four at the high school, all for learning workshops.

“The way we teach is dependent on their expertise,” she said.

O’Connell went on, “I certainly hope we don’t go to a model with no teaching assistants.”

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