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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 23, 2011
After five years at school board’s helm, Prez Weisz says, “Democracy can be a messy business”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND In his five years as president of the school board, Richard Weisz never broke a sweat. He is not planning to run for another one-year term as president but will continue to serve on the board until 2012.
One of the tensest moments in his presidency came in the summer of 2008 as the board’s meeting hall was packed with hundreds of protesting students distraught over the transfer of two popular teachers from the high school to the middle school. As television cameras rolled, Weisz sounded his gavel.
He had explained at the start of the meeting the board’s rules for public comment: “If you refer to someone by name, we take that in executive session,” he said. “I’m supposed to gavel you if you talk about a personnel item.”
As he sounded his gavel, the crowd jeered.
“This is America!” someone shouted as the onlookers applauded.
“Let’s exercise our right to vote you off the board!” someone else shouted to more applause.
Weisz sounded the gavel again when a student at the microphone named the teachers. “Speech! Speech!” yelled the crowd as the student kept on talking.
Weisz and the board members filed out of the hall as several of the television cameramen followed. “Shame! Shame!” chanted the crowd.
Looking back at his tenure as president last week, Weisz said he didn’t view that episode as one of his greatest challenges. “I’ve faced that professionally,” said Weisz who is a partner in the Albany office of Hodgson Russ, LLP. “I’ve had to tell 350 workers their company is closing…I’ve had to tell a community their hospital is closing.”
He said of bearing the brunt of criticism for the board’s handling of the transfers, “It comes with the territory.”
What Weisz is proudest of in those hot summer sessions is that every board member had a chance to give his or her views before a decision was reached. (Ultimately, in a split vote, the board backed the superintendent’s recommendation to transfer the teachers.)
“Hy Dubowsky was having cancer treatments at the time,” recalled Weisz “He asked to speak at the meeting, so we had it at 8 a.m….That was a leadership challenge. It was the right thing to do. Everyone on the board got to speak their piece.”
Weisz went on, “As a board president, I’ve never thought that unanimity was a sign of a successful board meeting. Democracy can be a messy business. We, as a board, explored issues together in good faith….The more difficult the topic, the more need for open conversation so people feel empowered to contribute their ideas.”
Weisz was first elected to the school board 11 years ago; he is in the midst of his fourth three-year term. The nine unpaid board members elect a president and vice president at their July reorganizational meeting each year. This year’s will be on July 5.
Weisz was elected president in 2006. He ran against long-time board member Barbara Fraterrigo and won by a vote of 5 to 4. He said at the time he saw the role of president as being a “facilitator.” Weisz said he would focus on building consensus as opposed to picking a particular agenda, and he also said he hoped the board would shape policy proactively rather just reacting.
Before Weisz became president, board meetings often lasted for hours. He revamped the protocol so that the board votes at the start of the meeting on a “consent agenda,” grouping together items such as appointments and resignations that aren’t publicly discussed.
He also made the board’s committees on policy, communication, business practices, and audit more active. “Rather than have the board act as a committee on everything,” said Weisz, it’s more efficient to have committees tasked with specific duties.
“It empowers the committees to have meaningful meetings,” he said. “The rough edges are taken care of by the committees.”
Asked about other accomplishments during his presidency, Weisz said, “I really worked hard to encourage each board member to say what they really thought. I’ve treated all board members with respect,” he said. When members worried something would be disruptive, Weisz said, “I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’”
He went on, “I’m not always in the majority….Early on, I asked board members in the fall to come up with our list of priorities so the board wasn’t relegated to a responsive role.”
Dubowsky and John Dornbush both had technology as a priority, which, Weisz points out, was not one of his priorities. Although both of those board members died of cancer while serving on the board, their push for technology was carried out with such things as the addition of Project Lead the Way engineering classes at the high school and the upgrading of technology at the elementary schools, said Weisz.
Weisz, who led the board through the recent years of state-aid cutbacks and district budget cuts, saw all five budgets pass.
His 2009 election was a close one as that spring he had persuaded the board to include full-day kindergarten in the budget, despite advice to the contrary from members of a citizens’ budget committee worried about tough times. Weisz had said the budget vote would serve as a referendum on the move from half-day to full-day kindergarten; the budget passed.
“I advocate forcefully for what I believe in,” said Weisz last week. “If I can persuade, I will.” Although full-day kindergarten continues to be an issue, Weisz said he is convinced it is the right choice.
The board was also divided, for the only time in memory, in the appointment of a superintendent when, in 2007, John McGuire was named to the post. McGuire left after just three years and the board unanimously chose Marie Wiles as superintendent.
With board member Colleen O’Connell and the communication committee, Wiles revamped the budget process this year, replacing the citizens’ advisory committee with two community forums.
Tuesday’s school board meeting, the last over which Weisz will preside, echoed the 2008 summer sessions but with less rancor and less media. About 70 people turned out to protest the dismissal of a long-time coach. (See related story.) The coach’s nephew said he’d contacted the local daily newspaper and television stations but they weren’t interested in covering the story.
The coach’s supporters willingly agreed to Weisz’s iteration of the board’s requirement that they speak in closed session. No gavel was sounded and the only loud protests were heard after the close of the meeting as the crowd left.
Asked why he won’t seek another term as president, Weisz said, “It’s time. I’ve enjoyed being president and I’m grateful to the board members for their support.”
Asked if he has a successor in mind, Weisz said, “The board will pick. I do think of myself as one of nine.”
He went on, “We’re facing problems that are taking us into uncharted territory. None of us has a golden key.”
Weisz concluded with a pitch for more citizen involvement. “I wish more people would run for the board,” he said. “Most people sit with their friends and complain, ‘They screwed it up.’ Where else do you have a chance to be part of the ‘they’ so easily?…
“We’ve been leaders with anti-bullying, improved nutrition, energy management. There’s been a meaningful result from our efforts…Given a chance to represent people you care about for a cause you care about it’s satisfying.”