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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 14, 2011
Women at the helm
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND “We’re opening up boxes we may have closed for a long time,” said Colleen O’Connell this week of leaders in the Guilderland School District.
O’Connell, a seven-year member of the school board, was elected president at its July 5 reorganizational meeting. The vote was 8 to 0. (The newest of the nine board members, Rose Levy, elected in May, was absent.)
“To be elected unanimously was so gratifying,” said O’Connell. “It really touched my heart.”
There was a three-way race for vice president, won by Gloria Towle-Hilt with four votes. Barbara Fraterrigo and Emilio Genzano each garnered two votes.
Both the president and vice president serve one-year terms.
This is the first time that both elected leaders of the Guilderland School Board have been women. The district also has its first female superintendent, Marie Wiles, who started work in the fall.
Asked if this year’s new budget process billed as a series of “Community Conversations,” replacing a lecture-based budget review might have something to do with collaborative female style, Towle-Hilt said she doesn’t think so.
“I don’t get the sense that it’s a gender thing,” she said. “I wouldn’t say women are more collaborative than men.”
Towle-Hilt, a retired middle-school teacher, went on, “Since I got here in 1971, Guilderland has valued shared decision-making; it’s very much a part of the Guilderland culture. We’ve had times when we moved off the mark it causes tension that is palpable.” But now, Towle-Hilt said, Wiles, the three assistant superintendents, and the board members are all respectful of each other’s opinions and able to communicate well.
O’Connell and Towle-Hilt have run together in their last two elections. They teamed up in 2007, as O’Connell was running for her second term and Towle-Hilt for her first. They were supported by the Guilderland Teachers’ Association in a five-way race for three seats. Towle-Hilt came in first; O’Connell, second; and Fraterrigo, third.
In 2010, O’Connell and Towle-Hilt, along with Genzano, ran on the same slate in a six-way race for three seats. Fraterrigo came in first; Towle-Hilt, second; and O’Connell, third.
O’Connell said during both elections that she and Towle-Hilt shared a “common philosophy,” which she said this week is still true. “There’s no such thing as co-presidents,” she said, “but I’ve asked Gloria to be my partner in this.” She cited Towle-Hilt’s “depth of knowledge” on educational issues.
For her part, Towle-Hilt said, “My relationship with Colleen is very good. We can be open and honest with each other. I can be a supportive sounding board.”
“I feel the past few years have led me here,” O’Connell said when asked why she ran for president. “I took a leadership role in the superintendent search.” Referring to the superintendent before Wiles, she went on, “I felt badly I had been a member of the school board that selected John McGuire and that didn’t work out so well. I think we put together a great process, which led to the selection of Dr. Wiles.” O’Connell added she has been “very pleased” with Wiles’s leadership.
Second, O’Connell continued, “I chaired the Communications Committee this past year. “We listened to people like Amy Zurlo,” she said of the district’s publicist, “people who think about how to hold meetings…We changed CBAC [the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee] to the Community Conversations, which everyone has to acknowledge was wildly successful, involving hundreds of people rather than 30.”
When board member Richard Weisz decided not to pursue the presidency again and when Catherine Barber, who had been vice president for two years, decided not to run for the board again, O’Connell said, “It was my turn to step up.”
One of her chief goals as president, O’Connell said, is to maintain collegiality on the board so that members can disagree respectfully. A retreat for board members and the district office team is planned for later this summer, she said. “Dr. Wiles has suggested setting crisp and firm goals for the next four or five years,” said O’Connell, which she “fully supports.”
About her role as president, O’Connell said, “In some ways, I’ll have to step back.” A lawyer who now volunteers for community work, O’Connell went on, “I’m opinionated and not shy about stating my position. Now, I’ll be working to bring consensus.”
She believes the budget will dominate the board’s work in the year ahead. An October Community Conversation will be added to precede those in January and February.
“We don’t yet have a contract with the teachers’ union,” she said. “There are a lot of uncertainties.”
When O’Connell first ran for the school board in 2004, she stressed the fact that she had young children and would bring that perspective to the board. She and her husband, also a lawyer, have three children, now nearly grown Hannah will be a sophomore at the University of Vermont where she is majoring in global studies; Nate will be a freshman at Saint Michael’s College, also in Vermont, where he will focus on environmental studies; and Noah will be a sophomore at Guilderland High School.
O’Connell is pleased that the district, under Wiles’s leadership, is looking at the use of time to see how it can be used more efficiently.
She sees exciting changes ahead, similar to the changes in the budget process. “Usually the ship that is Guilderland Central takes more time to change its rudder,” she said. “When everybody got on board, it happened,” she said of the new budget process.
The $89 million budget passed with 55.5 percent of the vote.
O’Connell concluded, “I’m glad we’re looking at how we can do things better and more efficiently.”
Vice president’s outlook
Towle-Hilt, too, sees the change in the budget process as a watershed event for the district. “The Community Conversations came out of our committee,” she said. “We met for hours, talking with the district’s office team…. We were all unhappy with where we were. We sat and talked; we shared for hours. It all came to be. We are very happy with it. The community really understood we had difficult choices to make.”
The tone became less adversarial, she said. “The e-mails and calls were so different this year,” said Towle-Hilt. “People were appreciative and grateful for our efforts.”
She went on about next year, “The elephant in the room will be the budget and what happens with the state. We need to maintain the quality of education while we’re struggling economically. The future in education is cooperation and collaboration among school districts.”
Other goals for the upcoming year, Towle-Hilt said, include supporting the new high-school principal, looking at the use of time, and analyzing a report on Guilderland’s special-education programs.
“We’re looking more at strategic plans and long-term goals,” she said, “I have great hope.”
Towle-Hilt was married to a beloved English teacher at Farnsworth Middle School, Robert Hilt. He died last September. Their two children are both Guilderland High School graduates. Their daughter teaches string instruments at North Colonie, and their son is a technician in the computer department for the medical college at the University of Vermont.
“We benefited so much from the work of those before us,” said Towle-Hilt. “I want to give back.”