Seven candidates are vying for three open seats on the Saratoga Springs City School District Board of Education. The at-times contentious campaign has focused on the issue of safety, after the school board last fall chose not to renew a practice that allowed grounds monitors to carry guns. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports on a forum held Wednesday night with the candidates.
Seven school board candidates took questions from the audience at Saratoga Springs High School Wednesday night. At the event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County, the candidates vying for the three open seats on the Board of Education discussed classroom size, arts funding, student well-being, and other issues.
But the first question asked by the moderator and perhaps the one on most people’s minds was about guns.
“What is your position on having any school personnel armed with guns, and if you have plans to have armed resource officers in schools, how do you plan to pay for salaries and insurance required?”
The candidates have split into separate camps on the issue. Three of the candidates, Shaun Wiggins, Ed Cubanski and Dean Kolligian, have accepted endorsements from the group Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools, which formed last fall after the decision that effectively removed firearms from 11 grounds monitors.
The group has raised more than $30,000 for its candidates and has hired national Republican political consultant Spence Rogers, though the group claims it is non-partisan and not focused on a single-issue.
The other candidates are John Brueggemann, Natalya Lakhtakia, and Connie Woytowich. Incumbent school board member Heather Reynolds is running for re-election.
Woytowich last month dropped the endorsement of the Safer Schools group after it criticized the other candidates on social media.
But despite all the of the drama in the headlines, the candidates Wednesday night did not attack each other or mention the Safer Schools group. Each candidate explained their position on the guns issue.
John Brueggemann, a Skidmore College professor, said the real gains in safety to are to be found in prevention.
“My concern about the grounds monitors is that under the current situation they don’t have advanced training for working with young people, for working with special needs kids. They don’t have expert supervision. The school district is not equipped to provide expert supervision of armed personnel here,” said Brueggemann.
Brueggeman does support the district’s two armed school resource officers. An additional SRO was brought on this school year in partnership with the Saratoga County Sheriff.
Next to answer was Connie Woytowich, a NYS Master Teacher who teaches at Colonie Central High School, and past PTA president at the Division Street Elementary School in Saratoga Springs. She supports re-arming ground monitors.
“Two SRO’s in a district for our scope and size is not adequate. In my own home district – I would like to point out that I am the only K-12 educator up here – in my own home district we have more than that,” said Woytowich.
Woytowich argued providing new training and authorization to grounds monitors to carry weapons would be cheaper than hiring additional SRO’s.
Shaun Wiggins, who touts his experience as a business owner specializing in security, as well as his past career with the U.S. Department of Defense, says ideally he’d like to see more SRO’s. But, he adds, the district doesn’t have the budget.
“Absent that budget, what we need to do is have a stopgap measure, so I support having armed security. There is a statute at the state-level where armed security can be the security guards or they can have peacekeeper authority. There must be peacekeeper authority in here, period,” said Wiggins.
Candidate Ed Cubanski, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, also supports re-arming grounds monitors because, as he puts it, “seconds matter.”
“What the grounds monitor would be doing in talking to the professionals – personally, one-on-one, that I have had – they said they are a stopgap measure there to identify where the threat is coming from, and then when the police arrive then they would direct them there and turn the incident over to the incident commander, which would be the fire chief. So the grounds monitors, they have the experience,” said Cubanski.
Several, but not all, of the district’s grounds monitors are retired law enforcement.
Candidate Natalya Lakhtakia supported the addition of a second SRO. A speech language pathologist who works with children, she does not want to re-arm grounds monitors.
“I have work with a lot of students with behavioral needs. It is a concern for me to think about them interacting with people who are responsible for disciplining them and managing their behaviors and having those people have weapons. I do not believe that lethal weapons should be part of school discipline,” said Lakhtakia.
Heather Reynolds is the only one of the seven current candidates who is currently on the Board of Education. She has defended the board’s action to not re-arm grounds monitors, which she said is compliant with the Gun-Free Schools Act that prohibits personnel from arming themselves without district authorization. She has said there was no decision on record that authorized the grounds monitors to arm themselves.
Reynolds praised the ongoing work of Saratoga Springs’ District Emergency Response Team to promote a positive school climate.
‘We have a continuous improvement model for safety, they’re always assessing how we can make physical or procedural changes, and there has been a real shift this year that has been so positive in terms of focusing on prevention…”
Candidate Dean Kolligian, who promotes his experience on several community boards, believes any of the former law enforcement officers who had carried weapons within the school district should be able to retain that ability. With regard to training, he contrasted the former law enforcement officers working as grounds monitors to the district’s policies on substitute teachers.
“Why is OK for us to bring back folks that have been retired in an educational profession and task them with the education and training of our youth today in something that they may have done in the past 10 years or so, but it’s not OK to take a retired law enforcement individual if we provide them the continual education and training, the ability to act in that role here within the district,” said Kolligian.
Board of Education elections for the Saratoga Springs City School District are May 21st.