By REBECCA WEBSTER
Recorder News Staff
Come May 21, voters will cast their ballots for not only the Greater Amsterdam School District's 2013-14 budget but for the two spots open on the Board of Education.
Five candidates have submitted their names to the district for consideration on the board, including incumbents John Bottisti and Carol Greco. Up for consideration for the two spots are also Neighborhood Watch block captain Robert Vennett, NYSUT employee and GASD parent Katherine Hans, and Conifer Park Clinician and GASD parent Laurie Hamblin.
Each candidate was tasked with obtaining 100 signatures from the community in order to turn their interest packet in to district personnel.
For Hamblin, a mother of five, running was the end result of being "fed up" with what's happening in the district, including what she believes are disciplinary issues in the classrooms and what she sees as "irresponsible spending" of district money.
Hamblin pulled her children of the district and placed them in private schooling, she explained, but after realizing the financial burden of sending five children to a private school, the children are now back in the Amsterdam district.
"I'm running as a parent. I'm running as a very honest parent. And I have the children's best interest at heart," Hamblin said. "I'm also a taxpayer and I have the taxpayers best interest at heart."
Also a parent and a taxpayer, Hans said she decided to run for a third time because she feels she can bring the "immediate experience" to the table.
"I'd like to think I can bring some fresh ideas to the table," she said.
Her biggest concern has been the class sizes in the district, something she says impacts "just about everything else that goes on in the district."
"Both of my kids have 28 kids in their class. That's a lot for one person to handle," she said. "Curie has an excellent reading program. If we can reduce class sizes and focus on reading skills that's the focus for a good education."
For Bottisti, this will be his second time running for the board, and with both of his daughters as educators in district schools, Bottisti said he's been integrated into what's happening in the schools.
"I thought maybe I could do some good," he said of running. "My first year was quite an awakening to the situation, just how bad the economy really was and just how much state cutbacks are going to affect school districts," he said.
Bottisti said his background in the banking industry will be what he would continue to bring to the board, working to keep as light of a burden as possible on the taxpayers.
A product of Amsterdam schooling, Vennett said one of the things he could bring to the board is being as fiscally responsible as possible, while keeping in mind the population, average income, and lack of growth he sees in the city.
"Everybody's got to tighten their belt and it's time GASD did the same thing," he said.
Vennett said he is dedicated towards the students getting the best possible education they can get and enabling them to be prepared for college or careers or any life choice.
"I don't think we're meeting (those) right now if we're graduating at 60 percent," he said. "I don't think that those goals are being met."
Greco did not return calls from the Recorder seeking comment for this story.
For Vennett, the district's graduation rate, which hovers in the lower 60 percent range, is his top priority.
"The state says we should be graduating 70-something percent of our kids," he said, adding that communities close in size and economic background are seeing higher graduation rates.
"I don't think we're getting the biggest bang for our buck," Vennett said.
Vennett said the graduation rate issue isn't new and can't understand where the downfall is.
"We need to have a comprehensive plan in order to get those numbers up," he said.
Hans said she knows the graduation rate is "very low," and feels that if the district starts with smaller class sizes at the elementary levels, that will help improve things as the students move up grades.
"It addresses all kinds of things," she said. "And if you handle disciplinary issues earlier in the education process, (that will help) too."
For Hamblin, helping the district move forward means focusing on tougher penalties for the students who misbehave, helping parents to become more accountable, and boosting moral for the students and teachers and making them proud to be in the district and excited to learn.
"We need to focus on the fundamentals, which is in the grade schools," she said. "Right now, we're losing the kids at lower and lower grade levels. ... We need to go back to reading, writing, and arithmetic, get the distractions out of the classrooms."
Since Bottisti has been on the board, he said he has watched the graduation rate steadily increase.
"Sometimes what it takes is time because you can't put a plan in place and next year it happens," he said. "We're at that cycle."
Though major cuts were not a part of this year's budget, the district has in the past had to make tough decisions on where to cut spending.
When asked what cuts he would make if the budget warranted it, Bottisti said he wouldn't personally say which areas as he would want to have an open discussion with the public to see what they found most important.
Hamblin said she would start taking the "unnecessary positions" out of the budget like "assistants to assistant coaches."
"If children's grade levels aren't up there, than they can't be on these teams anyway," she said. "I would say that's a good starting point."
She also touched on assessing raises being given in the district.
Vennett said that for him the starting place would not be the teachers.
"Cutting a teacher would be the absolute last place I would go," he said, adding later. "Cutting teachers is never a solution. There has to be other areas that have to be cut and one of the things is stop giving themselves raises at the administrative level."
For Hans, talk of making cuts brought her back to the steep amount of budget cuts made just a few years back, though in her opinion the athletic programs weren't as deeply impacted.
"If you have to make cuts across the board, then you have to. You can't spare any one area," she said. "Make the cuts so that it impacts the classroom as little as possible."
With the district continuing to make its transition into the new Common Core standards and teachers following the new APPR system, candidates had some ideas with how to support the changing educational atmosphere.
Hans, a champion of smaller class sizes, said the changing standardized tests, that reflect core curriculum does put a burden on staff and children. As a result, she said, she would support the educators as best she could as they continue their transition into the new system.
Vennett said when it comes to state mandates "you have to do what you have to do" and said he'd have to be more involved in the process to better know how to serve the teachers.
Throughout his time on the board, Bottisti said, the APPR has been a big issue for teachers.
"We're just getting that underway. There's a lot of angst in the district, but everybody seems to be working through it," he said.
Which contracts settled there are no big issues right now and as for the Common Core changes, he said there are already moves in place to support the schools.
Hamblin talked about rearranging the way the district utilizes their resources and reassessing what the students need to excel.
"I think again that's going to boil down to taking the disciplinary actions out of the classrooms so the teachers and students can face these tough times together instead of having the amount of disruptions that they have," she said. "It makes for an easier learning environment."
ON THEIR AGENDAS
Each candidate is championing different things. For Hamblin, it's moving disciplinary problems out of the classroom, making sure teachers have what they need, and getting parents to be more accountable.
For Bottisti, he hopes to keep watch over every dollar, something he feels is being done at every board meeting.
For Hans, her focus is class sizes and finding creative ways to save money or fund programs.
And for Vennett, he championing the graduation rate and watching what the district is incurring debt from.
The polls will be open May 21 from noon to 9 p.m. where residents will vote on who will fill the two available board positions, as well as the budget.