Four run for three school board seats in Saranac Lake
Incumbents, challengers each pitch different types of experience
SARANAC LAKE — The four candidates running for three open seats on the Saranac Lake school board each said the district has done well during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also believe their set of skills will benefit students the most.
Board member Rick Retrosi is not running for another term. Board President Aurora White and member Nancy Bernstein are running for reelection. They believe their experience on the board is valuable. After an unsuccessful run last year, Zachary Randolph is running again, hoping to increase community engagement. Justin Garwood, recently moved back to his hometown and is running for the first time.
The election is Tuesday, May 18.
Garwood grew up in Saranac Lake and went to school in the district. Last summer he moved back here from Vermont, where he is a professor of special education who has taught at the University of Vermont. He said he moved back because he wants to raise a family here. His daughter is in kindergarten at Petrova Elementary School.
He wants to be on the board because he believes school boards have a lot of influence on childhood development.
He studies, teaches and writes about classroom management, with a particular focus on students with emotional or behavioral disorders and those experiencing trauma. He’s also received a grant for researching teacher burnout.
Garwood said he wants to bring knowledge to the board, not to be an authority, but a resource.
Garwood noticed a difference between the way Vermont schools and the SLCSD handled the COVID-19 pandemic. While other schools went completely remote, he was impressed Saranac Lake found a way to keep students in classes, with some exceptions. Going forward, he thinks kids should be in school with a choice to be remote available.
“Beyond reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, a school is really a community,” Garwood said. “There was never a day this school year when I dropped my daughter off that she didn’t want to go. That didn’t happen in a lot of places in the country.”
Garwood believes the district can improve its literacy development, as every district can, and he wants to increase enrollment.
He said he wants to close the “opportunity gap” that keeps some students from getting the most from their education.
Garwood is also a member on a subcommittee of the board’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
Bernstein said she’s learned a lot in her three years on the board and now, “I’m ready to get to work.”
She’s busy on the board now, as the chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, which she helped establish last year. She also said she spends time reading, learning and growing to be a better board member.
Bernstein’s son is graduating this year but she wants to stay on the board to continue giving back to the community.
“I’m a parent in the district. I’ve been through the school from the beginning to the end,” she said. “I bring my passion and feeling of responsibility to the position. I take it very seriously.”
She claims to bring a unique view to the board, representing the needs of commuting families.
“I’m one of the only school board members that doesn’t live in the village, which is always a good perspective to have,” Bernstein said.
She said schools struggled this year, interpreting COVID-19 mandates from the federal and state governments.
“Everybody suffered, staff suffered, children suffered, families suffered. But I think given the circumstances we did the best we could,” Bernstein said.
The board recently approved changes to allow more in-person instruction in the waning weeks of the school year, which she said was “a huge step in the right direction.”
Randolph said, if elected, his role on the school board will be one of a “curious interrupter.” He hopes to ask lots of questions and inspire lots of conversations between the board and community.
Randolph unsuccessfully ran for school board last year and said his intentions are still the same — to contribute to the school community and push it in a positive direction.
He said being on the school board is one of the most important roles a community member can hold.
He believes his leadership and organization skills from his job at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers would translate well to the board. He said his job is to make systems as healthy as possible and help people become their best.
He said he’s had to make decisions about COVID-19 in his job and has watched the board make some of those same decisions. It was hard, he said, to keep asking people to do one more thing differently than usual, but he thinks the district did a good job.
Randolph wants to see students move back to in-person learning in the fall, and believes that the district’s COVID-19 decisions should mitigate risks without impacting education.
When looking at the budget, Randolph said if it comes down to making hard decisions he doesn’t believe in targeting one item for cuts. He said the board has to look at each line item and the budget as a whole to keep safe, healthy and clean facilities the board can be proud in.
Randolph said board meetings are sparsely attended now and he wants to get more people involved.
White said she’s running for reelection for the same reason as when she first ran. She doesn’t have a teaching degree, but she wants to contribute to the school and community her daughter is growing up in.
In her six years on the board she’s learned the job description for the position does not show the full scope of what is expected.
“What they tell you the role of the board is and what is actually the role of the board are two different things,” White said.
On paper, the roles of the board are in setting budgets and policies. In reality, she said it’s a lot more “putting out fires.” One of these fires, the COVID-19 pandemic, has lasted for more than a year.
As daily school operations changed, White said the board took on a communications role. She gives credit for COVID-19 success to the school administration, adding that the board’s role was to tell parents what was going on and hear their thoughts.
“In any difficult conversation — we’ve had several regarding COVID — I think it’s important to allow the community a safe place to express their opinions,” White said.
As president, White said she’s often the voice of the board, expressing the views of all members and not just her own.
She said her background in analytics and finance helps when it comes time to set the budget, but it’s hard without community engagement.
“It is hard to sit through these meetings knowing there are people in the community that have opinions and skills that can help us, but don’t attend the meetings,” White said.
She hopes to get community attendance of meetings back up after a year or two of decline.
Similarly, she said she hopes to see high voter turnout at the school board election and budget vote, no matter who people are voting for.