Meet the seven SLCSD candidates

SARANAC LAKE — There are seven candidates running for seats on the Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education, but district residents will only be able to elect three of them when they go to the polls to vote on Tuesday.

Justin Garwood, Tori Thurston and Nancy Bernstein are incumbents running on their experience on the board. Patrick Dupree, Jackie Niederbuhl and Rebecca Law are running with a focus on keeping Bloomingdale Elementary School viable in the future.

Scott McKim is an accomplished educator running on his years in the classroom and wants to bring his experience in the classroom to the board room.

Bernstein is a veteran of the board with experience in clean energy and diversity.

Dupree wants to prepare the next generation of the workforce.

Garwood has a focus on student mental health and safety.

Law wants to focus on fiscal responsibility.

Niederbuhl wants to be an innovator on the board.

Thurston is a diligent voice for the district on a state level.

Saranac Lake’s schools face a lot of big issues in the coming years.

The board recently got the results of a study showing that enrollment is declining across most grade levels, caused by a variety of economic, regional and societal factors. These factors include a lack in housing, child care and good paying jobs.

The board only controls so much, but candidates say schools influence the community just as much as the community influences schools.

This consultants doing the study also introduced the potential of the board having a conversation about if they should consider closing Bloomingdale Elementary School in a couple years. The board president has clarified that they are not discussing that now and there are no plans to have that discussion until the study is completed.

But the prospect of the school closing has sparked concern in the Bloomingdale community.

Niederbuhl and Dupree — who are siblings — as well as Law, are running as a team with a focus on keeping Bloomingdale school viable. Niederbuhl said they all have their own opinions and don’t agree on everything. They’re running as a team, not as a monolith.

All three open positions are for full three-year terms, and they expire in 2027. Terms begin on July 1.

Nancy Bernstein

With two full terms under her belt, Bernstein is the longest-serving member of a board that’s seen fast turnaround in recent years.

“Having that experience, I do think that brings a little stability to the board,” she said.

She said she’s learned an “immense amount” each year she’s been on the board, including the rough times navigating the pandemic.

Bernstein was involved in starting the district’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion committee in 2021, even before the state mandated it, and has been the chair ever since. She said she’s proud of the work done on this committee — providing professional development for staff, hiring a director of curriculum and instruction and making sure the schools have a diverse set of resources to let all students see themselves in the curriculum.

She said this takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work and incremental changes.

In her job as an energy circuit rider for the Adirondack North Country Association, she said she has deep knowledge of energy issues. With an electric school bus mandate expected in the coming years, she said she can make sure everyone at the table understands electric terminology and rural district needs. She said there’s a lot of jargon to parse and a lot of misinformation about this topic.

Bernstein said the Bloomingdale Elementary School issue is a “really hard one.” Her son went there and had a great experience.

“As a board, we have to be fiscally responsible to our taxpayers,” she said, adding that they also need to educate all kids in district to best of their ability.

“It’s a horrible thing to have to do,” Bernstein said. “So it’s not something that we take lightly.”

She said to address the underlying issue of enrollment decline, the board needs to keep its experienced members and ensure the education of students here is good to make school as welcoming to new families as possible. She also said it needs to be competitive in hiring.

Bernstein said with her experience she could be a leader on the board with a lot of big decisions coming up.

Patrick Dupree

Dupree said he’s thought about running for the school board before. His son “Mav” is coming up through the school system.

So when his sister, Niederbuhl, got “fired up” about the future of the Bloomingdale school — where he attended and where Mav attends — he agreed to join her and took the plunge. The two of them are good at “making things happen,” he said.

“She’s a mover and a shaker,” Dupree said.

He said he’d seek grants and whatever he could to keep the school open. He has fond memories of sledding outside Bloomingdale Elementary. He said it is the district’s newest building and a crucial part of the communities in that region of the expansive district.

“Things come in cycles,” he said.

Dupree said enrollment could go back up in a few years, especially with a recent push for housing and young families to move here. He said the region needs young families in the area to staff local businesses, and they need a school for their kids to go to.

He said he wants to improve the district’s image on real estate sites like Zillow to encourage people to move here. Currently, on a scale of 10, Zillow rates Petrova Elementary at 3, Bloomingdale at 4 and the High School at 7.

Dupree said he also wants to make sure drugs aren’t anywhere near the schools.

“I haven’t heard any bad news, but you don’t want to hear any,” he said.

With parents telling him they carry Narcan just in case their kid accidentally ingests a substance, he said he wants to “nip it in the bud.”

Dupree has a four-year degree in marine science. He said he works in his family landscaping business “digging in the dirt.” He doesn’t regret a thing. But he feels college is pushed too often when it’s not always necessary. It’s expensive and can land people in debt with large loans, he said.

“Everybody I know who’s doing fairly well is out working with their hands,” Dupree said.

He said degrees in nursing and specialized fields are necessary and useful. But he feels some people are wasting high school and a career and should be more prepared for owning small businesses or working in trades.

Justin Garwood

Garwood’s profession is in education. He said he wants to bring his experience to take on the enrollment decline, the anticipated retirement of the superintendent in a few years and to improve young people’s mental health.

When he joined the board three years ago, Garwood said SLCSD was a “target district.”State officials said they needed to do a better job with reading and mathematics. Now it is a district with good standing in the state. Garwood said this took hard work by teachers, students and staff, as well as the board’s policies. He added that he wants to maintain this momentum in academic improvement.

Garwood said the board can take more credit for the district’s “strong financial footing.” Along with policies, they make a lot of decisions about money.

“I feel like having experience, knowing the playing field and not playing catch-up is important,” Garwood said.

He started during the pandemic when every week there was a new guidance. He said his goal was always to keep kids in school as much as possible.

Garwood teaches special education at the University of Vermont and has a special focus on student mental health and school safety through his professional career.

He said “Gen Z” and “Gen Alpha” are struggling with mental health more than their predecessors. He said he wants to support them by amplifying a sense of belonging in the community.

Garwood kickstarted the push to create a school mascot last year, something above and beyond the regular duties of the board and an effort he is proud of. He said he heard a need and acted on it.

The new Red Storm mascot, a red-tailed hawk, is slowly rolling out now. He said mascots help build community spirit. The process of selecting the mascot included numerous public polls and information sessions.

Garwood said there’s been no discussion about closing Bloomingdale Elementary and the board has been just collecting data, which is part of their job, but that the data collection is not complete.

“The misinformation spreading about this issue is unfortunate and I believe a pretty big disservice to the taxpayers and the students of our district,” he said.

He said focusing on academic success in the schools can help reverse the negative enrollment trend.

“When people consider moving somewhere, the thing they always ask is, ‘How are the schools?'” Garwood said.

The board can help by supporting the academic side of school with money and good policies, he said, and keeping the facilities looking nice and attractive through upgrades.

Rebecca Law

Law said she decided to run for school board after reading about the board’s recent discussion of a consulting group’s recommendation that the district consider closing Bloomingdale Elementary in a few years.

“That really concerned me,” she said. “Our son is going to be going to school. I want him to go to Bloomingdale. I moved to Bloomingdale so he could go there.”

She said the small classes bring a great classroom atmosphere.

Law remembers the hour-long bus rides to school and being tired when she got there. SLCSD is by far the largest geographical district in the state, she said.

Her husband Karl Law is a member of the St. Armand town board, where Bloomingdale Elementary is located.

Law said she wants to make sure the school board is transparent, fiscally responsible and holding a long-term vision when it eventually makes decisions about this school.

She said with several local housing projects, including a push by the town of St. Armand, the future might be different than predicted by the study.

“We may have more housing down the road in 10 years and closing Bloomingdale could be a big mistake,” Law said.

She said the board has done a good job of preparing for the future financially.

“I know that there are going to be some tough decisions in the future because everything is more expensive,” Law said.

She said she works with the public every day in her job at Mountain Medical Services and said she knows how to listen, empathize and bring someone’s concerns forward to others.

Law said the district’s schools have a “surprisingly poor” rating on real estate websites like Zillow. She’s not sure how the sites determine these ratings, but she’d like to bring those ratings up.

As a lifelong member of the community and as an “involved mom,” she wants to set her son and the community up for success from the school board.

“I want to make sure he’s coming into a district that has the best education possible, the best extracurricular programs possible, every sport option possible,” Law said.

Scott McKim

McKim said he doesn’t have specific issues he’s running on. He wants to be in the room for conversations and bring his experience, his passion for public education and a “well-rounded perspective” to those discussions.

“It’s something that I’ve considered for a while,” he said.

He spent seven years as a classroom teacher, where he was a finalist for “Teacher of the Year” in Alaska and started a charter school in that state. He is also the co-president and treasurer of the Waldorf-inspired private Northern Lights School in Saranac Lake.

With his daughter starting her education in the district, he said he wants to contribute.

McKim said he can be a liaison between school officials and the community. He’s connected to several groups in town and said he can gauge the pulse of the community and bring both concerns and celebrations to the board.

He has a background in policy and curriculum development and said he’s approachable and active in the community.

“(I’m) someone who understands the role and machinations of the board and district, but is removed enough from its operations to ask questions and make sure policies and decisions reflect the best interests of all the students and their needs,” McKim said in an email.

McKim said declining enrollment and its ramifications are the biggest issue the district faces.

He has no strong opinion on Bloomingdale Elementary. His daughter goes to the school. He wants to learn more about it and said there’s plenty of time.

“If at all possible, keep it open,” he said. “But at the same time, if it comes down to a financial decision that just doesn’t make sense, I think some hard decisions are going to have to be made.”

McKim previously threw his hat in the ring for an appointment to the board when a member stepped down mid-term, but he rescinded it at the time because he was on several other boards. Now he has more time to dedicate to using his background in public education for his home district.

“My professional job as Science Manager at the Whiteface Mountain Observatory has infused in me a logical, sequential framework of working through problems and gathering evidence before coming to conclusions. I will bring the same clear-minded approach to decisions before the board,” he wrote.

Jackie Niederbuhl

Niederbuhl said she wants to play a “fun role” on the board, inspiring the board to try new things and being the one who comes up with “all the hair-brained ideas that just might work.”

Niederbuhl said she’d heard rumors about Bloomingdale Elementary closing for years.

She said she has “1,000 ideas” of how to save it and wants to be on the board to figure out which ones could work.

She said she’s the type of person to look around and think about how she can improve anything she sees and that she’s also the type of person to have an idea, and then go pursue it.

Niederbuhl said she’d like to establish a committee specifically on Bloomingdale Elementary. She wants to make sure it’s not a financial burden to keep it off the chopping block.

“I just don’t want that little school going anywhere,” Niederbuhl said of the school her children attend.

With the local housing initiatives, she said it’d be hard to attract people to Bloomingdale with no school there.

During the pandemic, everyone had to spread out. She said they’d need room to expand if something like that happens again.

Niederbuhl said she and her brother, Dupree, always work together to solve issues.

Dupree is the “realist,” and she’s the “optimist,” she said.

Niederbuhl attended elementary school in AuSable Valley, middle and high at Northwood School and Saranac Lake High School in her senior year. She said she saw three different systems of education and would like to look at a “hybrid system” adopt parts of them.

“There’s so many little cool things we can do,” she said.

She’d like to partner with colleges to share resources and opportunities, as well as focus on financial literacy and life skills.

Niederbuhl is also big on environmental education, donating seedling trees to the district in past years. She said with such a formidable future facing the Earth, she wants to give students the tools to create solutions and encourage their efforts.

Tori Thurston

Thurston joined the board with one goal — fighting for students in special education to get the accommodations they’re due. But after getting elected, she quickly fell down a rabbit hole of reading and research and took on a larger role.

“I got on the board and I read every word of the policy manual,” she said. “Every policy has the state regulations that it references. And then I read a lot of those.”

She started going to trainings, conferences, lobbying days in Albany held by the the New York State School Boards Association and reading thick documents in her free time. Thurston estimates she now spends an average of 10 hours a week on studying NYSSBA and board issues.

She recently learned she is getting recognized by NYSSBA for “striving to expand knowledge and skills for better board governance.”

“I ask ‘Why?’ a lot,” Thurston said. “It’s trying to make order of the chaos.”

She said she wants to figure out how her rural school fits into the big state “machine.”

In her work with NYSSBA, she said she saw a lot of other districts the same size as SLCSD having the same problems and realized there are people who can help.

Thurston became the district’s liaison to NYSSBA and became a voice for the district, speaking with politicians, advocating for policies like universal free meals and telling state education leaders to keep in mind the uniqueness of the Saranac Lake district.

Thurston said the school board can address enrollment decline through making sure employees have salaries that support them, advocating to government to support families and using its Community Schools program to fill in the gaps.

Thurston said the board is only having “informal discussions” about Bloomingdale Elementary. No one wants to close it, she said. But she would do it if it’s right for the kids, she added. Thurston said public schools are facing hard financial times and they’ll have many tough decisions to make if schools don’t get more funding.

She said she’s like to reignite a collaboration of the school districts in Franklin, Essex and Hamilton counties to do more sharing and advocacy.

Thurston said she represents blue collar, rural school districts to the state and she wants to keep doing that.

Voting information

The SLCSD school board election, proposition and budget vote will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on May 21 in the district offices near the auditorium at door No. 5 of the high school at 79 Canaras Ave.

For the first year this year, New York is allowing universal mail-in voting with no excuse. Previously, absentee mail-in voting was only allowed with certain excuses.

Voters can currently request absentee or universal early mail ballots from district Clerk Gina Pollock at 518-897-1408 or pollockgin@slcs.org. Pollock said voters can request absentee ballots through the Franklin or Essex county boards of elections, too. The completed applications must be returned by 4 p.m. on May 14.


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