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Board election will chart future of schools

Albany -- Upcoming $175 million bond referendum a major concern for 5 candidates vying for 2 seats

By RICK KARLIN, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, October 21, 2001
With a $175 million bond referendum coming up, concern about academic achievement among students and what at times seems like an exodus of young families to the suburbs, the five candidates competing for two city school board seats have no shortage of topics to discuss.

In addition to a pair of four-year terms on the board, the future of Superintendent Lonnie Palmer may also be at stake with this year's vote as well.

"Right now, I'm kind of waiting to see where things go,'' Palmer said when asked of his plans. While he has a contract through June 2003, he conceded that he might not finish the term, depending on whether he feels he could work with the new school board.

"A superintendent, to be effective, needs the support of the board,'' Palmer said.

Tensions between Palmer and some board members are nothing new. Some board members, including Bill Barnette and Pat Amodeo, have criticized what they describe as Palmer's top-down management style, while others, including Theresa Swidorski and Barbara Gaffuri, say the superintendent is doing what he was hired to do -- shake up a school system that has long labored under a reputation for political patronage.

With two open seats, a new four-vote majority could work with or against Palmer.

Either way, the new board will execute a long-awaited building and renovation plan, if passed by voters.

Here are the candidates: Patricia Fahy, 43, policy analyst for the state Assembly: A relative newcomer to the Albany political scene, she first got heavily involved in school issues last year as a founding member of PASS, or People Advocating Small Schools. The group was created to help push for construction of what would be the city's third middle school after one site, at Kelton Court, was abandoned in the face of neighborhood opposition. "I think there is no bigger shot in the arm that Albany can get right now than to pass the referendum,'' Fahy said.

While PASS is not formally endorsing candidates, numerous members are backing Fahy and another candidate, Paul Webster. If opponents of the latest plan to put a middle school in the city's Westland Hills Park gather enough momentum, however, they could hurt those two candidates. Dyann Parker, 53, case manager for the city Department of Youth and Recreation: An incumbent seeking her second term, Parker also wants the facilities plan to pass. She was one of the members who, with the majority, pushed to bring the projected cost below $200 million.

"When people see too many zeros, it has a tendency to cause panic,'' she said of the higher cost. The cost cutting was accomplished, though, by dropping planned improvements to the high school, which may now end up on a second separate referendum.

She supports the third middle school at Westland Hills Park, saying it's a good central location, adding the current schools are "bursting at the seams,'' with students.

Parker is getting campaign help from Councilman Michael Brown, who is close to Mayor Jerry Jennings. John Portelli, 47, accounts examiner for the state Department of Unemployment Insurance: His wife, Theresa, maintains that she was unseated from the school board last year due to her strong support for a now-abandoned plan to build a middle school on Kelton Court.

John Portelli, however, believes there is no need for a third middle school in any location, including the current spot at Westland Hills. That, he says, is because plans for a K-8 school and a second charter school opening next year will reduce the student population.

Moreover, Portelli fears neighborhood opposition by Westland Hills residents could sink the entire $175 million referendum. He'd rather concentrate on improving the city's elementary schools.

While his wife was a staunch Palmer backer, John Portelli has become a vocal opponent. "I think it would be better for everyone concerned, even Mr. Palmer, if he goes,'' Portelli said. "He's done what he set out to do, which is make some changes, but it's ruffled a lot of feathers.'' Portelli is also critical of Jennings, claiming the mayor too often tries to influence school board policy through supporters and allies on the board. Paul Tenan, 51, health care administrator with the Jewish Guild for the Blind: He says he doesn't yet have a firm stance on Palmer but he noted, as has Palmer, that urban superintendents have a high turnover. "I would be interested in hearing what his desires are. One wants to have a CEO who is compatible,'' he said.

Tenan's wife was among a handful of administrators who didn't get tenure at Hackett Middle School in 1998, but he stresses he's running to help rebuild the school system and to help it work more closely with the community.

A longtime youth soccer coach, Tenan has the backing of School Board President Scott Wexler. He also supports the facilities plan and a middle school at Westland Hills.

"I understand the trade-off between green space and the third middle school, (but) this does seem to be the best option for the community,'' he said. Tenan would also want to create an advisory board to help carry out school renovations and construction. Paul Webster, 37, assistant press secretary at the state Assembly: He supports the referendum but said he also fears that core issues of academic performance could be lost in the debate over bricks and mortar.

"If the kids are uneducated, they are untrainable and unemployable and that is unacceptable,'' Webster said. He'd like to convene an "emergency education summit,'' bringing together students, parents, teachers, homeowners and city politicians to discuss the need for raising academic performance. "There's not enough focus on the 10,000 kids in the district. I want to keep the debate focused on that,'' he said.

As for Palmer, he said, "The superintendent has done a decent job under some incredible circumstances. Getting this (facilities) plan together has been a Herculean effort on his part, given the amount of infighting by the various factions.''