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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.''