Meet the Candidates: Christiane Farnan, Michael O’Donnell, Jason Fernau, and Eric Davenport (l-R)

School Board “Meet the Candidates” Q&A

In addition to voting on the Ballston Spa Central School District budget, elections for seats on the Board of Education are on Tuesday, May 15.

There are three positions open on the school board, four candidates and one incumbent. On Monday, May 7, the board held a “Meet the Candidates” night for the four candidates: Christiane Farnan, Michael O’Donnell, Jason Fernau, and Eric Davenport (l-R). They were kind enough to speak with the Ballston Journal about their visions for the school district going forward.

Below are the questions and their responses (note: some responses have been edited for length and clarity):

Ballston Journal: What are your thoughts on the current budget? Do you have any concerns on the decrease of the GlobalFoundaries pilot payments over the next few years? Any ideas on how to either increase revenue or cut district expenses? 

Christiane Farnan: This current budget increase is modest and reasonable, especially in light of the large increase in state and federally mandated special education costs. However, our school district has a large population of fixed income residents who experience hardship in order to pay their tax bill. A $30 increase over the next three or four years may simply be too much for many of our community members to pay. The gradual decrease of GlobalFoundries’ contributions to our school district is concerning, but not alarming. We would be in a much worse position if the expected “student boom” GlobalFoundries was supposed to have created had materialized. However, student enrollment is dropping and is predicted to continue to drop for the foreseeable future.

Eric Davenport: I think the current budget is fair and the current board worked hard to balance mandated cost increases in special education – transportation, for example – with cost savings in other areas that did not take away from student programs.  The estimated tax bill for most residents is modest and remains lower than 10 years ago.  In 2015, a reserve fund was established, with voter approval, to help manage future reductions in the PILOT payments.  So far, that fund has not been used and the school board should continue to balance increasing costs with opportunities to save so the reserve fund is maintained as long as possible.

Jason Fernau: I think the current budget is appropriate and reasonable. As a taxpayer, I feel that [the past few years of] tax increases have been very reasonable. The GlobalFoundries PILOT decrease is a reality, but so is the increase in the tax base, through the commercial development in the all the towns and village of the district. There are so many costs in the budget that are mandated and/or contractually fixed, that the goal should be achieving the highest return possible from our revenue sources. The important thing is to provide value and have no waste within our district spend, and as a board member that would be my mission as it relates to the budget.

Michael O’Donnell: I feel our budget is responsible, as well as fiscally conservative.  This is a modest increase in the amount of taxes residents will have to pay.  On a $235,000 assessed value (district average), the increase will be about $31.  The GlobalFoundries PILOT program will continue to decrease the amount they pay in by approximately $600,000 per year for another 10 years.  Revenue generation ideas are always welcome by the board.  Currently, the new coffee shop in the high school is doing very well.  Also, our IB program could be extended to students from other school districts at a reasonable cost.

BJ: How do you feel about the superintendent hiring process? Do you have any concerns about this being the second go-around in pursuing a viable candidate? What do you think are the biggest concerns of the advisory committee and how do you hope to assuage them?

Also Read: Ballston Spa Board of Education Continues Search for Superintendent

CF: Our Advisory Committee made the right decision to not “settle” for a candidate that was not a good fit for our school district. While a non-successful search is frustrating, especially for the people who committed to completing the work, it is not unusual. My biggest concern regarding the hiring of the new superintendent is that we fall into the trap of hiring someone who is so eager to mold BSCSD into his or her vision of a school district that he or she does not take the time to listen and understand what it is we do so well in Ballston Spa schools. Successful in-place programming, such as Career and Technical Education, must have top priority before any new visionary ideas are advanced. Before a new superintendent starts yet another college-prep program, we need to ensure that all of our “responsible, thinking adults” receive equal training whatever their career choice.

ED: I was on one of the two advisory committees that interviewed four semi-finalists representing parent stakeholders.  I worked with stakeholders in all other functions within the district and both committees came to the same conclusion with our recommendations to the board.  I think it was very courageous of the board to decline all four candidates and search for a superintendent that is a fit for the district, brings experience that can lead us forward with continuous improvement for our academic programs and supports, and has a vision for how Ballston Spa schools can remain a leading district in the area.  It was the right thing to start the search again.

JF: I see the filling of the vacant superintendent position as the most challenging and important opportunity for our district. I agree 100 percent with the board reopening the process to find the correct candidate. The Ballston Spa School District is so advanced in so many ways, we need a new superintendent who comes from a similar advanced environment, and is ready to lead us even further. We can’t have a superintendent who has to catch up. It is also very important to have a superintendent who can continue and advance the partnership with the local community and local educational institutions as had been the case under Dr. Dragone.

MO: The hiring process for a superintendent is difficult to say the least for both the board and candidates and it should be.  There are big shoes to fill here and we don’t want to settle just to fill the position.  It is important we choose the correct person  as he or she will have to keep the relationships and maintain the gains of our district and then show the innovation to move Ballston Spa forward.  Since we publicly dismissed four individuals in February, a private search is now under way as more candidates feel comfortable with a confidential process and we can get more applications in that manner.  The advisory committee did an excellent job the first time around flushing out the positives and negatives of each candidate and some of them will be called upon again for the same purpose, soon hopefully.  We are still looking!

BJ: What are the major objectives/reasons for your running for the position? Is there anything in particular about you that you believe voters ought to know?

CF: My major reason for running for a seat on the school board is: I should. As a lifelong resident of the Village of Ballston Spa and as a recipient of 12 years worth of teaching, tutoring, coaching, mentoring, and advising that was poured into me, I owe this to my home school district. I have been a member of the Siena College English Department for 22 years and I have worked on dozens of academic and administrative committees and advisory boards. I have worked on behalf of faculty, staff, administrators, and most important of all – students – since 1996 and I would like to bring all I have learned to the Ballston Spa Board of Education.

ED: I started my career in the private sector as a chemist, engineer and entrepreneur.  Together with my wife, we had a small business in Malta and in 2014 we sold our position in the business and I decided chasing dollar bills around the planet was not my highest priority.  I started a new career that has always been in me and obtained my certification for teaching high school chemistry.  I am in my third year teaching at Shenendehowa High School.  I am also on the Ballston Area Recreation Commission (BARC) board of directors where I currently serve as secretary.

I am at a focal point for many challenges and decisions that must be made within the efficient and productive operation of a school district.  My private sector experience includes financial responsibility for sales operations of over $40 million and complete operational accountability for the low millions. I also closely understand the issues for students and teachers from my daily classroom experience.  I work directly with over 100 students and dozens of colleagues and administrators every day and I see the real challenges to providing effective instruction, maintaining academic programs and supporting the increasing social-emotional needs of students.
JF: Through my participation in PTA activities, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with parents, principals, instructional staff, administrators, district officials, members of the Board of Education, and the superintendent. I hope to continue that collaboration and support from the position of board member. I have led and facilitated PTA boards and parent committees to provide enrichment activities to our students and to help support teachers in their mission. I am very interested in educating myself about the factors that impact our district’s graduation rate, and hoping to focus attention and resources to improving the rate from its current level of 90 percent.  I hope to see if there are local government and school district partnership opportunities to implement that would raise the graduation rate. Lastly, I hope to support the district as a board member, to achieve a legacy of parents and students having the same good memories and feelings about our district that I do.
MO: I took an appointment to the board one and a half years ago, won the remainder of the term last year and hope to have a three-year term this time around as I believe this is a great way to give back to a community and school that has been great to us.  I would like to see the district bring in a specific drug education/awareness policy since what is available on the streets is far more dangerous than when I was in school.  I also believe we need to upgrade security at each front entrance and perhaps with a constable-type person in overall charge of security each working day.

BJ: What is your prior relationship, if any, to BSCSD and what has impressed you most about the school district as you’ve been able to perceive thus far?

CF: I attended Malta Avenue School, St. Mary’s School, and Ballston Spa High School (’89).  I credit the education I received in this school district for my professional academic success. I am most impressed by the energy level of this school district – we are an exuberant hive of activity and that is good for everyone – for the students, for the parents, for the teachers, and for all our community members who benefit from the creation of responsible young men and women who assume their own community places as adult citizens upon graduation.

ED: In the first year of my graduate school, I spent over 50 hours observing classroom instruction in the high school math and science department, special education classes, and resource rooms.  I also spent about 15 hours observing a fifth grade scholars class.  In this time, I was studying the teaching and learning as well as gaining perspectives from teachers on issues that affect student learning.  While I was on the advisory committee for interviewing superintendent candidates, I was completely impressed by the unanimous desire from all stakeholders to find a candidate that would continue to lead the district forward.  Whether from administration, teaching, support staff, transportation, or community members, everyone wanted significant and continuous improvement from our already leading position.

JF: I am a graduate, resident and parent of the district, living here for over 40 years. For the last six years I have been very active with the PTA, holding officer positions with the Malta Avenue PTA and currently serving as the district-wide PTA Council President. I am most impressed with the range and high level of achievement of the offerings within the district. From technology, academics, sports, music, drama, robotics, International Baccalaureate program, to the Clean Technologies Early College High School, the district has done a great job of implementing an incredibly diverse educational experience. I am also most impressed with the enthusiasm and time commitment that teachers and staff put into all these offerings. I always see so many of them at evening and afterschool activities. Our district employees who embrace this attitude about leading, teaching and learning are tremendously valuable and our best asset.
MO: My prior relationship with the district is that I, like many, send my children here for a great education.  Both my daughters have attended since kindergarten and while one has graduated, I also have one in high school as a sophomore.  The changes and improvements have been incredible to watch over the years.  There are so many options to be involved in at Ballston Spa, from sports, theater, AP/IB college credits, NCBI, National Honor Society, Robotics teams and many more.  We have a very high level of volunteerism by the district parents, which is also a large part of the success of the district.  For my family, I don’t think we could have picked a better place to live.

Details about the election and other related events occurring that day in the school district can be found here.

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