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Massena school board candidates say improving communication is essential

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MASSENA - Three of the five candidates running for two seats on the Massena Central School Board of Education agreed during a Tuesday night forum that improving communication was essential no matter who occupies the seats come July.

With approximately 35 audience members on hand, incumbent Cristen R. Halladay and newcomers Patrick Serguson and Loren Fountaine answered 10 questions that had been prepared by a representative from the Massena Federation of Teachers, the organizers of this year’s forum. The event was moderated by Dr. William Orlando.

Two other candidates, incumbent Gregory C. Fregoe and newcomer Eva Waters, chose not to participate, saying that they had asked for and been denied an opportunity to see the questions ahead of time to ensure there was no bias from the teacher’s union.

MFT member and forum organizer Joseph Mittiga said it was important for community members to have a chance to meet the candidates before casting their votes on Tuesday.

“Board members set the tone for the district. The Massena Federation of Teachers believes it’s very important voters to go into that booth educated and knowing where the candidates on the issues,” he said.

Ms. Halladay, a teacher in Ogdensburg who is completing a three-year term on the board, admitted being a board member “has been trying at times,” but she said she looked forward to another five years.

“I think maybe we are headed in a good direction, and I’m real anxious to see where they go from here,” she said.

Ms. Halladay said she decided to seek another term to make sure children are being educated the best possible way.

“Being a teacher and board of education member go hand in hand for me. I want them to have the best education they possibly can,” she said. “I’m an educator. I thought maybe I could help put my own stamp on the Massena Central program. When you see small changes not evident to everyone, you know it’s worth your time.”

If elected to another term, Ms. Halladay said she would continue listening to concerns as she has been during her first three.

“I think listening is the quality I possess,” she said. “I speak to a lot of people on the phone. If I’m not there they leave a message and I always call back. I’ve always opened myself up to that. I’m grateful people feel like they can come to me.”

At the time, she suggested the board needed to better listen to concerns brought to them.

“God knows, we desperately need it. They need to get those answers. Sometimes I would like those answers,” she said.

Mr. Serguson, a sergeant with the Massena Police Department and former school resource officer, said he didn’t foresee himself running for the school board until he talked to the husband of a teacher in the district. It was then, he said, that he learned there were issues within the district that needed to be addressed.

He said the husband told him, “You know Pat, she doesn’t like it anymore. She’s going to get out.”

“Here’s a lady who loved teaching. She’s actually hanging on,” Mr. Serguson said. “It’s imperative we get a couple of candidates on there and make people accountable.”

He said he threw his hat into the ring for a number of reasons. Among them, he said, was the district administration.

“I was able to realize very quickly their ineffectiveness and the way administration was not allowed to do their job anymore. They (district officials) have actually taken control of the administrators. They’re not allowed to do their job at this point and that has to be addressed. I think they need to listen to the people there,” Mr. Serguson suggested.

Among the qualities he would bring to the board, he said, is “an ability to listen to people,” something he said he has honed during his years in law enforcement.

“I think I’m right down the middle. I’ll listen to both sides. I don’t believe right now it’s fair at this point,” he said.

“I would love to get the opportunity to get back in the school. It’s very rewarding. I remember I could walk in and feel at home. Today you can cut the tension with a knife,” Mr. Serguson said.

Mr. Fountaine, a labor relations specialist with the New York State United Teachers, said he decided to run because the district needed change.

“Massena was always that district that everybody looked up to. I always had this vision of Massena as the greatest school district,” he said.

About three years ago, however, Mr. Fountaine said he started hearing that things were changing.

“I really started paying attention last year” when the district’s budget was voted down and then board members elected to go directly to a contingency budget rather than present it again to voters, he said.

“It was voted down, I believe, by people who wanted to save programs,” Mr. Fountaine said, suggesting the board “did not listen to the voters. The board completely ignored them.”

He said morale in the schools was “at an all time low,” and teachers and students were no longer comfortable with the teaching and learning environments.

“It’s not a comfortable learning environment. They have a hard time learning. Teachers cannot create one if they don’t feel comfortable,” Mr. Fountaine said.

A former teacher in the Lisbon and St. Lawrence Central school districts, he said he would bring experience in education law and regulations to the board, if elected.

“The important thing is to listen to the public, something this board has not been doing. Every effort has been made to stifle public comments. Every effort has been made to stifle the staff. The board has stifled any kind of comments, any kind of community involvement,” Mr. Fountaine said, suggesting the worst way to fix the communication issue was with no communication at all. “We can’t get anywhere unless we communicate.”

He also suggested the district needed to hire a new attorney to replace Frank W. Miller,

“They are violating Open Meetings Law. They’re daring one of us to go to a lawyer to challenge it,” he said, drawing a round of applause from the audience.

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