An in-depth Q&A with three candidates for Westmoreland School Board

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Three candidates are running for two seats on the Westmoreland Central School District Board of Education. Denise Szarek is running for re-election after having won her seat in 2018. Steven Bulger was appointed to the school board in 2019 to fill a vacancy when a serving member became ill. Phil Zaleski is a write-in candidate; this is also his first election.

I asked the candidates about their backgrounds and why they felt they would be a valuable member of the board of election, followed by two specific questions. I am reporting their answers in alphabetical order (Steven Bulger first, Denise Szarek second, and Phil Zaleski third). The questions were asked of them in a four-way Facebook Messenger thread. I asked each of them one follow-up question or request for clarification in a separate Facebook Messenger thread.

All three candidates agreed to answer any questions or requests for information by the voters on my #BeMoreWestmo social media page at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo. You can also tweet me any comments or questions for them at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein, and I will  share those with the candidates on my public Facebook page.

This election (and the annual budget vote) will be held by absentee ballot only. For more information on how to cast your ballot visit WestmorelandSchool.org, or contact Mary Ann Hawkins, district clerk at 315-557-2658 or email: mhawkins@westmorelandschool.org. All ballots must be received by 5 p.m., Tuesday, June 9. 

The school also tweeted that, “as an alternative to traditional mail, there will be a secure drop box at the entrance of the Westmoreland district offices for absentee ballots on Friday, June 5, and Monday, June 8, from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., and Tuesday, June 9, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.”

Steven Bulger and his wife Laura have been residents of Westmoreland since 2008. They have two children who are currently students; Breana, who is in fifth-grade, and Stevie, who is a third-grader. Steven has coached Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and softball for five years. 

He has worked for ICAN (formerly Kids Oneida) for fifteen years and has been the CEO/Executive Director of the organization since 2014. He describes ICAN as a “non-profit provider of home and community-based services to our community’s most at-risk youth and families, with a focus on social, emotional, mental health, and behavioral challenges.”

“With over twenty years of working with families,” he says, “kids are my life both personally and professionally. This, coupled with my love for our community-led to my interest in serving on the Westmoreland School Board.”

Denise Szarek is a paralegal/NYS Licensed Real Estate Title Examiner and is a branch manager for a state-wide abstract company. She is co-owner of the Three Goat Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture, as well as Szarek Farms and Szarek Greenhouses. She is also a columnist for Mohawk Valley Living Magazine. Additionally, she is an affiliate member of the Onondaga County Bar Association, the NYS Land Title Association, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

She has been married for seventeen years to Bernie Szarek. She has one son, two step-children, both of whom are Westmoreland graduates, and two grandchildren, one who attends Westmoreland’s Upper Elementary School, and one who attends Westmoreland Middle School.

In 1970, Denise survived a school shooting. It happened four days before her graduation from Bishop Grimes High School in East Syracuse.

“The first shot was through a door only a few feet away from where I was taking a Regents exam,” she recalls. “The shooting spree went on as [the shooter] got all the way upstairs. Luckily no one was hurt before he was disarmed and taken into custody by the police.”

This experience, she says, gives her unique insight into how important it is to ensure a safe environment at school. 

“I was grateful that staff members of my school were looking out for me that fateful day,” she says.

For the past two years, she has served on the school’s safety committee.

“Good teachers make all the difference in a child’s life,” she believes. “And we have some of the best right here in Westmoreland. I want to support them and their students and their parents.”

Szarek feels that money invested in schools is money well spent, but that being accountable for how the taxpayer’s money is spent is as important as securing that funding.

“As a corporate manager with twenty-nine years of budget allocation experience and as a member of the Board of Education finance committee,” she says that makes sure that money is appropriately allocated.

Denise is a parent of a special needs child.

“So I know what a challenge school can be for parents, teachers, and administrators. My son now has an AAS degree in Computer Information Systems and is pursuing a successful career in his field.”

She says that parents are a critical element in the success of their children, “We must support them like they support their kids. It’s all about working together.”

Szarek believes that public education is “intimately tied to the vitality of our community.”

“Investing in our children now,” she says, “means a more vibrant future for Westmoreland. To provide every child with the education they deserve, the Westmoreland School Board must have a vision, and create structures to support that vision, and be accountable to the public.”

Phil Zaleski spent twenty-two years working as a defense contractor. For the last four years, he has been as an Air Force civilian working as an engineer, Program Manager, and Technical Integration Lead for the Air Force Research Laboratory.

He presently manages several technical programs and is a member of a NATO Research Task Group. In that role, he continually interacts with the Department of Defense and federal agencies working to transition innovations from the Air Force Research Lab into operational use.

“The programs that I manage can be quite small to very large and complex with many moving parts,” he says. “Whether working individually or as part of some very diverse teams, my focus is always on being a good steward of the U.S. taxpayer, ensuring that programs are executed in a cost-effective and ethical manner.”

Zaleski believes that to be truly effective, “every team needs to be diverse, think critically, and be totally transparent.”

He thinks that the Westmoreland School District is full of amazing students, teachers, employees, and administrators. 

“I plan on bringing my unique background to the board with the intent to foster new and innovative ideas, encourage debate, stress openness, and collaboration, all the while ensuring that our students and educators remain our top priority,” he states. “I’m very passionate about this responsibility and would be honored to represent all of the wonderful families in our district as a member of the Westmoreland Board of Education.”

Question: What are the most pressing issues faced by the Westmoreland Board of Education, and how do you plan to address them?

Steven Bulger feels that the three most pressing issues are response to COVID-19, unclear financial and budget restraints, and teacher retention and recruitment.

He says that the work to date regarding COVID-19 is just the beginning.

“I applaud what our district has done to provide the best possible education during these trying times,” he says. “The next steps will take continued collaboration, …and a major priority must focus on the social and emotional well-being of the students.”

He says that has been a major tenet of his board participation and that his professional experience uniquely qualifies him to serve in a very specialized way that will ensure the health, safety, and well being of the town’s youth.

“I have first-hand experience leading the re-entry of business and services to over 1,500 families at ICAN during this pandemic,” he says. “I have assembled a team of key stakeholders to implement a detailed safety plan that ensured the health and safety of clients and staff. I will lend the same expertise to Westmoreland.”

Bulger also acknowledges that the pandemic means uncertain economic times.

“We know school aid cuts may be on the horizon,” he says. “[This] will require board members who are prepared to analyze, recommend, and ultimately approve decisions that have financial implications to the district and taxpayers.”

He feels that his business background and experience leading complex budgets will be of value to the board and promises to be “cognizant of how our school budget impacts students, teachers, [and] staff as well as the taxpayers of our community.”

Bulger adds that the best possible education for students is only as good as the teachers, staff, and administration. He says that the district can’t lose sight of retaining and recruiting the best talent for the sake of the students.

Denise Szarek agrees that the most pressing issue the school district will face is COVID-19 and how it will impact all facets of education.

“We as a board must be ready to support the administration with the decisions they will be making over the next months and possibly years,” she says. “The other issue will be school funding and how the district navigates an uncertain financial future in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Szarek is a member of the board’s finance committee, which, she says, will allow her to help with what she describes as “difficult financial decisions.”

She also explained the rigorous training the state requires of newly-elected school board members during their first year of service.

“It requires topics on the essentials of school board governance and a minimum of six hours [of education] in fiscal oversight, accountability, and fiduciary responsibilities of a school board member,” she said. “Additionally, board members are offered numerous training opportunities in-person and virtually.”

Szarek says that the training she received through the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) and her experience as a paralegal has afforded her the knowledge to address issues regarding board governance, fiscal oversight, and accountability.

“This knowledge will be invaluable as we move the district forward in a post-COVID world,” she concludes.

Phil Zaleski answered that the two pressing issues he wants to address.

The first is regarding “how the 2020-2021 school year will be executed…[including] how, or if, COVID-19 will have a significant impact on what options the district will have to start the school year, and what budget implications will be realized from New York State’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic.”

He says that while the staff at Westmoreland have had to work from home, many have also had to help educate their own children, which makes their situation more challenging.

“If in-person classes will be allowed,” he says, “this will help families that will be called back to work at their offices. However, if daycare will be adversely impacted, how will our teachers and employees be able to come back into work when their daycare options may be limited?”

Zaleski also wants the “community’s perception of the Westmoreland Board of Education [addressed] sooner rather than later.” 

After attending three virtual board meetings, he felt that “not much was covered, and the items that were covered with the exception of whether in-person classes would resume- seemed to lack granularity.” An example of that he felt was the discussion of the 2020-2021 school year budget.

He says that if he is elected, he plans on working to “see how we can share the appropriate amount of information with the community to increase transparency. Topics should not be hand-picked. All decisions that impact the district should be covered at varying levels of detail to notify and garner input. Only with transparency will negative or false perceptions be alleviated, while giving families in the district a sense of ownership into decisions that affect our students.”

Question: How well do you think the school administration, teachers, and staff managed during the crisis?

Steven Bulger applauds the school administration, teachers, and staff on how they have managed the COVID-19 crisis, describing the level of commitment shown to the children as “unrivaled.”

“The dedication by Westmoreland has always led to the best interests of our kids being placed first,” he says. “This certainly has been tested during the current state of emergency.”

As Executive Director of ICAN, Bulger works with school districts from six counties. 

“There is no secret,” he says, “that Westmoreland has been the gold standard in adapting to our current learning environment. I’ve had the chance to witness Westmoreland’s response both professionally and personally through my own children,” he says. “There is no secret that Westmorelandhas been the gold standard in adapting to our current learning environment.”

Denise Szarek believes the administration, teachers, and staff are doing “an amazing job.”

She says that they’ve “planned ahead and gotten ahead of the Governor’s school closing [so that] each child was prepared to start distance learning from day one. The district has proven itself to be exemplary when it comes to our student’s educational preparedness during COVID-19.”

Szarek goes on to praise the administration’s diligence in keeping parents and students informed and availing themselves to answer questions and respond to concerns. She said the educational needs of the students have been at the forefront of all decisions.

“I would be remiss,” she adds, “without applauding the cafeteria staff and bus drivers for an amazing job delivering breakfasts, lunches, and additional food boxes to any family in the district that signed up.”

She notes that three hundred meals have been prepared each day while carefully considering food allergies and dietary restrictions.

“Bravo!” Szarek exclaims. “This school district is a family, one with heart. The entire district pulled together to put the well-being of every student first!”

Phil Zaleski says, “without a doubt, Westmoreland set the bar high for other school districts in New York State in responding to the challenges [presented] by COVID-19.”

He praises the teachers for being immediately ready to begin remote education, adding, “our staff worked diligently to get the technology in place to start classes on day one, and the administration worked tirelessly in making sure that all parents and students in the district were kept informed.”

Zaleski says that discussions with families in other school districts have convinced him that, “Westmoreland excelled where others struggled.”

“The 2020 Westmoreland Senior Class,” he concludes, “may not have been able to end their year in the classroom, but the quality of education and support they received throughout this pandemic has been exceptional! This could not have been possible without the tireless commitment from a truly impressive team.”

For more information or to ask the candidates a question of your own, go to Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo or Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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