Interview with school board candidate Gavin Murdoch

murdochThree years ago, Gavin Murdoch felt that the Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education was dysfunctional and lacked focus on issues facing the district and the community. The district was under financial stress, curriculum changes were about to be implemented, and community members had a negative view towards the district.

As a parent, taxpayer, and former teacher and administrator, Murdoch felt that he could bring a unique perspective to the board. Murdoch was elected for his first term in 2012 and is currently running for re-election.

Murdoch grew up in Amsterdam and taught American History, Government, and Economics for 20 years. He was the principal of the Amsterdam High School and later the Wells Central School District Superintendent before retiring. He currently works for Liberty ARC as a direct service person at one of it’s residential homes. He has one son who is in the ninth grade at the high school.

During his time as a board member, Murdoch served on the negotiating committee which negotiated contracts with the teacher and Committee on Special Education unions. He served on the budget committee for the last three years and is currently the Vice President of the Board of Education.

According to Murdoch, children are facing much broader challenges than they did when he was a child. They face greater expectations, being asked to do more earlier in life. While he feels that a universal school curriculum would be valuable, the common core curriculum was inadequately developed and implemented in schools.

Murdoch explained that when the state rolled out the new curriculum, “They put into place things that were required of teachers before they knew what the end result was going to be, before teachers had the opportunity to learn the curriculum, because it was so vastly different from what they had been doing before…putting in place tests before the curriculum had been examined and had a chance to be rolled out to the teachers.”

He says that students have been dropped into the middle of curriculum, being expected to learn new skills without having learned the preceding lessons necessary to do so. Third and fourth graders in particular are struggling, he says, while parents stand by unable to help their kids with their homework.

He feels that the state was overly reliant on corporations to develop the curriculum and corresponding tests without consulting the teachers who would have to implement them. Instead, they saw them for the first time when they were expected to teach them to students. He added, “The curriculum wasn’t even out until half way through the first year.”

He said, “Until the group of kids that were enrolled in first and second grade when this was rolled out have gone all the way through and the teachers have had the experience of bringing them along, we’re going to have lots of struggle.”

In order to rectify the problems, he would like to see the curriculum introduced at a more gradual pace to benefit both students and teachers, and teachers must be provided with more in-servicing and professional development. He says that there must be a greater emphasis at colleges to familiarize those who are studying to become teachers with the new methods of teaching.

At this point, he said, the common core is creating a great deal of frustration among teachers, students, and parents, which lead to the large number of students opting out of the recent testing. While Murdoch feels that this sends a strong message to the state, he notes that schools are missing out on an opportunity to collect data to gauge how students are progressing under the new curriculum and what areas teachers need to focus on to improve instruction. He also expressed concern that the state may penalize school districts with large numbers who opted out.

Another concern for Murdoch is developing the district’s budget. While the past two years the district was able to offer budgets without levying a tax increase, he feels that the 2 percent tax levy under the proposed budget for the 2015-16 school year is necessary.

When drafting the budget, you must adequately provide for students while ensuring that you do not require too much from taxpayers. He said, “It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to require more tax money than is necessary, but you need to have enough money to do the things that you need to do.”

To Murdoch, a well-balanced budget enables the district to have a positive impact on areas that need improvement, such as the graduation rate. While the graduation rate is not where the school district would like it to be, Murdoch noted that incremental steps have been made. These improvements are contingent upon providing adequate resources and services for schools.

In order to improve graduation rates and overall success for students, Murdoch would like to see the summer school program expanded. Often times, there is a drop off in educational retention between summer and fall, necessitating a certain amount of re-learning. Summer school can help students not only to advance, but to retain knowledge.

Murdoch would also like to see the Hamilton Fulton Montgomery Pathways in Technology Early College High School program expanded. HFM PTECH, located in Johnstown, allows students to earn both a high school regents diploma and an associate’s degree from Fulton Montgomery Community College. Murdoch praises the program’s problem based learning model, which more actively engages students.

He says, “We have to pay for that program, but the opportunity presented to the kids in the PTECH program is marvelous. It’s a different way to deliver instruction.” He notes that everyone learns differently; some students need a different type of learning environment in order to succeed, and more students would benefit from the opportunity.

Murdoch feels that voters should re-elect him as, “I have a unique perspective. I’m a parent, which means I’m concerned about the instruction that takes place in school, because my kid is in school. I’m a taxpayer, so I know what it’s like to pay money, run my school, and to show expenses that are incurred by the schools. I was a teacher, so I understand the challenges that the teachers face every day in the classroom. I was an administrator, so I understand the balance that is required between being an administrator and working with the teachers and working with the parents of students.”

GASD election day is May 19. In addition to voting on the budget, voters will elect two candidates to the Board of Education. Each seat is for a three-year term to begin on July 1, 2015. Incumbent Gavin Murdoch will be joined on the ballot by newcomers Katherine Hans, Lisa A. Choat, and Jackie Marciniak. Incumbent Leon Gray is not seeking reelection.

(Photo by Ashley Onyon)

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.