One seat two contenders no incumbent in V rsquo ville school board race

By David S. Lewis

VOORHEESVILLE – Lisa Henkel and Michael Snyder are running for the school board, vying for a seat Thomas McKenna is vacating after a decade.  Both candidates are members of the Voorheesville School and Community Foundation, the fundraising organization founded by McKenna.

“They’re both great people,” said.  “You can quote me on that.”

Snyder, 53, is the president of a meeting-professionals group with members from 13 counties.  He ran for the school board four years ago, coming in third in a four-way race.  His son is a junior at Voorheesville’s high school; he plays both varsity basketball and football. 

Formerly the deputy mayor of Buchanan, a village in Westchester, Snyder is currently the director of marketing for the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.  Snyder said he is proud of his work with the Voorheesville School and Community Foundation, and says that it has been able to give $75,000 back to the community.

“I think trust is the key word out there,” said Snyder.  He said he considers openness an important quality for school boards.

“We are entering into an era with a potential for a leadership void," said Snyder, noting that term lengths for board members could be re-determined at the May 20 election, when voters will decide whether terms should be shortened from five years to four.  "I think I could be useful and productive in a short time frame."

Snyder graduated from Pace University in New York City with a master’s of sciences degree in industrial relations and human resources.

Lisa Henkel, 46, says her primary reason for running is to offer assistance to the district, where her children will attend school in the fall.

“I have no agenda, but a willingness to be helpful,” said Henkel in a phone interview last week.  With a background in education, Henkel has taught and worked in school administration.  An adjunct professor at State University of New York’s College at Plattsburgh, Henkel says she considers her background to be her strongest asset.

"I am somebody who was a building principal, but, when I had my second child, after maternity leave I decided to resign and work part-time," she said.  "I am a part-time person who wants to be home while my kids are little.

“There’s nothing more important to me than working in my own district where my kids are going in the fall.”

At the college at Plattsburgh, Henkel works with student teachers.  She said she is familiar with the Voorheesville district, and has two children, one who will be entering kindergarten in the fall.  Henkel said that people have encouraged her to run for the board.

"The people who are encouraging me to undertake the race are interested in my experience as an educator," said Henkel.  One of those people, Kathy Fiero, is the president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association.  Although the union does not endorse candidates, Fiero did say that she had encouraged Henkel to run.

“I was glad to hear that she was running,” said Fiero.  “She brings a lot of experience as a school administrator.”

Henkel said that, as she works part-time, she would have the time to dedicate, but declined to say how much time that was, merely that it would be sufficient.

"As a parent, I have the same interest that many parents have, which is to ensure that there is a quality education, but as a taxpayer I want that quality education to come at a reasonable price," said Henkel, who received her doctorate in educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York in 2000.

The issues

What makes for the ideal school board trustee?  Where do the candidates stand on the issues most important to voters?  The Enterprise posed these questions to each of the candidates running.


What do you see as the most critical function of the school board?  Opinions differ on the basic purpose and intention of a school board; some see it as a check to school administrator power while others consider its goal the assurance of a quality education for children in the district.

Well, right now, they are going to be hiring a new superintendent,” said Snyder.  “Obviously there is an interview process, and I think that will be the biggest thing confronting the board, finding a new superintendent.”  The current superintendent, Linda Langevin, announced her retirement last week, to take care of an illness in her family.  She has been the superintendent of the Voorheesville school district since 2006.

“Secondarily, there are always budget concerns and finances; I think they were a little generous on how they were going forward with pensions.  Obviously, fuel prices are going up, and everything else is, too; I think we may be looking at some budget issues this next year.  Those are the two biggest issues for this year,” he said.

“The most critical function of the board is to provide high-quality education at the most reasonable cost possible,” said Henkel.  “As the overseer of the district and its goals and objectives, you try to be responsible to the tax-payers with regards to those goals.”


Supporting Tech Valley High: There was some controversy on whether the district should send a second student to Tech Valley High School, the regional avant-garde tech-based school in the Troy tech park.  The district has one student who, next year, will attend her sophomore year at the school.  The school board voted not to send a second student in an attempt to keep spending down.  Both candidates were asked whether they would support or oppose sending additional students from the district to Tech Valley High.

“I questioned the rationale behind sending the first student; rather than sending resources somewhere else,” replied Snyder.  “Voorheesville has been considered the “tech valley” school…Why can’t we raise our curriculum so we can be considered the “tech school” in the area, rather than sending students elsewhere?  Yeah, it’s nice to teach them Mandarin Chinese in one class, or sending them over to Troy to collect data on whatever they’re building…

I wish the first student much success, but I am not sure about the wisdom of sending a second student over there until we actually get some results from what they’ve taught the first year, and until we know what they got out of it the first year.

“I think the concept of the Tech Valley school was a great marketing concept, and they got everyone very excited, but I am not sure the results are out there yet,” he concluded.

“It is controversial and expensive to send students outside the district like that.  I am not trying to avoid the question, but not having all the information others have had, I can’t say I am leaning one way or the other,” said Henkel.  “My hope and dream would be that at some point, we would be able to make our district one that would provide for all of our students.” 

She was careful to acknowledge that she would not want to “weigh in” before having all of the information; this sentiment was echoed by Snyder, but less emphatically.

BOCES programs: With the economy in turmoil, it is very possible that state aid through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services will be cut next year.  Which BOCES programs would be priorities, and which would you cut first? 

“I think I would evaluate the current BOCES programs and determine which ones to cut,” Henkel said.  “If faced with that dilemma, I would first evaluate the current programs in order to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs.”

“I haven’t made a top-10 list, to determine which ones we cut first and which ones we don’t, but I would tell you if I thought I had some idea,” said Snyder.  “I would rather come to a decision as a board.  You offer what you can, but I am not in favor of raising taxes tremendously, either.”

Should the district see reductions in the amount of BOCES aid, would you be in favor of sending special-needs students out of the district?

“Not unless the district couldn’t provide the treatment programs required by their IEPs,” said Henkel of Individualized Education Programs.  “I am very much in favor of keeping kids in their neighborhood’s schools.”

“If they are our students, boy...I don’t think so,” said Snyder thoughtfully.  “I know some of those students that are considered special needs, and…I don’t think so.  That’s a definite no,” he said.

“I think everyone learns at different levels.  I think that would be moving backwards.  What do you do, make everyone walk to school, if you run out of money?”


Class size:  Enrollment is down in the district, but class sizes are high in the elementary school.  This is something the parents of the fifth-grade class have struggled with since their children were in kindergarten.  What do you think is an ideal class size, and, how important is maintaining that size class?

“I don’t know if the economics is there to say you need to have a class size of 15, but I think 30 is too high; right now we’re contending with 20 to 22 kids in a class, and enrollment is going down,” mused Snyder.  “We may not have to approach that for a while.”

“I think 18 to 23 is a good range,” he concluded.

“The whole topic of class size is very controversial,” said Henkel.  “In an ideal world, we would have small classes, but on the other hand, when you have to increase the section, you are talking about a sizable increase to the school budget.  You have to balance the need with the impact on the financial end.

“You don’t like to see class size grow over 25, and, when you get to that, you really have to take a look,” she said.

“You have to listen to what the teachers and administrators are saying, and you also have to listen to parents,” she went on.  I understand that, at least this year, they are not going with an extra section.  Well, you will have to, at some point, defer to the teachers and the administrator.  The magic number is not always going to be effective.  Is 25 too big a class?  Well, it depends.”


What would you consider an “unacceptably high” tax rate increase for Voorheesville?

Henkel said anything over 3 percent, including the cost of living increase, would “require attention,” while Snyder’s number was 1 percent.  Both candidates said this number could be higher or lower, depending on the demands of a given year.  The $22 million budget for next year will bring a tax rate increase of 1.12 percent, which represents a 2.8 percent increase for the total budget.  The consumer price index, which is used to measure inflation, is currently at 2.8 percent.  According to Sarita Winchell, the district’s assistant superintendent, that is a coincidence.  With the recent drastic increases in the cost of fuel and food, 2.8 percent is not an accurate number for the consumer price index, said Winchell; the actual number would be much higher, so the district’s budget falls well below the cost of living increase.


What value do you place on transparency for the board?

“I think that’s a very appropriate question and I have always been open and honest in what I tell people; I think that as a board member I would do the same thing,” said Snyder.  “…I think that honest answers can be given to people and you don’t always have to hide behind closed door sessions; I don’t think it is as necessary as often as the board sometimes uses it.”

There are things the public has a right to know, and there are things they should know, he said, concluding,  “I think the public has a right to know some of these things; hell, it’s their tax dollars.”

Henkel was more guarded.

“You definitely have to protect the confidentiality of the people you employ; issues with personnel like that, you can’t discuss those issues publicly,” she said.  “That’s part of the function of the board.  You take recommendations from the administrators you are working with, and you have to have trust in those recommendations.  I think it can be hard sometimes to not get the answers but those answers are confidential.  It is hard to let go of a teacher that is well-liked but may not be a good fit for the district.”


What do you consider your greatest strength?

Snyder chuckled at this question.

“You are probably going to laugh, but I think it is my age.  Over time, I have learned quite a few life lessons, and I have learned from experiences, from mistakes, and from working hard, so I think that has given me the ability to reflect on things and to make wiser decisions than those who are 20 years younger,” he said.  “I don’t consider myself an old man, but I have a wealth of experiences that I can bring to the board.” 

“I think my greatest strength is the educational background I bring as a teacher and an administrator, and now as a consultant in the field of education,” said Henkel.  “I think that it is really important to bring balance to the board and I don’t think there is currently a single person with the educational background, and it is important, if you are making decision, to have that background.  That, and being a parent and a taxpayer.”  She also said that she considered herself a strong “team player.”


What do you consider your greatest weakness?

Both candidates had the same answer: their passion for their work.

“Sometimes I get overly involved in a lot of things, and though I have learned to say ‘no’ to some things, I tend to really immerse myself,” said Snyder.  “I probably don’t spend enough time staying at home, mowing the grass, doing the things you do at home, and I think I balance that well, but, when you immerse yourself in things, they can get out of hand.  I used to love to cook, you know, and when I don’t have the time to cook those home-cooked meals for my family.  The good news is my wife has learned to cook quite well in my absence.”

“I get really passionate about things,” said Henkel.  “Like the quality of education we provide to our kids, and sometimes I think I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew with the workload, and I want to have balance, staying at home and being a part-time employee…I am just trying to find balance in my life, and that is not always easy.  I quit my job as an elementary principle to stay at home and work part-time.”


The new board member shall be elected on May 20.  Voters will also to cast their ballots for or against the $22 million budget for the 2008-2009 school year; a proposition to acquire three new buses for the district for $189,000; shortening school board members’ terms from five years to four years, and the transfer of $95,000 from the general fund to pay debt accrued by the school lunch fund over the last five years.

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