Four candidates vie for two Voorheesville School Board seats

NEW SCOTLAND — With President Cindy Monaghan declining to run for a fourth term, not only will the Voorheesville School Board have new leadership when it reorganizes in July, it will have at least one brand-new member. 

Four candidates are seeking two seats on May 17. 

Incumbent Argi O’Leary is looking for her first four-year bid after winning the final two years of Michael Canfora’s expiring term in 2020, while newcomers Vinny Commisso, Erika Smitkin, and Robyn Willoughby are also in the race.

On May 17, in addition to deciding on candidates, voters will decide the fate of a $28.1 million spending plan for the 2022-23 school year, while also being asked to approve the Voorheesville Public Library’s $1.22 milloin budget in addition to choosing its next trustee. 

The four school board candidates have much in common going by their answers to Enterprise interview, but turnout could be high on May 17 as voters will be asked to choose from a group with clear ideological distinctions on some hot-button education issues.

Commisso and Smitkin disagreed with the way Voorheesville handled masking over the course of the pandemic, while O’Leary and Willoughby praised the district for its coronavirus response.

During a Monday candidates’ forum hosted by the Voorheesville PTA, when asked what she thought what was a major issue currently facing public education, Smitkin said she wanted to keep learning focused “on just education, right, not on anything having to do with race-based things or, you know, sexual things that [are seemingly] push[ed] onto our younger-age children.”

When asked her opinion on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans discussion and instruction about LGBTQ issues for students in kindergarten through third grade, Smitkin said, “To be quite honest, I haven’t read much about it. So I’m not well-informed on that topic.”

Answering an Enterprise question about his views on controversial topics in education, Commisso similarly said he’d like to see the curriculum, especially at the elementary level, remain neutral. 

“I don’t think we need to introduce [politics] or any other ideological topics in kids’ math problems, you know? Just solve for the equation,” Commisso said in an apparent reference to Florida’s rejection of nearly one-third (42 out of 132) of math textbooks proposed for public school use because they “incorporate prohibited topics,” like critical race theory, or “unsolicited strategies” like social-emotional learning, according to the state’s Department of Education.

O’Leary wouldn’t comment specifically about the Florida law, but said it wouldn’t be something she’d support.  Willoughby also said the law “isn’t something that I agree with. And I don’t think it’s something that we need to have here in New York State.”

While she and Commisso share a platform and similar ideas, Smitkin said the two are not running as a slate. 

During the candidates’ forum, Smitkin said she’d only been to one in-person board meeting, but said she’d “watched a lot of them on the [district’s] YouTube channel.”

Likewise, Willoughby said she’d only ever been to “maybe one or two” meetings in person, in part she said because the school district in which she teaches has its board meetings at the same time as Voorheesville. She added, “I make the point to try to go back through to check the agenda and then read through the minutes to see kind of what did I miss.”

Commisso had attended more meetings than either of his non-incumbent opponents in addition to speaking during many of them. 

Recordings of full-length candidate interviews are available with the online version story, where each was asked to respond to the following issues:

— Background 

What’s your biography: Where did you grow up; go to school; what do you do for work; and how many kids do you have in Voorheesville schools? 

Why are you running?

What is something that the board of education is doing well?

What is something that the board of education needs to do better?

— Testing 

There continues to be a controversy in standardized testing, whether to continue “teaching to the test” or allowing teachers more leeway in creating their own curricula, or in dealing with students’ social and emotional needs, all of which may contribute to a decline in district rankings. 

Where do you fall on this spectrum, and why?

— Student mental health

The pandemic has taken a toll on students’ mental health. 

First, in your opinion, have the past two years had an effect on students?

And if so, what has Voorheesville done to tackle the issue? Where has it fallen short? And what more can it do?

— Taxes

The district is largely funded by property taxes. So it would be fair to say land-owning residents have some skin in the game. And yet, only during the rarest of budget seasons will a solitary resident show up to air grievances.

Every year there’s an invariable increase in the tax rate, which amounts to just pennies on the dollar — but a Voorheesville resident, who pays village property taxes at a rate of $1.31 per $1,000 of assessed value, probably wonders what’s happening with the $19.91 per $1,000 he or she pays the school district each year. 

So, how do you play watchdog when there’s no one looking over your shoulder?

— Controversial issues

This year, school board elections in many places across the nation, and locally too, have been influenced by parents who initially opposed mask mandates and have now taken on other topics like opposing critical race theory or banning books or objecting to faculty training to better serve LGBTQ students. The central theme is that parents should have more control over schools. What are your opinions on these topics?


Vinny Commisso

Vinny Commisso said he’s running for the school board because he wants to be a voice for himself, his kids, other parents, and their children. 

He was approached about running by a group of parents “simply because we really felt like there wasn’t a voice on the school board that would, you know, kind of be beneficial for all of us parents,” he said. 

The group felt like it wasn’t being heard, Commisso said, and that it was looking for a little more feedback from the board.

Commisso grew up in Albany, where he attended Christian Brothers Academy and Siena College. He and his wife were married in 2013, the same year they moved to Voorheesville. The couple has one child in Voorheesville schools and another too young to attend yet. 

For the past 10 years, Commisso has owned and operated NonStop Music, which offers DJ services for weddings and other events.

Commisso said he thinks the board is doing “great. It really reflects in the school district that we currently have.”

As for what it needs to work on, Commisso recounted speaking experiences during the public-comment portion of board meetings where “you make your comments as a first-time parent, [and] they just kind of stare back at you and say, ‘OK, thanks for your comments.’ And you kind of walk away and you’re like, ‘Is my voice really heard?’”

If elected, Commisso said he’d push to expand board discourse with parents who come to meetings and make a public comment.  “Maybe we can email or follow up with them and kind of maybe have a little bit more of an open dialogue and a little more of a discussion,” he said.  

On standardized testing, Commisso demurred from offering his own opinion, stating “I wouldn’t be an expert in giving any advice on that.” He said testing is something that requires talking to teachers and administrators to “get a real [in]-depth analysis” of the issue. 

But he also said school board members ultimately have to arrive at a conclusion that’s best for the district and its students. “I think that’s how you would approach that,” he said. 

Commisso said of the past two years of pandemic, “I think everybody can agree that it’s definitely taken a toll on everybody,” adding he hoped it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience no one would ever have to endure again.  

In a letter submitted to the board and read into the record in October, Commisso said he asked what the district had planned to do to measure the impact of mask-wearing on students. 

In the letter, Commisso recounted for the board the difficulties his son had with mask-wearing four weeks into the new school year. He wrote how his son would ask when he could take off the face-covering because he didn’t like wearing it, and that his “brain hurts” from wearing one.

Commisso wrote about having to continually remind his son wearing the mask was only temporary. “Because as I see it, this cannot be forever,” he wrote. “And I am hopeful that those who control the levers of power come to their senses or will be forced to.”

Commisso wrote how in August he expressed concern with the amount of time each day students, especially young ones, were in masks. He acknowledged students got mask breaks and ample opportunity to go outside, but what he wanted to know was: “When are we going to realize how ineffective masks are on children?”

Commisso said he never got a reply to his letter. 

On fiscal matters, Commisso reiterated an earlier point about wanting to see more parent and community-member involvement at board meetings.

Speaking from his own experience during the pandemic, where he had to both tighten spending and “hustle more” to keep money coming in, Commisso said creative ways of raising funds that don’t involve levying taxes on property owners had to be found. 

As for what that would actually entail, Commisso mentioned lowering the barriers of entry for businesses looking to move into the district, and talking with the village of Voorheesville and town of New Scotland about what could be done.

But, as someone who worked for the state, in the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, during the Great Recession,m Commisso said “You don’t want to keep cutting things.” Commisso said his team “had a lot of difficult conversations with unions about pay going forward,” and pointed to the current situation as a potential harbinger of future difficult decisions. 

“Revenue seems to be OK, for right now. But because there’ll be a market correction … a downturn in the economy,” Commisso said. “I’m not an economist, but you know, it doesn’t look great right now. Inflation is up.”

He continued, “So a lot of those things are going to have” to be looked at in-depth by the board and its newest members. 

Commisso said he thought parents should be more involved in schools. 

On mandates, he said  “I don’t believe” in them “personally,” adding they “shouldn’t have been imposed. And I think it’s up to the parent to make the best decision they can for their children.”

Commisso said he thought parents should have the freedom to make medical decisions based on what’s best for their children. When asked if that freedom to choose extended to long-established medical norms like the immunizations required of students to attend school in America, Commisso asked if the vaccines were required by law or mandate. 

Children in daycare and pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in New York State must receive all recommended vaccinations to attend or remain in school. In New York, there are no nonmedical exemptions to the state’s school vaccine requirements.

“There’s a difference there,” Commisso said. “A mandate is not a law.”

Commisso also took issue with an Enterprise story about the upcoming election that characterized him as an ardent critic of the school board and its support of mask mandates.

“I wouldn’t say it was fair,” he said of the adjective’s usage. 

Over the course of the past year, Commisso had spoken or submitted letters during four board meetings. Audio and computer-generated transcripts of Commisso’s remarks and read-into-the-record letters from each of those meetings are available with the online version of this story. 


Argi O’Leary

Argi O’Leary first ran for the board two years ago to give back to the community. She is running again for the same reason but also because “we have a lot of unfinished business to do,” she said.

The pandemic had slowed down some projects that were only in the planning stages, O’Leary said. The projects were “really important” ones “that we need to get done,” she said, pointing to building a bus garage and implementing a new reading program as examples. 

O’Leary grew up in Northern New Jersey, received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Boston College, and attended Fordham for law school.

She spent time in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, eventually taking a job as the Cuomo administration’s deputy commissioner for taxation and finance. She and her husband have three children. 

When she first ran in 2020, O’Leary said, “It was really just about giving back.” She’d already coached soccer and T-ball and served on the boards of the New Scotland Soccer Club and Saint Matthew’s Catholic Youth Organization Basketball League, “but I wanted to serve in another way,” she said. 

O’Leary said this week that she thinks she and her fellow board members “do a lot of things,” pointing specifically to how “we communicate well with each other.”

She said she thought “anyone who’s paid attention to board meetings over the last year or so has realized that we don’t always agree,” but, because of good communication and a commitment to transparency, members have been able “to work through and to make together” some difficult decisions.

Between January 2021 and this past March, board members were asked to vote on approximately 102 motions (most of which were procedural items like approving meeting minutes and appointments) during 17 meetings, all of which were unanimously approved.

O’Leary sidestepped a vote in October that, from all appearances, would have put her in conflict with her fellow board members on coronavirus protocols when she abstained on a vote to restrict outside groups from using district facilities during periods of substantial and high transmission.

She pointed to her  soccer and basketball board affiliations as reasons for not voting, while also acknowledging, “certainly there’s no conflict for me,” but said she could “see how there might be an appearance” of impropriety. After saying she wouldn’t vote, O’Leary said she thought the outside groups’ activities could be done safely, in part because of the protocols Voorheesville already had in place. 

As for something the board needs to do better, O’Leary said she imagined one critique of the board is that it doesn’t move quickly enough on certain issues.

While she herself wouldn’t say the observation was apt, O’Leary did acknowledge “it’s a valid point.” But she added, particularly with public-health issues during the pandemic, the district’s hands were somewhat tied as it waited for state or county guidance on a particular matter.

On teaching to a test or allowing teachers more leeway in creating their own curricula, O’Leary said, “I personally think that teachers should do both, they should have the flexibility to teach a curriculum that’s geared towards their students. But I also recognize that standardized tests are kind of part of our academic culture, for lack of a better word.” 

And she noted standardized tests were a fact of life for anyone looking to graduate from high school, get into college, or graduate from school after that. 

O’Leary said she “absolutely agree[s] that the pandemic has really taken a toll on students’ mental health.” She said she saw isolation take a toll on her own children, cut off from friends and lacking an outlet like sports to engage them physically.

O’Leary said Voorheesville’s counseling program in particular has “done a lot to try and reach students who are in need of those services,” citing as an example new on-site calm rooms set up by the district. She also said the district has done more to engage parents, pointing to a new counseling newsletter sent home to help parents “recognize if their children need help.”

Because of her tax background, O’Leary said, when she joined the board she was asked by President Cindy Monaghan to chair the audit committee. She has worked with Superintendent Frank Macri and Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Jim Southard on developing a detailed report examining district budgeting and spending. 

The new report “allows the board and the public, really, to ask questions about: Why did we spend more in this category than we thought we would?” O’Leary said. “So that type of reporting, I think, gives us a pretty detailed picture into what the district is spending.”

O’Leary thinks it’s important for parents to have their say, and said she thought the board members had been “very open” to two-way communication between themselves and the public. 

One thing O’Leary has been very proud of is that Voorheesville schools remained open for all of 2021-22 and have continued to do so in the new academic year. “And I think the mask mandate was a critical part of keeping our students safe and being able to keep the buildings open,” she said. 

On critical race theory, O’Leary said Voorheesville had been able to largely avoid the conversation. And, as for the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community, O’Leary said she thought Voorheesville was doing the right thing for its students. “I wouldn’t want to change any of that,” she said, adding she thought “some of these issues are just intended to, you know, divide us and it’s not anything that I would support.”


Erika Smitkin

Erika Smitkin said she’s running for the board because, after living through two years of unprecedented times, she thinks “a lot of parents have felt frustrations over many different topics,” and she “really want[s] to be a voice for children and parents who are not feeling heard.”

Beyond that, Smitkin said she’s running because she wants to be more involved in her community, to make a difference. “I want to have a positive influence on our kids’ education, you know?” she said. “I have a vested interest in my children’s education, and I really just want to be more involved and give back.”

Smitkin has been a Voorheesville resident since 2013. She and her husband have three children, two of whom are in school in the district. A graduate of South Colonie High School, Smitkin has worked for New York State for 16 years, the past six in the comptroller’s office.

The current school board does a good job of “working as a unit,” and presenting a “united front,” Smitkin said. “I would for sure, say that’s a strong suit.” If members had differing opinions, she said, “you wouldn’t know it because, at the end of the day, they come together and make decisions for the betterment of the community and the students.”

One suggestion Smitkin had for the board was for it to offer a second public-comment period at the end of its meetings, which she said the board eliminated in November 2020, according to her own research on the matter. 

“I think that we need to bring that back,” Smith said of the second public-comment period. “You know, sometimes people don’t think of questions until they’ve heard the content of the meeting, or some people might show up late because they have prior engagements, and so on.”

On standardized testing, Smitkin said she thought there wasn’t enough information and transparency with regard to “the main purpose behind these tests, what they’re being used for, and at what expense of the students.”

So if there’s a “bigger picture” behind the test, “then I think that should be explained to the parents,” Smitkin said. “Because I don’t personally feel that it has been — [and] I’ve talked to other parents — that don’t fully understand, you know, the reasoning behind it.”

Smitkin said one thing that should be impressed upon students is standardized testing has no impact on their classroom grades, which can be a difficult thing because “we raise them their entire educational career to study for a test,” telling students, “this test is important, this test matters.” But then, all of sudden, students are being told, “This one time, it doesn’t.”

It’s easy to tell a student not to stress out over hours and hours of standardized testing, Smitkin said, but many still will. “So I think that we just need a better understanding of ‘the why’ and what they’re doing with. And, if there isn’t a great ‘why,’ then the teacher should have more say in it.”

Smitkin said the pandemic “undoubtedly” had an impact on students. “I mean, I don’t think there’s a question in anybody’s mind, right?” she said, noting that students had to endure remote learning, cut off from school and socializing with friends. Smitkin also said masking has taken its toll on students, keeping them from seeing the facial expressions of their friends and teachers. 

On services offered by the district amid the pandemic, Smitkin said she couldn’t really speak to the issue, but said she was aware that minimal counseling services had been offered by the district, and that, according to the March board meeting she attended, more funding for mental-health support was being made available. “And I think that they should take advantage of that,” she said.

On taxes, Smitkin said just because residents aren’t constantly complaining about them, that “doesn’t mean [they’re] not a pain point,” citing as an example, elderly residents on fixed incomes. “They can’t afford to have their taxes raised year after year after year,” she said. 

One recommendation Smitkin had was conducting a five-year audit of expenditures “to see if there’s something we’re missing, or, you know, places we can trim funds to put towards something that’s more pressing in the moment.”

And on a smaller scale, she talked about putting on fundraisers — “family fun nights, bingo nights, movie nights, carnivals” — to raise revenue for the district, which would have the added benefit of “bringing the community together.”

On hot-button issues, Smitkin began by stating, “I think, at the end of the day, every parent wants their kid to go to school … comfortable being themselves, to feel safe. But also to get, you know, the proper education,” Smitkin said. 

She then reiterated a personal opinion about school curriculum she had made during Monday’s PTA forum for candidates. “I do think that schools should be a place of neutrality, and be focused on the basics of education without pushing agendas that I really feel are being driven to divide us more than really cater to people’s needs,” she said. 

On masking, Smitkin sought to clarify what she said about the issue during Monday’s candidate forum, which almost sounded as if she would have followed the board’s opinion on the issue even though she personally opposed face-coverings.

“Is it something that we actually have a choice and voice in changing?” Smitken asked. “Or is it something that we’re being mandated to follow?” If the district is being told by government at higher levels that it has to do something then “we don’t have a choice … You have to conform to that,” Smitkin said. 

But, if there is a choice, people’s voices need to be heard, she said, citing as a hypothetical example, a survey of students that found 90 percent were either in favor or opposed to mask-wearing. If such an overwhelming majority of Voorheesville’s constituency felt one way or another about an issue, Smitkin said, “then that’s where [the board’s] vote needs to go.”


Robyn Willoughby

Robyn Willoughby said she chose to run because of what she could offer the board in terms of her background. 

“I have the unique position of being a teacher and a parent in the district,” she said. “So I feel I have a unique perspective to offer the board that I know that often is not presented … I know it’s not unheard of to have teachers on the board, obviously. But I would definitely like to contribute to ensure we can continue to keep Voorheesville School District being the high quality district that it is.”

Willoughby is from Dutchess County. She attended the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh for undergrad and the University at Albany for her master’s degree. She’s a New York State certified teacher with 10 years of experience, who began teaching in 2005, but took some time off to be at home with her children. 

She currently teaches Spanish in the Greenville Central School District.

She and her husband moved to Voorheesville in 2013. They have two children in the district.

Willoughby said she appreciated that, for the past two years, the board worked to maintain a safe but still educationally-productive environment for students. “I know it’s created many challenges that they have navigated very well,” she said. Though not exactly a criticism of the board, she also answered with the cost of universal pre-kindergarten being borne by the state for this year and next, “That’s certainly something that I’d love to see continue, if possible.”

As for something the school board needs to do better, Willoughby said, “I honestly can’t think of something at the moment that I could say they need to improve upon.”

On standardized testing, Willoughby said, “I feel, first and foremost, teachers should have the freedom and the ability to decide what is the best method of assessment for their students.”

She said standardized tests don’t necessarily demonstrate student learning, and “depending on the particular assessment, we could just be assessing how well the students have memorized facts or information, which is not learning.” 

From her own experience as a language-arts teacher, Willoughby said, rather than just memorizing information, the best way to get a student to learn something new is “regularly hitting on the four modes of communication” a world-language student would be tested on: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

While she’s “not a huge proponent of traditional standardized tests,”  Willoughby said teachers and students should be prepared for testing, “in order to be able to perform at their best.”

Willoughby said the past two years have “definitely impacted students greatly.”

She said she’s seen students fall behind “just simply for the fact that they were not in a physical school setting,” because even the best teacher working with the best technology is still no substitute for classroom time. “It cannot be duplicated,” Willoughby said of the hands-on learning environment. 

Technology-wise, Willoughby credited the district and its personnel for adapting on the fly. 

“I know it was not always the case at all, that Voorheesville teachers utilized things like Google Classroom or any other online platform,” she said, but the district, like so many others, “just … figured it all out and made it work for their students, which is really, you know, I really commend the district for doing that.”

As for holding the board responsible with taxpayer money, Willoughby said she “trust[s] in the integrity of the board” to make sound financial choices for the entire community, and not just to base its decisions on a particular budget cycle or certain residents. 

“But moving forward, I do think it’s important that we are financially conservative,” she said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure that really we can get the best value for our dollar here.”

As for how the seemingly contradictory statements would work, Willoughby said she feels it’s the job of the school board “to work collaboratively to make sure that happens.”

Willoughby said parents have always had a tremendous amount of control over their childrens’ education. “Unfortunately,” that fact has not always been “communicated well enough,” she said, adding that all information disseminated to students “is always public knowledge.” She added it’s important to “remember that the people that are employed at schools are professionals. They have spent years obtaining education to be specialized in what they do every day.”

Willoughby thinks it is important to note that, while parents do have a say in their child’s education, if they feel what’s being taught in the classroom doesn’t align with certain practices or beliefs, they “absolutely always have had the freedom to not send your child to that school.”


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