Three candidates vie for two seats on Voorheesville School Board

NEW SCOTLAND — Voters in the upcoming Voorheesville School Board election are faced with what could easily be described as an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selecting their preferred candidates.

On May 21, residents of the Voorheesville Central School District will have to check the box twice for either the former head of the statewide School Boards Association; an attorney whose work focuses on education, labor, and employment law, in addition to his dabbles with administrative, open meetings, public officers, and constitutional law; and a former district teacher who for two decades also acted as Voorheesville educators’ chief advocate.

With trustee Patricia Putman not running for re-election, incumbent Timothy Kremer has two challengers for his board seat. 

Kremer, the former School Boards executive director, will face off against Kathy Fiero, a former Voorheesville teacher and local union president, and Matthew Bergeron, a lawyer for New York State United Teachers.

Also on May 21, voters will be asked to approve a school budget for next year of $34.5 million. 

The candidates, in addition to be asked about themselves, their reason for running, and why they deserve to be elected to the board, were asked the following questions: 

— The district in general and its individual schools in particular consistently rank number either one or two in various school rankings, yet it has had quite a bit of recent administrative turnover.

Why is that? Is it a problem and, if so, how can it be solved? If not, why not?

— American student loan debt is rapidly approaching $2 trillion. Students for decades have been told the only path to prosperity and a decent middle-class life is through college, which more and more people are understanding is not the case. BOCES offers students a debt-free alternative to college.

Voorheesville has 17 (out of 340 to 350) students who attend BOCES classes. 

Does Voorheesville do enough to expose students to alternative education options? If not, should it?

 

TIMOTHY KREMER

Tim Kremer was appointed to the Voorheesville School Board in January 2020. Five months later, he was elected to a full four-year term. 

The only retiree on the board, Kremer spent 21 years as executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, having spent the previous 19 at the Ohio School Boards Association.

Kremer and his wife, Jaye, have three sons who attended Voorheesville schools.

Kremer said he’s running for re-election because he enjoys working at the granular level of policy and decision-making. He said he believes his managerial skill set and perspective honed over decades of educational policy-making along with his ability to create consensus are valuable assets to the board.

As for his own time as a Voorheesville board member, Kremer said he believes he was instrumental in bringing about a full-time universal pre-K program, and how, at what ended up being the near-start of the pandemic, he supported a return to the classroom for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“We brought those kindergarten through fifth-graders back to in-person instruction as early as we possibly could,” he said. “And that was really important because those kids would have struggled otherwise if they had to do what they had to do at their age all virtually.”

 

Officer

Kremer’s perspective on the district’s hiring a school resource officer is rare today in that he reversed his position after hearing what members of the public had to say and that he actually admits to changing his view. 

“I originally felt an SRO was needed,” he said. “We had some incidents that occurred in Voorheesville that suggested to me that an SRO should be explored.”

Kremer said, “We came to find out that most school districts have an SRO, one or two, depending on what their circumstances are. So I kind of felt like maybe we were out of the loop on that.”

But Kremer went on, “The more that I’ve talked with people, I have sensed that people are more interested in having people who can really sit down and care for the emotional needs of kids rather than provide some level of law enforcement.” 

In his conversations, Kremer said the idea of an on-campus officer wasn’t what “teachers and kids necessarily wanted.”

He said, “They really would rather have somebody who was available to them as needed, who had a skill set that could provide them with some psychological and emotional support.”

 

Turnover 

 Despite the recent turnover of high-school and middle-school principals, Kremer pointed out that Voorheesville, as a district, continues humming along.

“Well, yeah, we’re still knocking it out of the park despite some of the turnover we’ve had administratively, which tells you that there’s a great, strong staff there,” he said. “I think the teachers, the teaching assistants, the teacher aids, the support staff, as well as the administration, central administration, are all doing a great job. And so hats off to them.”

 Kremer said the two previous high-school principals “seemed to maybe struggle a little bit” in adjusting both personally and professionally to a small suburban school setting. But he concluded, “It just didn’t work, and that’s what happens from time to time.”

 Kremer said he played an active role in the latest search for new principals, and that he advocated for staff and community involvement in the process, even facilitating forums where stakeholders could share their expectations, desired qualifications, and key issues they wanted the new principals to address. Kremer said the collaborative approach led to the creation of comprehensive profiles for the ideal candidates, whom he expressed confidence in hiring.

 

Alternatives

About doing enough to expose students to education alternatives, Kremer said, “I think that is going to be something that we will have to grapple with going forward.”

He said he thinks, “you’re going to see more and more students recognizing that maybe the trades that don’t require a full four-year college education may be a better way for them to go.”

With skyrocketing higher-education costs and “all the struggles that kids are having just making ends meet in this economy, going into deep debt, unable to buy homes,” Kremer said, “I do think that you’re going to see more and more people interested in the trades as an avenue for them.”

He added, “I would encourage that.”

Kremer thinks BOCES is a great exposure opportunity, but “we probably need to do a more thorough job” advertising it. 

But he also admits, “Honestly, I don’t know exactly [what] conversations are taking place between counselors and students now or parents and students now back home. To what extent is anyone sitting down and saying, ‘Hey, let’s  talk about some alternatives to college.’ I don’t know if that’s really happening.”

Kremer said, “If it isn’t, it should be.”

 

MATTHEW BERGERON 

Matthew Bergeron is a 12-year resident of Voorheesville.

His two daughters, a sophomore and senior, attend Clayton A. Bouton

An attorney for New York State United Teachers, Bergeron’s focus is on education, labor, and employment law, in addition to a great deal of administrative, open meetings, public officers, and constitutional law.

Bergeron, who said he thinks he’s yet to miss a school board meeting in two years, is running because he believes in the civic obligation to give back to the community. And said he is campaigning “on the concept of civics education, civic involvement, and media literacy.”

Even without being on the board, Bergeron can already point to school-related accomplishments, having introduced and championed the addition of a non-voting student to the board, which has been in place for two years now.

Bergeron said his educational and professional background provide him with a strong foundation for serving on the board. He started out in the North Country of New York, attended Clinton Community College, then Plattsburgh State, before earning his law degree from Albany Law School. After working in private practice for about eight years, Bergeron joined the Office of General Counsel at New York State United Teachers, where he has been since 2011.

As for why he should be considered instead of Fiero or Kremer, Bergeron said he didn’t view the race as “candidate against candidate,”

Each candidate has his or her own qualifications, which “no doubt … they’re going to stress and bring to your attention,” he said.

Touting his own background, Bergeron said, “f I'm talking strictly about myself,” as to why he should be chosen over his opposition, “I do think it’s because of my knowledge about educational policy, how school districts operate, what the real world impacts are of the decisions that the school board makes, which frankly are limited.”

Bergeron said a lot of people have misconceptions about the extent of a school board’s power and influence. He believes it’s important to have a clear understanding of the board’s actual scope of authority and the real-world impacts of its decisions, and with his legal expertise and experience working with school districts, he believes he can provide realistic and well-informed perspectives on the board's role and limitations. 

 

Officer

Bergeron does not believe Voorheesville needs a school resource offices, and supports the board’s recent decision to hire a hall monitor with a law enforcement background instead.

He said that the hall monitor can effectively serve the purpose that some believe an SRO would, without the full-time presence of a uniformed police officer in the school.

He pointed out that there has been significant debate around the need for SROs on campus, about half of public schools have them, and pointed to a recent study that found SROs were successful in decreasing only certain types of violence, like physical attacks without a weapon, but the study found on-campus police lead to a rise in the number of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and student arrests, with Black, male, and students with disabilities bearing the brunt of on-site law enforcement. 

 

Turnover 

While he acknowledged the importance of consistent administrative leadership in the district,  while also noting his own children have experienced multiple changes in building administrators during their time in the district, Bergeron pointed out the difficulty in speculating on the reasons behind any turnover, as personnel matters are discussed in executive session. 

He said it’s important for Voorheesville to have administrative continuity, because it allows students, faculty, and staff to build meaningful relationships and have clear expectations.

While he believes the way to address the turnover issue is to foster an environment of open communication and respect for faculty, staff, and other administrators, and said it was important to give administrators the space and support they need to perform their duties effectively, while also providing appropriate oversight.

Generally speaking high-achieving school districts tend to have parents who are highly-involved in their children’s academic life, which some could find taxing, which Bergeron acknowledged — but he pointed out that highly-involved parents can be both a positive for school administrators.

Bergeron said that parents have a right and obligation to be involved in their children’s education, but administrators also have a role in managing that involvement effectively, and should be done in a diplomatic yet firm manner, providing truthful and realistic answers to parents, rather than simply telling them what they want to hear.

Bergerson said the ability to manage parental input and communication effectively should be a key consideration in the hiring and evaluation of school administrators. He said administrators who can strike a balance between being responsive to parents while also upholding the district’s educational priorities and policies are likely to succeed in their roles.

 

Alternatives

“Based on what I know,” Bergeron said, responding to the question of whether Voorheesville does enough to expose students to alternative education options, “I think there’s always room for improvement.”

And while he said he’s not fully-aware of the district's current efforts to expose students to alternative education paths, Bergeron said he is open to exploring and supporting any opportunities to expand or improve upon these initiatives, and pointed to a recent career fair as a great way to expose students to various career options. 

He said he thinks “students should always be exposed to other opportunities for advancement,” adding he, without hesitation, says that college is not the only route after high school,” and supports exposing students to other options like trades, union apprenticeships, and hands-on practical experience.

Bergerson said it was important to tailor education to individual students’ needs, skills, and interests, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, while also believing the K-12 education system should enable students to capitalize on their unique interests and talents.

 

KATHY FIERO

Kathy Fiero has been a village resident for almost four decades, in which time she and her husband, Alan, raised three daughters who attended Voorheesville schools, where Fiero taught for 32 years, before retiring two years ago. 

Retirement hasn’t slowed Fiero down, as she also serves as chair of the Voorheesville Planning Commission. 

Fiero, who also served as president of the teachers’ union for 21 years, said her campaign was driven by a belief of the pivotal role public education plays in shaping future citizens in addition to sustaining democracy. 

She pointed out that Voorheesville is “one of the only districts in the wider Capital Region that is experiencing growth,” while noting there are “a couple big projects on the docket” that she’s “really interested in seeing through ….”

As to why she should be one of voters’ two choices on Election Day, Fiero said it was her comprehensive understanding of educational and administrative processes, gained from decades of involvement in various school and village committees that set her apart.

“I’ve been very active in pretty much all of the committees from health insurance to contract negotiations,” Fiero said. “I understand benefits and things like that, which are significant cost drivers for the district.”

She also pointed to her “unique set of experiences” over the past 38 years as to why she’d make the ideal candidate for voters. In addition to teaching in the district while also being deeply involved in most non-instruction and employee-related issues, she’s also a Voorheesville parent. “My kids went to school here, so I’ve experienced the sports parent and the band parent and all those aspects of school that a parent experiences.”

 

Officer

Fiero acknowledged there are potential security benefits from having a school resource officer, and while “I personally think if money was no object, sure it would be a nice thing to have,” she doesn’t think an SRO should be the district’s top priority.

She said, “We had an SRO back a few years ago. I think if you were to take a survey, there would be mixed reviews,” She said. But she thinks “a lot of it had to do less with the person who was the SRO” than what was expected of the position. “I don’t think the role was really clear before the person started. There ended up being hiccups in what was their role, what was administration’s role, what was the dean-of-students’ role.”

As for hiring a retired cop to monitor Voorheesville’s hallways, Fiero “remember[ed] distinctly” an active-shooter training session where she was told by a member of Albany County’s tactical response team that a number of SROs hired by school districts are retired police officers, but “this individual felt that that was a mistake because they said, ‘Unless you’re going to be continuing with your active training and all the things that go along with that,’ you’re not going to be the best candidate to respond to an active shooter.”

Fiero said she thought “if we put in some of the things that they’re talking about, enhanced social workers, hall monitors, things like that,” those additions would be better equipped “to keep the pulse on what’s going on in the district.”

 

Turnover

Fiero said she’s concerned with the administrative turnover rate in the district, particularly at the high school level, which has had four different principals since 2021. The frequent change in leadership, Fiero said, affects the stability and continuity that is essential to fostering strong relationships between students and top administrators, in addition to hampering the district’s strategic planning and goal-setting.  “And when I’ve been out talking to people in the community as I campaign, that’s been probably one of the top concerns that people have expressed to me.”

While no specific reason has been given to explain the turnover, it might stand to reason that Fiero’s two decades as union president — dealing directly with administrators herself as well as hearing what her members had to say about their bosses — put her in a position to at least offer some informed speculation on the issue. 

But rather than take the bait on a question attempting to illicit the airing of dirty laundry, Fiero said the constant churn at the top has meant teachers “have not been able to develop relationships with the people in high school because it’s been a revolving door.”

To address the challenge, Fiero proposed establishing a new administrator mentorship program similar to the existing teacher program, which she said can provide valuable guidance and support to help them navigate their roles and integrate into the school culture effectively.

 

Alternatives

Fiero said, “Oh, absolutely,” that Voorheesville could be doing more to expose students to alternative education options, but said she “can’t really respond to: Do we do enough?”

She said the 17 BOCES students “seems like a pretty solid number to me.”

But, she said, “I think there’s always more that can be done,” and referred to an earlier point she made about her campaign being about both “empowering education” and “building community.”

“I think that there’s  lot of things that we can look at within our own community where people could be given exposure to other careers or other career paths that may or may not involve further education,” Fiero said. 

To aid students with their decision-making,  Fiero referred to “an attempt” made several years ago to track students five years out of high school, to “follow up on where they went and how they did, what path they chose.” While she’s unsure where the project landed, Fiero said a database with that kind information would be very helpful to current high school students.

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