Two candidates seek seats on New Paltz School Board

Sophia Skiles and Bianca Tanis.

New Paltz voters on May 21 will be asked to approve two candidates on the ballot running for two seats on the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education. Incumbent Sophia Skiles is running to retain her seat for a second term and Bianca Tanis is a first-time candidate running for the seat of Matthew Williams, whose term ends on June 30. The trustee positions carry three-year terms to begin July 1. Also up for a vote will be the proposed 2019-2020 budget of $63,640,000. The polls will be open at the high school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Despite the fact that two candidates running for two seats precludes any doubt as to the outcome of the election, New Paltz Times deems it important, nevertheless, to present to the community a profile of those candidates who, as board members, will contribute to the decision-making in the schools and their cultural climate over the next three years.

Skiles has been an articulate and active member of the BOE, travelling to Albany throughout her first term to help lobby for the restoration of Foundation Aid to public schools, and affiliating with the Sisters of Sojourner’s Truth as part of her efforts to address racial equity in the schools. And Tanis has frequently attended Board of Education meetings in New Paltz, an active presence speaking as a member of the public to advocate for educational issues of inclusivity and equal access to resources. We recently asked the two what they feel the biggest challenges facing the school district are and what their priorities will be as new trustees.

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Sophia Skiles

The incumbent is running on a platform of belief in “the promises of opportunity, raising informed citizens, and strengthening community.” She lives in Gardiner with her husband, Tim, and their two young children, Beckett and Iris, both of whom attend Lenape Elementary School. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Skiles holds a bachelor’s degree in performance studies from Northwestern University. After teaching and performing theater in Chicago, she moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia University, earning an MFA in acting.

As a professional theater actor and adjunct professor who has taught theater at Mount Holyoke College, SUNY Ulster, and most recently, SUNY Purchase, Skiles has also taught K-12 students in all five boroughs of New York City and in the Ulster BOCES New Visions program, as a classroom teaching artist. With nearly 25 years of experience in those diverse learning communities — public and private, urban and upstate, low-income and well-funded, elementary to college — Skiles is familiar with both the educational process and the structure of support behind it. “Investing in relationships over time, built on trust and respect, are essential to me as both a professional theater artist and educator and as a member of the New Paltz community,” she says. “I understand the power and work of collaboration, the importance of the arts, and the need to create culture that is inclusive.”

What motivates you to continue serving on the New Paltz School Board?

From an immediate perspective, I can apply my familiarity with process and protocol, as well as the relationships I have made from a first term to be an even more effective and confident trustee in a second. There’s always more learning and listening, but I look forward to being more productive and precise. There is so much success and excellence at New Paltz — from a wealth of teachers and staff who make such powerful, lifelong and positive connections with children and families to incredibly rich course offerings and opportunities — of which we can be rightfully proud. I would like to strengthen that and work to ensure that excellence and opportunity reach every child.

I am also motivated by personal experience. I am a first generation American and first generation college graduate; education has been the pathway to nearly every opportunity I have earned and enjoyed. And I am so grateful to those who served in roles like board members, who provided me — someone with scarce traditional social capital — with those opportunities. I am honored to find a way to give back through public service to the children of this community.

What skills do you bring to the work?

I bring diligence and discipline to research and preparation. As a professional actor and teacher, I know how to collaborate; an invaluable skill in this political and social climate where we are pressured or even encouraged to take sides, not necessarily on issues but for or against groups of people. Board service requires deliberation often on issues that not everyone experiences and values in the same way. I can disagree while maintaining respect for myself and others.

What do you see as the greatest challenge the district faces at this time?

There are clear, deeply consequential projects at hand: finding, hiring, supporting and retaining the right principals in three of our four buildings. And then there are, I believe, long-term challenges in how the district aspires to realize equity and to address mental health concerns effectively among all students.

What would you like to see the board accomplish over the next few years?

I am looking forward to the Capital Project successfully coming to completion, demonstrating that this board can be responsible fiscal stewards of the public trust. I would like to see the board work to build a stronger sense of that trust through improved communication, accountability and regular engagement with the families and the public.

Bianca Tanis

The first-time candidate for a trustee seat on the New Paltz BOE says she is running because she believes she can use her experiences as an educator, parent and advocate to help bring the school district and community together to focus on social, emotional, physical and academic success for all students.

Tanis holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from SUNY New Paltz and a master’s degree in childhood and special education from Mount Saint Mary College. She met her husband in college and they remained in the area afterward. Their youngest son is in eighth grade, a student at New Paltz Middle School. Their oldest attends SUNY New Paltz.

Tanis is a special education teacher in the Suffern Central School District, where she teaches a therapeutic support class for kindergarten and first grade students. “The unique strengths and talents of my students humble and inspire me daily,” she says. “I have centered my work as a teacher on creating inclusive and child-centered learning environments that help my students develop their voices, their creativity, and their ability to handle social and emotional challenges.”

Tanis also has extensive experience in trauma-informed practice, behavior management and crisis intervention. As a certified instructor in crisis prevention and management, she has trained school personnel in how to safely de-escalate and support students in crisis.

Prior to becoming a teacher, she was the senior case manager in a 40-bed homeless shelter, overseeing programming. “This was an invaluable learning experience and helped me develop a deep understanding of the root causes of substance abuse, poverty and violence, and ultimately, the long-term risks when schools do not meet the social, emotional and physical needs of their students.”

What motivates you to run for a seat on the New Paltz School Board?

When I think about New Paltz Central School District and the resources in this community, I see tremendous potential. We have the opportunity to prioritize the social and emotional well-being of all students by centering inclusivity, mental health, social justice, community voice, and student empowerment. I believe that the current board is striving to make this happen and it would be a privilege and an honor to join in this work.

What skills do you bring to the work?

I am a kindergarten special education teacher and a parent of a student with special needs. I am passionate about using my experience to expose and change educational practices and policies that harm children. Through this work I co-founded a group called New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and spent the better part of a decade organizing with families, educators and communities to advocate for change. As an early educator, I have also worked with several national organizations to educate families and teachers about harmful trends in education that are compromising developmentally-appropriate practice.

I was recently selected to serve on the New York State Board of Regents Blue Ribbon Committee on Early Childhood. This committee was charged with developing recommendations to improve New York State education policy. This work required an ability to analyze the challenges facing early education in the state and to develop policy and budget recommendations to address and alleviate these issues. These experiences helped me to develop several key skills for a board member, including outreach, research, analysis, advocacy and community organizing.

What do you see as the greatest challenge the district faces at this time?

In addition to the ongoing issue of inadequate funding by the state, there are a number of challenges that face the district. In the near future, we will have new leadership at three of our schools. We will have to be diligent in ensuring that these new administrators are provided with the support and tools needed to foster a thriving school culture that is sensitive to the needs of our diverse student body and to develop honest and authentic relationships with students and families. We must also ensure that our new leaders feel empowered to think outside the box to meet the needs of students and to amplify the voices and strengths of our teachers.

Many students are struggling with mental health issues and feelings of disconnectedness and isolation. In order to address this challenge, the district must continue to leverage local resources, community partnerships, and its own resources to identify multiple pathways to support students and create “safe” and inclusive spaces for students to be heard.

Incidents of racism and bias continue to occur in our schools on a regular basis. In addition to current efforts to identify proactive and preventative measures to address systemic racism, I believe the district can improve its ability to react to these incidents with consistent, timely, and holistic educational responses that focus on teaching rather than punishment and that address the needs of those most impacted.

What would you like to see the board accomplish over the next few years?

Authentic and transparent communication fosters trust and partnership. I would like to see the board continue its current focus on improving district communication with families. There is need for improvement in the district’s provision for the necessary supports to ensure all students have access to the district’s rich array of electives and extracurricular activities. I would like the board to address this issue and work to ensure that students with disabilities and at-risk students have access to the same opportunities as their peers. I would also like the board to explore increased educational opportunities for students with disabilities to develop their strengths and to experience academic success.

I believe the board must adopt a policy ensuring that every child in grades K-5 has at least 40 minutes of recess daily, with standardized weather policies that ensure maximum time spent outdoors. Additionally, an audit of the current recreational and P.E. facilities and equipment is needed. This will enable the board to prioritize what needs work and identity opportunities to support the physical well-being of students across the district.

Over the next few years, I hope to see continued collaboration between the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee (REIAC) and the board in support of the Racial Equity Initiative, and I would like the board to extend this work by creating educational opportunities for families to develop a deeper understanding of how racial equity benefits the entire school community.

Most importantly, I would like the board to prioritize connecting the dots between all of these issues, and in doing this work, increase opportunities to incorporate the voices of students, families, educators, and the community.

To learn more about the candidates, visit their respective websites: Sophia Skiles at https://www.sophia4boe.com/, and Bianca Tanis at https://biancatanis4boe.com/.

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