Two seats contested in the 2021 District 13 school board race


Editor’s note: This is the second of three parts of the Herald’s 2021 school board race coverage.


This year, two seats are being contested on District 13’s Board of Education. District 13 comprises the James A. Dever, Howell Road, Wheeler Avenue and Willow Road elementary schools. With a student body of nearly 2,000, according to State Education Department records, it is the largest of Valley Stream’s three elementary school districts.

Qubilah Mackey-Matos is challenging incumbent Jennifer Oliveri, who was elected in 2020, and is seeking her first full three-year term on the board after serving the remaining year of former Trustee Vinny Pandit’s term. Pandit resigned in 2019 after a controversy involving comments he made on social media.

In the other contested race, William Blair and Anthony Bonelli are challenging incumbent William Stris, who is seeking his 14th term on the board after serving as trustee for 39 years. This is the third time Bonelli has run for the board, after unsuccessful bids in 2019 and 2020 to unseat incumbents Milagros Vicente and Dr. Frank Chiachiere, respectively.

The past year has seen a major increase in conversations focusing on racial equity in the neighborhood, in which students of color are a majority, but its teaching staff remains largely white. Additionally, this past April the state announced record funding for universal pre-K. District 13 was the only district among the three in Valley Stream that announced it would seek to take advantage of the money. Coverage of the race is intended to reflect these issues among others.

The Herald conducted its interviews by email.


Mackey-Matos Vs. Oliveri


Herald: The state recently announced additional funding for universal Pre-k, what are your thoughts about the importance of such a program as well as working to get it implemented or expanded in your district?


Qubilah Mackey-Matos: I am in favor of universal pre-K, which would allow all children to have access to a high-quality pre-school program, regardless of their family’s income. Research states that the inclusion of such a program could help foster higher school achievement, less retention in grade and reduce the need for special education at a later age. As an educator, I have seen in my classroom too many children come to school ill-prepared to learn. They lack language skills, social skills and motivation. Most experts agree that a preschool education is one of the most effective strategies for improving later school performance. Valley Stream’s high schools are ranked high nationally, the inclusion of a high-quality pre-K program would further ensure that the pipeline for achievement is continuous in our district. I would work to get this program implemented and expanded in District 13. I read that the proposed budget calls for the implementation of four classes with 80 slots.  It’s a move in the right direction as young families will not only benefit monetarily but their children will have access to high-quality pre-K. This program gives families who want to place their children in a school setting the opportunity to do so.


Jennifer Oliveri: I am excited about the Pre-K program being offered by our district in the fall, and believe that Pre-K is necessary to help our children be successful in their school careers. Unfortunately, as a current board member I cannot share more information on our program but details will be released publicly shortly.   


Herald: Over the past year, issues of racial equity have come to the forefront in national and local conversations. In Valley Stream, an increasing disparity has emerged in recent years between the community’s diverse student body and its teaching staff, which has remained largely white. What are your thoughts about this disparity and what systems do you imagine could be implemented, if any to address it? 


Mackey-Matos: Studies have shown that all students benefit from having teachers from diverse backgrounds. As an educator, I have taught in largely white communities as well more diverse areas. My representation was key to the success of my students not only academically but socially and emotionally. My leadership allowed parents as well as students to see someone different, which helped to dispel bias while allowing the children to excel as learners. There is a great disparity in the Valley Stream school districts between students of color and predominantly white teachers. Over the course of my son’s schooling from elementary to high school he had about five teachers of color here in Valley Stream 13. With that being said, we in Valley Stream need to ensure that the hiring practices are balanced for high-impact and inclusive recruitment. We need to look for potential educators with competitive credentials and holistic skill sets that will serve the needs of our diverse student population. As for educators already in the system, we need to continue to support their efforts with professional development training around the ideas of the Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education framework and implicit bias training.


Oliveri: I agree that children flourish when they see themselves in their leaders.  Our district has been proactive in its approach to diversifying the staff and curriculum for many years.  There are policies already in place to ensure this continues to be accomplished for years to come.


Herald: As an individual school board member, what if anything would you like to see changed in regards to school district policy and procedures? 


Mackey-Matos: As an individual school board member, I would like to see more transparency and accountability between the board and the community. The board needs to understand the community’s values, wishes and challenges. As educational advocates, school board members need to assure the community and all stakeholders that we are truly for the community by putting student’s needs first. According to Valley Stream District 13 policy under the section Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity in Education, there is a goal to “provide students with exposure to teachers and school leaders of color which is realized to serve an important function of demonstrating from a young age to all students that people of color can and should hold positions of authority in schools, as well as in our society.” I think everyone would agree this is good policy. However, policy with no action becomes just words on paper. The commitment to enforce this policy is where real change occurs.  The actionable change I am talking about refers to hiring practices which could include outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other university systems where we are actively seeking and retaining competitively credentialed teachers and administrators of color.


Oliveri: Currently I think the focus should be on continuing to meet the needs of our student population to ensure that equitable access to all needs (i.e., devices, internet access, food, emotional support, school supplies) are met in light of the ever-changing environment we are faced with due to the pandemic.


Blair Vs. Bonelli Vs. Stris


Editor’s note: Incumbent William Stris did not return responses to the Herald’s emailed questions.


Herald: The state recently announced additional funding for universal Pre-k, what are your thoughts about the importance of such a program as well as working to get it implemented or expanded in your district?


William Blair: I am a strong believer in the importance of universal pre-K education.  Pre-K prepares children for a more structured educational environment and allows them to develop positive social interaction with their peers. Results of a study of the Boston Public Schools’ pre-K program (Yoshikawa et al, 2013) confirmed that children who attended the BPS program demonstrated substantial improved readiness for kindergarten compared to those who did not. In addition, the availability of pre-K programs in the district will provide substantial economic benefits for parents by reducing childcare cost and in some cases making it easier for mothers and single parents to return to work.

It must be noted that the district has already assigned funds in the proposed 2021-2022 budget to implement pre-K service. The availability of additional state funds creates an opportunity for the district to increase the level of services it can provide, extend to full-day programming and increase available slots.

If elected I would work the board to ensure full implementation of pre-K in the new school year.


Anthony Bonelli: Inarguably, prekindergarten is advantageous for both the student and parent. The child is given a head start in learning and social development and the parents are given a substitute for daycare. Daycare providers offer educational rich and safe environments without the use of accredited teachers. The problem is the teachers are demanding the district use accredited teachers for pre-k. The union’s demand would be very expensive and a huge tax burden to the residents. The incumbent trustees are asking to raise your school taxes even though the state is giving School District 13 an additional $1.1 million in funding.  I think it’s outrageous for the trustee I’m running against to be asking the residents to pass a budget that raises taxes during this historic Covid-19 pandemic that has killed dozens of our residents and hundreds more lost their jobs. I would work with the other trustees to find a way to provide pre-k without increasing school taxes. I have more on my website: VVST.ORG


Herald: Over the past year, issues of racial equity have come to the forefront in national and local conversations. In Valley Stream, an increasing disparity has emerged in recent years between the community’s diverse student body and its teaching staff, which has remained largely white. What are your thoughts about this disparity and what systems do you imagine could be implemented, if any to address it?


Blair: It is important that discussions about the lack of diversity among the teaching staff of Valley Stream 13 is not seen as an attack on teachers, but a recognition of the effects of years of systemic racism that continues to create barriers to the hiring teachers of color in Valley Stream.

Outside of parents, teachers are the most prominent role models and authority figures in our students’ lives and whether intentionally or unintentionally, the current lack of teachers of color reinforces the systemic disparities that exist in our society. Any purported efforts by the board over the last two decades to increase the hiring of teachers of color have failed, and the current system of recruitment needs to change. I believe that the board must take substantial action to increase the pool of candidates of color that go through the interview process. To this end, the board must take steps to establish relationship with HBCUs, expand recruitment to CUNY colleges and establish relationships with academic and business organization with direct links to communities of color.

Finally, it is important that community members understand that change will be incremental and dependent on the availability of new vacancies due to resignation, retirement, and terminations over the next decade.


Bonelli: In School District 13 we have seven trustees that do the hiring. They have been notoriously opaque in their hiring practices. It’s nonsense to suggest that there are no Asian or POC teacher applicants that would be interested and qualified in working in School District 13, or in 24 and 30 for that matter. I’m running against an incumbent who has been in office for almost 40 years. He’s been signing off on the hiring and has been defending the hiring practices that brought about the disparity in the demographic makeup between the teaching faculty and the student body. The first step in addressing this problem is to elect a candidate, like me, to be a trustee who is committed to taking proactive measures to hire candidates that will make the ethnic and racial makeup of our teaching faculty more reflective of our student body.  The trustee I’m running against, Mr. Stris, also sits on the Central High School board of trustees. He voted to keep employed Superintendent Dr. Heidenreich, who threatened to cough Covid-19 on employees at his hometown gym if they did not do what he wanted them to do. I would move to fire Heidenreich. I have more on my website: VVST.ORG.


Herald: As an individual school board member, what, if anything, would you like to see changed in regard to school district policy and procedures?


Blair: The rejection of the initial 2020-2021 budget and the need for a revote on a modified budget should be a clear indication that there is a need for transparency and increased engagement with the community. Although the board publishes the budget on the website and broadcast board meeting it is clear that most people in the district are not aware of the business of the board. Concerns pertaining to budget expenditures and taxes are real. It is imperative that the school board is transparent about its decision-making process and inclusive in engaging all members of the community in its proposed policies and budgets. I believe that increased transparency and engagement will improve the chances of overwhelming support for budget approval, especially when increases are needed.


Bonelli: Policy and procedures create the environment of what is allowed and what is not allowed. I would make sure that investments made in our four elementary schools are geared to providing the best education possible. I would recognize and address the fact we have many children whose primary language is not English and therefore we need to hire more aides to assist in their learning. I would question the purchasing of the very expensive non-traditional school furniture. No school official can step forward and state that their recent and future multi-million-dollar furniture installations will result in lifting a student’s performance a whole grade or half a grade for that matter.I believe if we had more staff to directly address our children’s needs, whether it’s an emotional or social, or language-based challenge would have a greater effect on the student’s growth and acquisition of lifelong learning skills. The parents will benefit because their children’s needs are being addressed and the residents would benefit for this would enhance our school’s reputation and protect property values. I have more on my website: VVST.ORG.