When it comes to education advocacy, Ossining’s activists have rare regional impact – The Journal News / Lohud.com

“I saw what was happening at the state level regarding the obstacles to good local decision making and realized we had to have more influence in Albany,” – Frank Schnecker, Ossining education advocate

When the state Legislature announced a budget deal in April that included a long-anticipated payoff in education aid, school officials around New York welcomed the news with relief after a year of pandemic-induced stress.

But it meant more in Ossining.

Not only did legislative leaders promise to pay out $4.2 billion in “foundation aid” to schools over three years. They also said every district in New York would get at least 60% of the annual aid allotted to them by an often-ignored state formula. 

This was a big deal because about 25 of New York’s nearly 700 districts — for reasons no one could fully explain — had been getting less than half the foundation aid promised to them by the formula. 

Including Ossining. 

“I noticed that my kids had longer bus rides than our neighbors across the street in Briarcliff (school district),” said Jess Vecchiarelli, an Ossining mom and marketing pro. “It led me to learn about these deep shortfalls with funding. I now know that education funding is a social justice issue that we can’t ignore.”

Vecchiarelli became one of several Ossining people who spent years lobbying for changes to the aid system. They earned vindication with the state budget deal. 

That’s typical for Ossining, a diverse school district of about 4,800 students that has an outsized impact in the world of education. The school community is home to a half-dozen educators and activists who have positions of regional or even statewide influence on the most significant issues affecting schools in New York.

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“Ossining is a unique community in terms of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and has been on the forefront of a lot of issues that show up on the national stage years later,” said Frank Schnecker, a veteran member of the board of education. 

These leading Ossining advocates are:

  • Superintendent Ray Sanchez, immediate past president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents;
  • Schnecker, president of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association;
  • Beth Sniffen, director of the Westchester-East Putnam Regional PTA;
  • School board President Lisa Rudley, co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education and a leading advocate on testing and data privacy issues;
  • Fran Wills, an Ossining resident who represents the 9th Judicial District on the state Board of Regents;
  • and Vecchiarelli, who recently stepped aside as co-director of Ossining for Fair Funding, an advocacy group.

Not a typical suburb

Virtually every community in the region has its own beloved activists and volunteers who power community groups, take on local issues, bring people together, and mentor future activists.

What makes Ossining special is its circle of education advocates whose work goes beyond Ossining.

The advocates themselves are hard-pressed to explain why Ossining has so much reach. But they figure it starts from the community’s tradition of spirit and drive, which draws people who value such things, creating a nucleus of activist energy that sometimes spills beyond Ossining’s boundaries.

“I think it’s symbolic of a really caring community that has deep roots in striving for equity,” said Sanchez, Ossining’s schools chief since 2013. “There is a culture of wanting to ensure that students get everything they need and deserve. That culture proceeded us and people continue carrying the torch.”

The school district includes the Village of Ossining — home to Sing Sing prison and portrayed as the classic post-war suburb in “Mad Men.” Thanks to Westchester’s often muddled boundaries, the district also includes portions of the Town of Ossining, the Village of Briarcliff and the Town of New Castle. 

Ossining village has long been a destination for immigrants, giving the school system a multicultural student body: about 60% Hispanic; 20% white; and 10% Black. About six in 10 students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

School districts in the Lower Hudson Valley that have seen poverty increase over the last decade or two often feel overlooked. Because they are part of a region defined as affluent, they get shortchanged by state aid formulas.

Several of Ossining’s advocates got involved in education policy when they decided to fight for resources for their school system. Schnecker, Rudley, Sniffen and later Vecchiarelli got to know one another when working on several issues: lobbying for pre-kindergarten funds; opposing a proposed charter school that they thought would drain resources from the public schools; and fighting for a more fair allotment of state aid.

“Advocates in Ossining know that there are people who don’t have a voice, so we want to speak for them,” Sniffen said. “These issues affect people beyond Ossining, too.”

Schnecker said that lobbying reveals hard-earned lessons on how the broader political and education system works, which can be used to advocate for students and schools across the region or state.

“I learned the importance of having relationships, meeting staff people in different offices, and then going back up and beating the drum,” he said. “You gain this experience and build relationships, so it’s natural for people to ask you to do more.”

Activists of all sorts tend to credit those who inspired them. Ossining’s education advocates are no different, pointing to local role models like: Francine Vernon, a former school board member who has played key roles in many Ossining groups serving youth; Suzie Ross, a leading environmentalist in Westchester; and Ben Zebelman, who has worked on numerous education and political causes.

Origins of advocacy are varied

Ossining’s education advocates came to regional leadership in different ways.

Schnecker, Rudley and Sniffen were first drawn in by community debate over a proposed charter school over a decade ago. They later made several trips to Albany to seek funds for Ossining’s full-day pre-K program, which was in danger of shutting down.

Later, Schnecker and Rudley co-founded Ossining for Fair Funding, and both ran for school board. Schnecker is in his fourth term on the board, Rudley her second.

Schnecker, who went to the Ossining schools and is now a district parent, became active in in the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association during the mid-2010s, when many felt Albany was impeding on local decision making. He became president this year of the organization, which advocates for the region’s schools on many matters.

“I saw what was happening at the state level regarding the obstacles to good local decision making and realized we had to have more influence in Albany,” said Schnecker, who works in IT.

Rudley, also a district parent, quickly developed into a multi-faceted activist with the expertise on complex issues to challenge those in power. During the early 2010s, she became concerned about how New York’s education leadership was prioritizing standardized testing and the collection of student data in a privately run, national cloud.

Worried about how student data would be used, Rudley co-founded a statewide group, New York Allies for Public Education, that built opposition to the data cloud and helped inspire the opt-out movement on state tests. 

“One way to stop the data-privacy threat was to opt out from the tests, so they couldn’t have the data,” Rudley said. “Combining the power of local advocates was very powerful.”

Plans for the national data cloud eventually collapsed.

Rudley now works for Passport for Good, a company that helps schools and students track and measure the value of community service.

Sniffen was a pediatric nurse before her kids entered the Ossining schools. Then she became a PTA devotee, holding just about every office in her three kids’ schools. Now she’s in her third of four years as director of the regional PTA that includes Westchester and east Putnam.

“You evolve from doing bake sales to true advocacy for kids,” Sniffen said. “Students’ mental health is always a priority issue for me because it’s weaved into everything. Mental health has been a huge concern with the pandemic.”

Vecchiarelli picked up the fight on state aid, joining Ossining with other Westchester and Long Island districts that were similarly snubbed. They used social media to build awareness and lobbied legislators hard.

“So many people were unaware of the funding shortfall,” she said. “The challenge was getting people to understand the issues. I think they get it now.”

Vecchiarelli’s advocacy led to a position with the Westchester District Attorney’s office.

The meaning of civics

Sanchez and Wills are professional educators, so their advocacy is a bit different. 

Sanchez is the enthusiastic, if modest, leader of the Ossining schools who never misses a chance to affirm the importance of giving every kid a shot at success. He became active several years ago in the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, which includes school chiefs in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess, and served as its president in 2017-18 and again in 2019-20.

“There are a lot of great things happening in this region,” Sanchez said. “I’m humbled to work beside my colleagues to support children and public education, which we know is so critical to our democracy.”

Wills served as superintendent in Briarcliff Manor for 16 years and in Putnam Valley for six years. She was chosen last year by the state Legislature to a five-year, unpaid term on the Board of Regents, which makes state education policy.

She’s lived in Ossining since coming to Westchester in 1994, drawn by relatively affordable real estate. She found an unusually diverse and vibrant community where the “core value is the education system and creating the best opportunities for kids.”

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The Regents recently adopted a “civic readiness initiative” to encourage students to become engaged members of their communities. Wills said that Ossining is a great example of what civic engagement looks like.

“How to you make a vibrant democracy?” she said. “By looking beyond oneself, and that is how Ossining has lived its life.”

No doubt, her fellow advocates have their Regent (and neighbor’s) ear.

Gary Stern has worked at The Journal News/lohud for over 30 years, primarily covering education and religion and serving as engagement editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @garysternNY