EducationSchool Votes 2024

Challenger Takes on Incumbents for Pair of Byram Hills Board of Ed Seats

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For the second time in three years, Byram Hills School District voters will have a choice on the ballot in next Tuesday’s Board of Education election.

This year’s candidates are three-term incumbent Scott Levy, Petrie Verma, who is completing his first term on the board, and challenger Diana Barrera for the two seats that are contested this year. Each seat is for a three-year term.

Also, on the ballot is a vote on the proposed $103.4 million budget tax cap-compliant budget and a proposition asking for voter approval for the district to transfer $8 million from its construction reserve fund to renovate the high school library into learning commons, install artificial turf for Field #2 at the campus and have lights for the main athletic field.

Voting is at H.C. Crittenden Middle School on May 21 from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Diana Barrera

Diana Barrera

Barrera, a former teacher and human resources executive who now runs her own HR consulting business, said over the past few years she has heard concerns from parents that can’t always be properly addressed by talking with their child’s teachers or principal.

The 12-year Armonk resident said there can be improvement from the Board of Education related to communication and transparency. The current board has an imbalance among its members related to professional experience and representing different parts of the district.

“After listening to many parents, I believe that with the combination of my background on education, people and nonprofits, and with professional experience leveraging strengths and engaging people to come up with solutions, I will be a bridge to the community as an approachable board member,” Barrera said.

While districts were able to avoid a cut this year in state Foundation Aid, school officials must prepare to advocate for their interests when the new state aid formula is proposed later this year, she said. The Rockefeller Institute, which is part of SUNY, is doing the work.

Barrera said the district is fortunate to strong advocates for education in Albany, Assemblyman Chris Burdick and state Sen. Shelley Mayer.

“We have to watch like hawks the happenings in Albany, but also proactively making alliances with other groups of similar interest and trying to influence where we can the building of the new formula,” Barrera said.

It’s a positive that Byram Hills has many strengths regarding student performance and achievement, Barrera mentioned. Credit goes to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jen Lamia who has created a positive working environment where talented teachers are attracted and retained, she said.

However, there are improvements that can be made. Key areas that need to be looked at is helping children, and their families, who are receiving special services, more effectively communicating with families by making information easier to find, strengthening the elementary science curriculum and providing foreign language in an earlier grade, she said.

“We know there was a (science) pilot program, but no details have been provided to parents about classrooms or kids that participated, what were the lessons learned (and) what will happen next including additional training to help teachers,” Barrera said.

Helping working parents, particularly those with younger children, by scheduling principal coffees at times when there would be greater turnout would also be advisable, she said.

Barrera praised the district for its response during the COVID shutdown and for reopening schools to the younger students full-time, but the district should be tracking the performance of the students who went through 2019-20 to ensure they’re progressing as they should.

Regarding the proposition on the $8 million reserve fund transfer, Barerra said she has heard concerns about the three different projects being a single ballot item rather than separate propositions. She recommended people ask district officials about the proposal if they have questions.

Barrera said that she has heard from many district families that they don’t feel welcome. She would like the district to engage different groups to learn if there are steps that help more people feel they belong, although Barrera said she is not advocating for a DEI committee.

“Families with kids with special needs feel we are not inclusive enough, minorities feel their kids don’t see themselves represented in the school staff and sometimes are subject to unkind comments from other kids, people who celebrate non-Christian or Jewish holidays feel left out too,” Barrera said.

She greatly appreciates the job performed by the district’s security personnel, the first line of defense against intruders. Barrera would assess the district’s security by listening to experts, learning best practices, engaging different stakeholders and identifying several paths forward to see if improvements can be made.

“If I am given the opportunity to serve our district as a board member, I want to continue with the approach I have taken of being available to the community and listening, and I would encourage all board members to explore together new ways to be connected to the community, particularly with groups that are outside our day-to-day interactions,” Barrera said.

Scott Levy

Scott Levy

Shortly after moving to Byram Hills in 2010, Levy committed himself to advocating for public education and children’s health. He started volunteering for the Byram Hills Education Foundation, and immersed himself more after there were criticisms of the Race to the Top initiative.

Levy, a former investment banker who is now a partner at an investment management firm, ran for the board for the first time in 2015, and he currently serves as president of the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association. He is also the Chairman of Blythedale Children’s Hospital. After nine years on the Board of Education and with two of his three children still in the district, Levy maintains the drive and energy to serve.

“I’m absolutely committed to the district. My goal is to continue to serve so that I can work collaboratively with the community to keep Byram Hills strong,” Levy said.

He said that one of the key qualities going for Byram Hills is its spirit to grow, innovate and improve even as it is one of the most high-achieving districts in the area. Levy has supported continuous investment in the elementary schools. Following a two-year literacy study, he believes in continued professional development so that teachers are equipped with the most up-to-date methods of instruction.

The district is implementing a new science program for the primary grades, a critically important enhancement for Levy. There is also the addition of a K-5 curriculum coordinator and dedicated guidance counselors for each elementary school building.

In the middle school and high school, initiatives to reduce anxiety and stress have been introduced. “We will tirelessly continue to work on addressing this issue, because it’s extremely important that our kids have the opportunity to pursue academically rigorous coursework and wide-ranging extracurricular opportunities, but at the same time achieve balance and wellness,” Levy said.

He supported putting the proposition on the ballot to transfer $8 million for the learning commons, an additional artificial playing surface and lights for the fields and courts at the high school. The current library is an antiquated space and the athletic facility improvements would expand the chances for more teams and students to participate.

“It’s an opportunity to invest in our high school the same way we’ve already invested in our K-8 buildings,” Levy said.

Levy said he’s proud of the district’s strong financial position. In eight of the past nine years, Byram Hills has proposed a budget that has been under the tax cap ceiling.

He’s also concerned about the future of the state’s Foundation Aid after the governor proposed cutting aid for some districts. Byram Hills would have lost more than $400,000 had the proposed cut gone through. While the district only receives about 4.5 percent of its revenue from state aid, the funding is critical.

“I view it as my responsibility to be able to articulate the intricacies of our budget, of why state funding is important, and how it plays a role in educating our students. It is critical for us to be proactive about making the case to preserve our state aid and to make sure our voice is heard,” Levy said.

Levy said Byram Hills has for years worked to create an environment where all students are treated with respect and dignity so that families of all backgrounds feel accepted. There have been efforts to embrace different cultures and to emphasize mutual respect, he said.

All students are encouraged to participate in clubs, extracurriculars and other activities outside the classroom.

“The more involved students are in their school community, the more they feel like they belong,” Levy said.

Levy prioritizes safety and security, which includes making sure the students and staff are physically secure, as well as investing in student mental health.

Petrie Verma

Petrie Verma

It didn’t take long for Verma to become active in the community after he and his family moved to Byram Hills about 11 years ago. He gravitated toward focusing on children and schools, first volunteering for the Preschool Association, then spent eight years serving on the district’s PTSA, including time as its president.

“Whatever we’re doing, I’m here to help, I’m here to enrich the children’s lives,” said Verma, a stay-at-home dad. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about; it’s about the kids.

Verma said the best way to guard against the threat of cuts in state aid is to continue to be fiscally prudent. Many districts across the state, including Byram Hills, faced the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars before state legislators overwhelmingly opposed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s slashing of the Foundation Aid.

Byram Hills receives a little more than 4 percent in aid, and if some of that would be lost in the future, then the district would have to rely more on savings, Verma said.

One area where the district’s fiscal responsibility can help has been with the proposed $8 million transfer from a reserve fund that would pay for the learning commons where the current high school library is located and improvements to the athletic facilities. Verma said that the work is essential to help move the district forward.

Moving the district forward also entails continuing to look for ways to improve the educational opportunities. Verma pointed to the elementary-level literacy initiative and entrepreneurship program called Startup as two recent examples of outstanding improvement. Then there is the highly respected science research program at the high school that has been around for decades.

“We’ve got to continue to expand and grow and change with the times,” Verma said.

Verma said the district’s handling of the COVID shutdown and the subsequent rebound was quite good. Serving as president of the PTSA at the time, he said the communication with the principals was strong and the decision by administration to get children in grades K-6 back in class every day by September 2020 helped limit students’ regression.

Verma said he was comfortable with the level of security that the district provides in its schools to protect students and staff. Recently, the district hired a new head of security. While he is comfortable, districts cannot risk becoming complacent, he said.

“Our procedures are evaluated on a yearly basis, multiple times, with our security staff, with our emergency consultant as well,” Verma said. “They’re evaluated multiple times during the course of the year. Like I said, just like our overall curriculum, you have to be continuously updating.”

The district also does a good job in making sure that students of all backgrounds are respected and are provided equal opportunity, Verma said. He sees that as a result of Byram Hills being a community where many of the families know each other.

“We’re a very tight-knit district. We all enjoy working together, from teachers to administrators to principals, Board of Education and administration,” Verma said. “We all enjoy working with each other. We all enjoy each other’s company, and if there’s an issue, it’s about relationships. We all have had relationships with each other for many, many years, and if there’s a problem, okay, let’s deal with it, let’s work it. Let’s work the problem.”

If school officials seek continual improvement as they have done for many years, Byram Hills will flourish.

“As long as that keeps going, Byram Hills as a district will continue to grow,” Verma said.


























































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