An aerial view of Little Falls High School during the Albany Symphony performance in 2017.

by Dave Warner

Six members of the Little Falls community have decided that they are going to run for the three Little Falls School District Board of Education commissioner positions in a vote to be held May 17, 2022, at the high school gymnasium from 12 – 9 pm.

Also on the ballot, will be a 0.8% increase in the tax levy, which according to Dr. Keith T. Levatino, Superintendent of Schools “Is well below the state levy limit and will qualify our residents for the STAR credit.”

Absentee Ballots

The Board of Education has also authorized the use of absentee ballots for the budget vote and school election. An absentee ballot vote application can be obtained by contacting Crista Morrone at 315-823-1470.

Once the application is approved, an absentee ballot will be mailed to the voter. Absentee ballots must be returned no later than 5 pm on May 17, 2022.

Details on the budget can be found in the PDF document at the end of this story.

Backgrounds of candidates

Each of the six candidates was sent a questionnaire to answer with five questions on it. Here are their responses:

John Almaviva

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

Born in Italy, emigrated to Schenectady, NY as a young child I attended local schools. After graduating I attended Sienna College where I received my BS in Accounting, and then I relocated to Little Falls. My wife, Lori (Warn) Amuso-Almaviva, and my four wonderful children, Joanne Loring, James Amuso, and Giovanni and Gianna Almaviva have resided here for the last 17 years. All my children attended or are attending Little Falls School.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

I have been involved not only through my children attending Little Falls Schools. I have been a basketball/ baseball coach for several years. I hope I have earned the respect and trust of the community.

Why are you running for a school board position?

  • I would like to hear the needs of the students and see if I can make a difference in achieving their goals for them.
  • Being an independent thinker, I feel I have the courage to stand up for what is right. That being said I realize the importance of listening to all people and their points of view.
  • I feel I am a unique candidate with a particular skill set in finance and budgeting. I bring to the table a wealth of knowledge and experience that makes me an asset in maintaining the school budget while not losing important programs. That while children should always come first, there are financial matters that must be handled with the ability to budget money where it is needed effectively and always handle difficult circumstances with discretion.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

  1. I would like to tackle the educational/professional development of all students and try to introduce new ideas. For example, while encouraging traditional courses that lead to college, we would be remiss if we did not include the thoughts of local community colleges and the option of trade schools.
  2. I would like to work with the superintendent and administrators to set up and maintain an effective structure to manage the schools, where the teachers can teach, and the students can learn without any political views in the school system.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

  1. With the out-of-control social media and the effect it has on our students and their mental health. I would like to see more programs to be available to our students to help them navigate these pressures.
  2. The financial impact and balancing the budget to make sure that the opportunities/programs exist to continue to exist, so kids gain the best opportunities for the best education.
  3. In order for our teachers to evolve with the latest curriculum, techniques, and tools. We need to provide the training and investment into these teachers.

Karlee Dunn

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

I was born and raised right here in Little Falls. I graduated from Little Falls High School in 2010. While I was in high school, I was active in many clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities. I live in Little Falls with my husband and our 4 children; Riley 18, Xavier 16, Finlee 4, Tatum 8 months. Our two oldest are really active in sports so you will likely see me at a game cheering them on.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

I have assisted a variety of school events for the kids throughout the years; vendor shows, fun after-school activities, and class fundraisers.

Why are you running for a school board position?

As I have two young children that will be attending school, I would like to become a more active member in the school system. The school board is a great way to assist the community and school system. I believe I could bring new thoughts and ideas to the table and collaborate with other members for great success.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

I would like to address teacher and community support and ensure that lines of communication are open for supporting the children best. I would also like to address support for extracurriculars such as the arts, music, and sports.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

Community support and involvement. It can be difficult for schools to gain full outside support on things such as a budget or decision-making. Collaboration is really important.

Toni Anne Johns

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

My name is Toni-Anne Johns and I grew up in Yonkers, NY. I attended Nazareth College in Rochester and that is where I met my husband. After graduation, I moved for the boy, and we stayed to grow our family and make Little Falls home.

I have worked in education since graduating with my undergraduate degree in speech and language in 2000. I knew as I completed my undergraduate degree that speech may not be exactly the right fit for me, but I finished and quickly was recruited for a job providing in-home, itinerant speech services to preschoolers in New York City. After relocating, I found the job that made me feel at home-the program that would mold me as a professional, an educator and a person, a small preschool program for children on the Autism Spectrum. I chose to pursue my master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education. There were no job searches or interviews, I didn’t just want to teach, wanted to teach there. I started my new position shortly after having my daughter in 2004. I worked there for 21 years, eventually obtaining board certification and NYS licensure as a behavior analyst and obtaining my NYS certification as a school building and school district leader. For the last 5-6 years I had the privilege to run the program I loved, and they were some of the best years. Connecting with families, students and staff, I loved it and I never felt like I worked a day.

Last July, an opportunity was presented to me to provide training, coaching, and support to around 50 area school districts in the area of behavior. After 21 years in 1 program and with big heavy tears, it was time. I had spent 21 years getting preschoolers ready for the world they were entering, now I wanted to get the world ready for my preschoolers. I want to be a part of creating schools that can take these children and turn them into young adults ready to take on their own worlds.

My experience in schools is varied and diverse. I have attended private schools, I have worked as a special education teacher, a speech therapist, a building leader. I understand schools and what happens in classrooms and behind the scenes. I understand budgets and have overseen a program budget. I understand staffing, especially the current climate and difficulties, I know how important the right people are. I led a program of staff and students through the depths of COVID and saw them through to the other side.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

I have had some level of involvement in the LF City School District since having a child start preschool at BHA in about 2008.

I currently have a senior, a freshman and a 6th grader-my primary and most long-standing involvement has been as a parent. I have been so impressed with education and the all-around care that my children have received in Little Falls. From caring teachers, not afraid to open their hearts to their students and families to an amazing drama/arts programming that have helped my own children to grow and discover many interests and talents. I have had the opportunity to be present at many events through my own children-sporting events, art shows, color runs, plays, concerts, field trips and each and every time I am welcomed in the LF school community and I love to see my own children grow as they are treated like they belong.

I did have a very brief opportunity to do a little bit of work in Little Falls, really short, under 10 hours a few years ago. I do remember that from administrator to teacher to TA, everyone was just so invested a 1 student’s progress and success. It only took a few hours to know that as a parent and as a professional the school “felt” the same. What a great climate, culture and community that lives inside those walls.

Why are you running for a school board position?

My experience in schools is varied and diverse. I have attended private schools, and I have worked as a special education teacher, a speech therapist, a building leader. I understand schools and what happens in classrooms and behind the scenes. I understand budgets and have overseen a program budget. I understand staffing, especially the current climate and difficulties, I know how important the right people are. I have had 3 children in Little Falls schools. I have experienced all 3 buildings, a few leadership changes, many sports teams, and COVID as a parent. I believe I can represent the families in Little Falls and the students in Little Falls because I am connected to both. I am connected personally and professionally. The school board can’t just be about creating policies if there is not a strong enough link to what those policies really mean in practice. I believe that I can be that link. I feel strongly that this school district and this community have given great things to my family, and I would love the opportunity to offer something in return.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

I have just one thing I would like to address as a school board member and it should be the same for every single one of us, it is to look out for the students. Is it COVID-related things with students-let’s go! Is it changes to aid in teacher/staff retention, building morale, improving culture and climate-then I am in, let’s do it because happy building and happy teachers make happy students. Every decision, every problem or challenge, and every discussion, should be had with an eye on the children that we serve. Being a part of change is hard work. Being a part of change in your own community is another situation when your hard work hardly seems like work at all. It’s motivating and it’s rewarding to see your hard work result in change for the children in your community.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

Two years ago, I think my answer would have been different. Now, students are adjusting back to this post COVID world, this “new normal”, as they say. Teachers are stretched too thin due to students needing extra, schedules being inconsistent, staffing numbers being low-the list goes on for them. Administrators are being hit from both sides-they are supporting and protecting and advocating for their teachers and students but they are getting weighted down by what is happening above them. Post Covid everything is the biggest challenge. These times are unique and unprecedented and schools, with everyone else, are just trying to find their way through. Do I know the answer, no, not even a little bit. I know that I care. I know that, if elected, I would be surrounded by others that care. And, I know that a group of people that are invested and passionate about what they are doing can do amazing things.

Erynn Lowery

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

My family moved to Little Falls when I was in first grade, and I graduated from Little Falls High School in 1998. In my late twenties, I relocated to New York where I completed my Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and worked in higher education administration. In 2019 I had a daughter, and in researching the schools in Manhattan, I kept thinking “I wish these schools were more like those I attended in Little Falls.” I realized I wanted her to have the unique experiences that one can have in a school district like ours. Here students have not only sports and extracurriculars, but also make important connections with educators and school professionals, community partnerships, and so much more. I made the decision to return to my hometown in order to own a home, put down roots, and allow my daughter to learn from our district’s talented teachers and staff. I am also looking forward to her taking part in as many extracurriculars as she wants. In addition to chasing a toddler, I am currently pursuing my Master of Social Work degree, I volunteer with organizations that support LGBTQIA+ teens, and I help with the Little Falls High School Alumni Network.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

As a volunteer, I have helped to facilitate social and support meetings for LGBTQIA+ students.

Why are you running for a school board position?

The district is on a positive upward trajectory and has put a focus on STEAM education with updated facilities, community partnerships, collaboration with Connected Community Schools and SUNY, and more. I am running to help continue that progress and to help ensure that what has been gained is not eroded away. We are lucky to live in a district with so many strengths, and I am excited for the chance to work toward even greater improvement.

I believe my experience in working in higher education for the last twelve years would be useful to the Board, as would my perspective as a representative of different communities in our district. I’m excited for the opportunity to help ensure success for our students, as well as our teachers and other school professionals.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

If elected, I would like to collaborate through the budget process with flexibility and creativity to ensure each expenditure sets the students, teachers, and staff, and schools up for future success.

I would also work to ensure all students’ needs are met not only in academics, athletics, music and arts, and other school programs but also in the development of their mental health and in setting a strong foundation for their future. So many problems can be solved through education, and giving students the tools to help them succeed is crucial. Relationship building with students and their families can help to find or create solutions to drive success and can ensure positive partnerships between the district and families.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

Schools have had to find their way through the pandemic without a roadmap and with ever-changing guidelines. Living through these challenges has caused significant mental health struggles for students and teachers. Making sure students have access to a school social worker or mental health counselor, and creating a healthy and positive school climate will contribute to successful learning outcomes. A comprehensive approach in which every school employee who has contact with students will have the training to recognize mental distress can help create a culture shift in the way mental health is viewed.

Renee Pirone

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

I’m Renée (Walczak) Pirone and I grew up in Dolgeville. My dad was the athletic director and football coach there while my mom focused on making a beautiful home and raising four daughters. As a mother of two daughters, I can say with conviction, that there is no doubt she had a much harder job!

After high school and a year as a Rotary Exchange Student, I graduated from SUNY Albany and worked for a few years in the Capital District. My husband and I relocated to the New York City area where he became a New York City Police Officer for 20 years and I attended Brooklyn Law School as an evening student while working a full-time job on Wall Street. Since law school, I have worked as an employment attorney at two different Fortune 500 companies. Throughout this time, I was involved in a number of charitable causes including teaching immigrants English for Catholic Charities and helping domestic violence victims in obtaining necessary resources and legal advice.

From the day we left Albany, we always said we would come back here someday, and just three months after my husband retired, we did. We bought the old farmhouse he grew up in on Route 167 between Dolgeville and Little Falls. Surprisingly, my parents have each settled in Little Falls as well. My mom (Janet) and I are members of Holy Family Parish, and my dad (Jerry) can usually be found at the Y, on the bike path, or briskly walking around town on any given day. Primary among the reasons my husband and I moved back here was to help both our parents as they age. But ironically, when I had a life-altering snowmobile accident and suffered a spinal cord injury just 6 months after we arrived, our parents ended up helping take care of us instead. Life.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

I have not been involved with the Little Falls school district other than offering my assistance during the Covid lockdown. Since my accident, I haven’t been able to manage any volunteer positions until now. I plan on listening, learning, and offering a new perspective with some fresh ideas.

Why are you running for a school board position?

I am running for the Board now because, after considering it for many years, I’m at a point where my schedule can handle it. Plus, when I saw that 3 seats were opening up, I decided now is the time. I have a daughter, Olivia, who is graduating this year, and a second daughter, Christina, who is in fourth grade. Starting in middle school, just our second year in the District, there were some issues I was dissatisfied with, especially the testing scores as compared to comparably sized schools around the State. I’ve also questioned some discipline issues I have heard about over the years but admittedly was not privy to all of the facts. These issues are what made me first consider one day joining the Board.

Also, I’m convinced my experience as an employment attorney makes me an excellent candidate. I have many desirable skills including working in a large, high-performing organization, resolving conflicts, complying with various laws, rules, and regulations, as well as communication and crisis management experience all of which will serve the District well. Further, my employment law skills may be a helpful addition to the Board. Finally, and most importantly, I am a compassionate person and caring mom who wants to help Little Falls schools be the best we can be.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

If elected, I would like to focus on ensuring our test scores are at least competitive with other schools around the State. Just because we are more rural or smaller does not mean we can’t still offer a competitive education for our children. This is important because those scores give us insight into how prepared our kids will be to compete for jobs and college against their peers around the State. I want to help ensure each child is given the tools to make the best possible future for themselves, whatever that may be.

I would also take a look at the programs we have for the developmentally disabled and the gifted and strive to make sure these children’s special needs are all being met. I’m involved in a charitable organization my sister founded to help developmentally disabled students get training and placed into jobs following their graduation. This has taught me about the creative and exciting possibilities that exist for differently-abled students. I’d love to work with the teachers and administrators to determine what we could be doing better.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing schools today is supporting the mental health of students. Unfortunately, there is currently an epidemic of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression among our children, and our health care system is woefully inadequate to help. That leaves schools to fill that void whether we want to or not because there’s typically an impact on a child’s ability to focus and learn.

Addiction to electronics, poor physical fitness, and the incredible uncertainties of the world contribute significantly to these issues. We need to find or create creative programs to help students address these issues. I have several ideas and would love to partner with administrators and teachers in launching some initiatives while looking for private grants and donations to minimize the costs. I hope to have that opportunity.

Christine Shepardson (Incumbent)

Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you were raised.

I was born and brought up in Little Falls. My husband and children were also born and brought up in Little Falls. We all attended school in the Little Falls school district. I attended Herkimer County Community College and Morrisville Agricultural and Technical College.

I have worked in healthcare for over forty years. I currently work for Valley Health Services and Valley Residential Services as Director of Community Life.

Have you been involved with the school district in the past?

I have served on the Little Falls City School District School board as a commissioner since 2012.

Why are you running for a school board position?

It has been my way of giving back to the community. It is a great way to say thank you for everything that I have been taught and a way to support the children, parents, Little Falls City school district, and the community members. My vision is success for the entire school district and its future.

What are the top two things you want to address if elected?

If elected, my focus would be to assist with improving mental health issues and closing any educational gaps a student may have as a result of the major disruptions of the past two years.

What do you think is the most important challenge schools face today?

I believe that the most important challenge facing schools today is making our schools more accessible and welcoming to families as partners in their children’s education. Ultimately, our goal is to make sure that we are meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of all of our students.

It is important to be surrounded by good education, supportive family and friends and a community that supports children first. It is important to look at the whole picture for each student.

Budget Newsletter

2022-23 Budget Newsletter