Calls for ‘Parents’ Rights’ in Nearby School Election

Beacon business owner organizes opposition

Alarmed by campaign signs proclaiming “Christ is King” and exhorting voters to “Trust in God,” a Beacon business owner and a Fishkill mother of seven have mobilized to oppose a slate of Wappingers Falls school board candidates. 

There are eight candidates for three seats on the nine-member board, which found itself under a spotlight in March when it voted to remove Gender Queer: A Memoir from the library at John Jay High School. The election is May 17; the winners will serve three-year terms.

The three incumbents, Keri Cahill, Marie Johnson and Eddy Sloshower, are running for re-election. The Dutchess County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization at the forefront of a movement to remove books from public high schools, has endorsed Cahill; Virgil Capollari, a retired U.S. Air Force special agent; and Dan Pena, a Westchester Community College instructor.

Their campaigns, as well as that of Anthony Ciro DiLullo, who has included Christian slogans on his yard signs, emphasize their support for “parents’ rights.” Capollari adds that he wants “no political influence (or ‘indoctrination’) in the classroom” and Pena says he supports “transparency in the development of both curriculum and policies affecting education.” 

Campaign signs on the corner of Route 9D and Little Schoolhouse Road in Wappingers Falls

Campaign signs on the corner of Route 9D and Little Schoolhouse Road in Wappingers Falls (Photo by B. Cronin)

DiLullo, who describes himself as “a God-fearing, America-loving patriot” says he wants to see a shift away from “emotional learning” because “what’s happening today to the students is both a tragedy and a crime.” 

“I believe parents should retain control over their children,” he wrote on a Meet the Candidates page of the school district website. “Teaching the Constitution for the United States is also of paramount importance. Students should know their rights secured by the Constitution.”

Sarah Hanganu, listed on the Moms for Liberty site as the contact for its Dutchess chapter, did not respond to an email asking for clarification about how the group defines “parents’ rights” or the reasons behind its endorsements. The national website says that Moms for Liberty “is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government” around issues such as gender identity, antiracism training, sex education and critical race theory, a view of Black history that is taught at the college level.

Laura Leigh Abby, who owns the Main Street Studio @ Beacon with her wife, Samantha, and lives in the Wappingers district, says she was alarmed by DiLullo’s campaign signs because they mix public education with religion and might “set a precedent.”

(The state does not prohibit candidates from using religious messages in campaigns, said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. However, if elected, “they would not have the ability to speak on behalf of the board if their message is to promote religion,” he said.)

In addition, Abby argues that phrases such as “parents’ rights” and charges of “political influence” by teachers are code for far-right campaigns to censor books and ideas in the classroom. In response, she and Karen Finnegan, a Fishkill parent, in April launched Defense of Democracy NY, a grassroots organization that opposes what the women describe as “far-right, extremist groups like Moms of Liberty that use political agendas to undermine our children’s right to a free and fair education.” 

Finnegan has seven teenage children — three straight, two gay and two nonbinary. Two attend school in the district, and Finnegan said the challenges to books with LGBTQ themes, and the rhetoric of the school board campaign, have made her feel they have “a target on their backs.” 

She and Abby raised $1,000 to print “Teachers Shouldn’t Be Preachers” signs to counter DiLullo and endorsed Johnson, Sloshower and Cheryl Migatz, an English instructor at Dutchess Community College, for the board. The three candidates also have the support of the Wappingers teachers’ union.

The eighth candidate, Ariana Dingman, owns a graphic design business and has said she supports “honest education in these challenging times.”

Howard Rissin, who has two children in the Wappingers district, said he supports the pushback. “It doesn’t resonate with me to play into fear and narrow the field of education,” he said. The district’s focus “should be enriching students and expanding their minds, not to be an echo chamber for a political agenda.” 

2 thoughts on “Calls for ‘Parents’ Rights’ in Nearby School Election

  1. I have been a registered Republican since 1980, when I voted for Ronald Reagan. I spend a good deal of thought and reflection on how I cast my ballot, especially in local elections where my vote actually counts for something. I am proud of my country and all that we stand for.

    More important than my party affiliation, however, is my status as a father. I am the dad of three children, two girls and a boy, all of whom were raised in Dutchess County. Out of my three children, one is straight, and two are part of the LGBTQ culture.

    I am sure that other parents will understand when I say that it is impossible to sit idly by when a threat is made to your child. I am completely against the rhetoric and ideals pushed by Moms for Liberty. Their local representatives have made hateful comments targeting the LGBT community, and the candidates endorsed by them are in lockstep with this messaging. One candidate stated at a public meeting, on the record that “all types of gender fluidity is a lie.”

    I am angered by these local would-be politicians who have accepted the M4L endorsement and are now running for WCSD Board of Ed candidates. Never mind that most of them don’t have any history of volunteering for the school district on any level. I’ll be voting for Cheryl Migatz, Eddy Sloshower and Marie Johnson, the three of whom were endorsed by The Wappingers Congress of Teachers.

    I would encourage all my friends in the Republican Party to reach out to the volunteers at Defense of Democracy and offer your help. I have met with these volunteers and spoken with them personally. I have no idea what their party affiliations are; what I do know is that they are made up of people (mostly parents, but some are just friends who care) who are worried — and rightfully so — about what is happening in the upcoming school district election. I don’t think that their fear is unwarranted.

  2. I have raised my children in the Wappingers School District from their days as Fishkill Frogs at Fishkill Elementary through their senior year at John Jay High School. I have not always been in agreement with everything that the school district — or even their individual teachers — have done. But I have always recognized that their educators, bus drivers and miscellaneous guidance counselors and staff have overall been amazing.

    My children have been baptized in the Catholic Church and one of my most joyful memories is of each of their confirmations. My uncle, a Franciscan priest, officiated my wedding. My faith has gotten me through the death of my father and the experience of tending not once but twice to a child admitted to the ICU at Vassar Hospital. It has helped me raise my children in an era of school shootings, as well as in a time when the internet relentlessly bombards them. More than anything my faith has given me strength to encourage my children to accept and love themselves regardless of their sexual preferences.

    I am proud of my beliefs, and feel that they are important to my family. I am, however, horrified that three individuals running for open Board of Education seats are backed by Moms of Liberty, a group that targets children based on their race, religion and sexuality. A fourth candidate has openly said that he wants to bring religion into public classrooms. It is painful, as a mom, to feel this threat to my children’s well being.

    I hope that all individuals of voting age will visit a voting station on May 17 will please do so. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have children in school; you can vote on behalf of your child or your neighbor’s child. All of our children need us right now.