NORWALK, Conn. — Seven Norwalk Board of Education candidates explained their priorities and qualifications to the public Sunday before taking questions on topics that ranged from Special Education to communications with parents.
The League of Women Voters debate drew about 100 people to City Hall on a stormy evening. Presenting themselves to the public were Democratic incumbent Shirley Mosby, a candidate on the Working Families Party line; Republicans Mark D’Amelio, Thomas Cullen and Tom Donaher, and Democrats Barbara Meyer Mitchell, Common Council member Bruce Kimmel, Sarah Lemieux. Missing were Steve Tessier and Board incumbent Heidi Keyes; Kimmel said Keyes had a prior engagement that she couldn’t rearrange.
The first question, posed by the Parent Teacher Organization Council (PTOC), asked candidates what they thought was the most important issue facing the Board of Education and how they would address it.
Students should have hands-on, project-based learning opportunities, Lemieux said, asserting that NPS has had success in improving the basics and “Now is the time to enrich, go in depth, and give the students really the opportunity to grow their brains.”
She has “lots of experience creating hands-on, project-based learning,” as she has taught music, early childhood and arts Special Education, she said.
“Academics,” said Donaher.
“We have to focus on all children,” he said, explaining that he is a “technology guy,” whose wife is a teacher in Connecticut. “What I would like to do is find a way to use the companies that we have in town to help promote and increase the infrastructure, whether it be technology, communication, iPads or computers.”
Mosby said she agreed that there is a need to address technology issues.
“We could increase collaborative styles,” she said, urging more support for curriculum.
“I grew up here,” D’Amelio said, before mentioning the “$200 million” Norwalk Public Schools’ budget.
As an entrepreneur, he wonders if the BoE is being run efficiently, he said, qualifying that remark to say that he is not a corporate executive with a huge budget.
“Every dollar that I spend in my business is important,” D’Amelio said. “…People say Republicans are about being fiscally conservative. I am not fiscally conservative, I am fiscally efficient. That’s what I want to do with this $200 million.”
“I believe that we need to meet all kids wherever they are,” Meyer Mitchell said, after naming academics as the most important issue.
“I think that the middle of the student pack is not challenged as much as it could be,” she said. While NPS has made strides in English Language Arts and math, “Communities around us are also focusing on science and social studies,” she said. “We currently do not have a science or social studies curriculum coordinator, we have outdated textbooks, we are not doing experiments in the schools. So, I am a very strong proponent of hands on science and I would like to help coordinate moving that forward.”
Cullen said he’s not a product of Norwalk Public Schools.
“My bent is to try to add a little outside perspective to this thing,” Cullen said, citing the quality of instruction and the structure of the state school system, as BoE members are “selected extensions of the state Board of Education.”
“This thing is virtually an education monopoly run by the state,” Cullen said. “I have an interest in greater diversification and I think that parents getting organized inputting a little pressure on the state legislature, for example, to lift the cap on charter schools. That’s one way to get that diversification… there’s going to be a broad range of career and jobs. … The schools have to be preparing these kids to take these jobs.”
“Academic achievement,” said Kimmel, then offering specifics to the “kind of a general term.”
The Board is working with the Norwalk Federation of Teachers to lengthen the school day in a “critically important” initiative, he said.
“I believe that the district must find a better way to coordinate with the preschools that are all over the city,” Kimmel said. “I am very pleased that two years ago we began to implement tier II interventions … I want to expand to tier III.”
Finally, “We have to increase the graduation requirements for the high school. … to 26 credits,” he said.
Asked for priorities, Mosby cited working with the Special Education department, supporting the curriculum with interventions and continuing with the Board’s strategic operating plan.
D’Amelio also mentioned the plan and said there’s a need to change the perception of the school district.
Norwalk High School looked like an asylum so he met with Mayor Harry Rilling and worked to address the problem, he said.
“There’s things that my colleagues that are in the education business know how to do and really get down there and fix some of the problems, but I also think we have a perception problem,” he said. “This school system is phenomenal. We all know that. … I think we have to go out there but people know, if we have buildings that look good and places where people want to go coupled with programs like Special Ed that are second to none, that will solve a lot of our problems and get us on the road of where we need to go.”
Meyer Mitchell cited a need to make sure “that we meet every student where they are, wherever they are on their road for achievement” and said, “We need to create a generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers that will create the next Factset.”
“Capacity is one of the problems,” Cullen said, citing a need to study how many seats are being used before the city undertakes a huge capital budget to build new schools.
Meyer Mitchell offered a rebuttal, saying that the school system is at 110 percent capacity, and a study has been done.
Kimmel said he’d focus on interventions.
Lemieux said that the perception problem is not only external but internal, as schools feel they need to compete for resources.
“I think (it’s) increasing parity throughout the district at all the different schools… Increasing a sense of cooperation and collaboration,” she said.
“We have a tremendous amount of problems,” Donaher said. “We have everybody who wants to be heard. My first thought would be to listen to everybody, set a timeline, set an agenda, see what money we have that we can use to address it, prioritize those issues and initiatives.”
Meyer Mitchell, in response to audience questions, went on to suggest that she might propose have a student on the Board; Kimmel called that a great idea, while Cullen said the structure set by the state legislature “is not particularly receptive to that notion.”
D’Amelio said he had served on the Norwalk High School governance council and been impressed by two student members.
A question about the CREC (Capital Region Education Council) reports caught two candidates unaware, as both Lemeiux and Donahue said they didn’t know what that was.
“I have a background in special-education,” Lemeiux said, citing problems faced by her brother. She’s helped develop programs for children with autism, and has a sense from Norwalk parents that the SpEd department could be doing much better but progress is slowly being made.
“I would have to read and see where it fits with the objectives,” Donaher said “… We are hearing more and more that these folks need help, they certainly deserve the help.”
Asked about communication, Meyer Mitchell said, “We have hired more people to communicate but I think we have to think about how we are communicating. We don’t want to just spin…. We have to hear criticism, it’s not just a complaint, it’s an opportunity for us to do better.”
Kimmel mentioned Freedom of Information concerns in Board emails that have been made public through court cases, as the emails are interesting but the issues should have been discussed in public.
D’Amelio said, “I guarantee you, if I’m sitting in that chair, I am spending that one or two hours listening. Maybe just the comments at the end are not it, maybe we should get off of our phones and listen to the people and our constituents.”
“Sometimes I think the problem with education is schools, generally,” Cullen said. “…No monopoly has gone on broken up over a long period of time, not even one run by the state.”
In closing remarks, Mosby said she’s been a passionate, strong advocate for transparency and a proven community leader.
“I think we need a diverse set of people going forward on the Board of Ed,” D’Amelio said. “I think my skill set is different. I think I bring a different perspective. Not that the only reason to get on the Board is to love this city but I do… I think I’m the right person for this job.”
Meyer Mitchell said she’s fortunate to have time, and she wants to spend it reading research, having conversations about the schools and “to work very hard to make sure that we have parity across the district.”
Cullen said he’s previously served 17 years on the Norwalk Board of Education. School by school financial accountability may help, he said.
Kimmel said he has been spending more time on education issues, with the clincher for his switch from the city-side to the Board of Education being the very strong Democratic ticket.
“I taught in New Haven for about seven years, it’s another very diverse community,” Lemieux said. “ … (My) goal is to give every child in Norwalk the most robust education opportunities that they can have.”
Donaher said he doesn’t agree “that the other candidates are the perfect match. I think we have to have half-and-half. We have some conservatives, we have some liberals. I think we need to have a steady voice on both sides of the aisle.”
Three mayoral candidates attended the debate; incumbent Democrat Mayor Harry Rilling and Republican Andy Conroy were there for the entire event, while State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) arrived half an hour late and looked at his cell phone for 45 minutes, according to one witness who sat nearby. Unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson did not attend.