NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education candidates were put on the spot Monday at the League of Women Voters forum.
NancyOnNorwalk sat in on the District D discussion, where topics ranged from bullying to English Language Learners. Republican incumbent Bryan Meek said his expertise as an accountant is needed on the Board’s Finance Committee and Democratic challenger Erica DePalma said that “a woman in the field of marketing technology” she has learned to be a positive and productive member of a team.
The pair disagreed on many issues.
Asked about bullying, DePalma said she works with an organization called No Bullying “on curriculum that allows us to go into schools and educate peers as being the solution providers and the solutions team to combat the rise in this epidemic.”
“I am not discounting that bullying is an issue,” Meek said. “I don’t know. I don’t know that data supports that it’s actually increased. Real or perceived, I guess perception is that it’s still an issue.”
Norwalk Public Schools does an annual schools climate survey and there’s a heightened awareness of school security, he said. “We have implemented security guards at each of the elementary schools that give them more of a personal feel and touch to the building. And I think that’s going a long way in managing that.”
“It is absolutely statistically valid that it has increased,” DePalma replied. “The CDC reports that the suicide rate amongst children has increased over the last 10 years. One in three students are reporting bullying right now. 75% of issues related school shootings have been associated with bullying. So it is absolutely an epidemic.”
“God, we haven’t had any school shootings here,” Meeked rebutted. “And, again, I wouldn’t discount the issue of bullying. I just would say that, I believe in the last four years we have made improvements in these areas.”
Speaking from the audience, Diane Lauricella asked for their thoughts on civility, given “some issues at the ‘Board of Ed’ where the adults aren’t playing well with each other.”
Democrats and Republicans are one thing, but “sitting at a table with the data scientists and creative talent, I mean, that is where the conversation really meets,” DePalma quipped. “So I’m used to having those difficult conversations. I absolutely believe in a code of conduct as it relates to the Board.”
Meek mentioned the Civility Code that was recently signed by all Board members.
“Maybe I don’t adhere to it all the time, I’d be the first to admit that,” he said. “We spend a lot of hours I think we spend to do this job correctly, probably about 50 hours a month, on average. And sometimes opinions vary, and things get heated, but I would always be mindful to be civil. And I would definitely offer an apology to anybody who thought I wasn’t. But sometimes opinions do get strong.”
Diane Keefe asked about the influx of immigrant children, the expense of educating them and the “implied view about us being a sanctuary city.”
“This is a very tough and delicate situation,” Meek said. “These, a lot of these children that you described are refugees.”
They have to be educated by law, but even if that weren’t the case, “We’d be much worse off when those children are left out into the void of living here and acclimating to society. So it is our job, I think it’s a harder job for our folks on the Council to figure out where these dollars are going to come from.”
DePalma said she agreed and “what’s important is that we not only allocate them to bilingual speakers, but we also implement curriculum that benefits the general population… there is a cost benefit that has been quantified by the Rand group, that if we do not intervene and educate the students, we lose in the long run.”
Meek offered an anecdotal story he’d heard about West Rocks Middle School, where he said “pretty much half the class are these Spanish speaking students and the other half are English speaking students, and they have a translator in there and that’s what we can afford,” and the result is they’re becoming bilingual but “nobody’s leaning science.”
“I would disagree,” DePalma said. “Statistically children who practice a dual language are more likely to develop their cognitive skills and cultural awareness compared to their mono linguistic counterparts.”
“This is a short term situation,” Meek replied. “They’re not learning Science right now.”
Bobbie Kin wanted to know how they’d involve stakeholders in the superintendent search.
“I’d say my greatest career growth was when I got comfortable with not being the smartest person in the room and I surrounded myself with people who were subject matter expertise. That’s what it takes to be a collaborative board member,” DePalma said, going on to outline the difficulty parents have in being involved in their community, given their work and family obligations.
“We need to do a better job of reaching out to them and allowing them to contribute to the process,” she said. “So not just focus groups, street teams.”
A street team goes to sporting events and sits outside of schools, she explained, also mentioning YouTube.
“We’re largely following the model that was successful in bringing Dr. Adamowski into the school system. It involved a lot of community outreach, meetings, surveys, soliciting all sorts of feedback like that,” Meek said. “…I think it’s up to each individual board member to also solicit that feedback from their constituents and look for ways to get that out. So you know, always more couldn’t be done. I would just say we are doing more right now with the budget that we have.”
Another question concerned diversity in the school staff.
“That’s an operational matter,” Meek said. “We do set some levels of policy.”
NPS has partnered with Teach for America to seek a broader diversity of candidates but, “It’s a hard thing, if they don’t apply, you know, you can’t hire them,” Meek said. “So we’re not seeing the level of applications that we would like to see to have a broader group of applicants but that is something that’s definitely a concern. We talk about it quite a bit.”
“I have read the state toolkit on how to recruit a more diverse staff,” DePalma said. “I am very familiar with recruiting practices and the marketing factors that are in place but it does assume that there is a pool of candidates out there. So I did also research what other communities are doing that have similar makeup as ours.”
Danbury has partnered with Western Connecticut State University, she said, describing college students mentoring children who are interested in teaching, who then get college credits and are eventually hired to teach in Danbury.
“That’s kind of an HR decision on how they operationally implement these types of outreach programs,” Meek said. “…One thing that I loved about working with our staff is that they are open to these ideas and board member research.”
DePalma described herself as a Special Education mom who has been awarded as one of the top women nationally in the digital marketing field. “I have to sit at a table and collaborate with data scientists, anthropologists, creative talents, and I’m very successful in doing so.”
“I have a fundamental expertise in quantifiable data,” she said. “That is a box I check off and quite honestly, that’s the easy part of my day. The hard part is combining quantitative data with qualitative data and using it to make an investment that will yield positive results for our children and our taxpayers.”
Meek said he has a “corporate background in financial systems and working with C level executives down to rank and file analysts who get the work done.”
“I look forward to serving you all for another four years,” he said. “I can assure you that my background in technology and finance and information systems and working with all sorts of stakeholders prepares me very well.
He’s looked at the pool of candidates and none is as qualified to be Finance Committee Chairman, he said. “We’re heading into a very difficult and tenuous budget cycle, not just an operations, but also with the capital budget. We have to get new school buildings built. We just don’t have the room anymore and we have to pay for all the new children coming into the district and it’s going to be challenging.”
The candidates list what they think are the top needs for the district:
The candidates explain their qualifications:
A question about bullying:
They were asked what they’d do about climate change:
How can NPS attract a more diverse staff?
What about civility on the Board of Education?
What about the expense of educating English Language Learners? And being a sanctuary city?