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Norwalk, meet your Board of Education candidates

Norwalk Board of Education candidates, from left: District A, Alexandrea Kemeny; District C, Diana Carpio and Jason Christopher; District D, Bryan Meek and Erica DePalma.

The election is Nov. 5.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk voters are selecting in-district Board of Education members on Nov. 5. Two races are already decided, as Sherelle Harris is running unopposed in District B and Mike Barbis faces no challengers to his reelection in District E.

NancyOnNorwalk asked the candidates five questions. Here are the answers we received:

 

District A

Alexandrea Kemeny

Alexandrea Kemeney, a Republican, is squaring off against Godfrey Azima, a Democrat, in District A. Azima did not respond to the inquiry.

What has inspired you to run for office?

Kemeney: “I was inspired to run for the Board of Education because I have experienced the other side of the table having taught 31 years as a teacher for the Norwalk Public Schools. I know the strengths and weaknesses in our system and I’m inspired to be effective and make changes for a stronger school system.

“Norwalk is a growing city. And with growth comes change. I know I can be an effective member of the Board of Education and inspire responsible and  positive changes while continuing the good work of the past Board of Ed. Members.  I am inspired to help our schools offer career opportunities for ALL students- both college and non- college bound.  I’m excited to expand the Public School of Choice Initiative to allow families to send their children to a school of their choosing.  I will continue to promote the ongoing effort of the building projects and modernize existing facilities. I will be an advocate for new curricula that will make learning more exciting for our children and inspire THEM to do great things.

“It is also an important time for the Norwalk Board of Ed. and our District’s schools because the search has begun for a new Superintendent. It is vital to our schools to find an experienced  Superintendent who is committed to strengthening our diverse school system.  I have devoted my life to the education of children and I know the incredible potential we have to make Norwalk a District of Excellence!  Our Kids Are Worth It!”

 

 What qualifications do you bring?

Kemeney: “Experience. Having been born and raised in Norwalk and having been a teacher for 31 years in the Norwalk public school system; I bring a unique set of qualifications unlike any other candidate.  I understand the diverse needs of our students on a first hand basis having been in the classroom.  I am aware of the importance to communicate with teachers so that the needs of their students can be identified in order for them (the students) to be successful. I have seen the day to day needs of the schools. I would propose a budgetary line for community people to be hired at minimum wage to cover lunch duties, recess duties and hall duties; hence freeing up counselors, social workers and teachers to focus on individual students’ needs.

 

Why should people choose you over your opponent?

Kemeney: “Again, my answer is experience.  Having just retired I’ll have the ability to devote my time to researching solutions to problems that are needed to improve Norwalk’s educational system. I will spend my time visiting the schools to learn where they need support and work on creative solutions. As a life long resident and teacher in Norwalk I want to give back to the community that has served me so well.”

 

What is the biggest challenge facing Norwalk Public Schools?

Kemeney: “I think the biggest challenge facing our school system is the influx of non-English speaking students. Of approximately 11,800 students in the Norwalk Public School system, 2,141 of those students are non-English speaking. That’s about 17% of all students. It will be a challenge to assimilate these students into our school system successfully. This is a pressing issue for our city.”

 

How would you address it?

Kemeney: “The challenge of assimilating our ELL students into our school system needs to start early to be most effective. Statistically speaking,  District A’s elementary school’s population is predominately Hispanic as compared to the other districts in Norwalk.

“ELL (English Language Learners)

“In District A:  Tracey has 119 ELL students out of 432 (27.5%)

                          “Kendall has 170 ELL students out of 502 (33.8%)

                          “Jefferson has 137 ELL students out of 506 (27%)

                         “That’s a total of 426 ELL students!

                                      “The population of a whole school.

“In District B- Columbus Magnet (31 ELL students)

“In District C – Marvin (96 ELL students) & Naramake (59 ELL students)

“In District D- Cranbury (75 ELL students), Silvermine (167 ELL students) Wolfpit (54 ELL students)

“In District E- Fox Run (52 ELL students), Rowayton (61 ELL students) Brookside (115 ELL students)

“The Board has talked about making another ELL school across town. What better place than Jefferson! I would propose that Jefferson become a Duel Language Magnet School much like Silvermine. A Duel Language Magnet School is one where ½ the population speaks English and the other ½ speak another language, in this case, Spanish. Both sets of students would be instructed in both languages and become bilingual.

“We need to get our ELL children proficient in English before they get to middle school. Early intervention is best! This would be a good start!”

 

 

District C

Diana Carpio, left; Jason Christopher, right.

Jason Christopher, a Republican, and Diana Carpio, a Democrat, are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican BoE member Mike Lyons. Here is the Q&A, presented alphabetically:

What has inspired you to run for office?

Carpio: “As a single mom who has a child in the Norwalk Public School (NPS) System, I am frustrated, like other parents, due to the lack of communication that we receive regarding our schools. I find myself questioning how these decisions are being made, so in order to change this, I would like to be a part of BOE.”

Christopher: “I am the father of two children just beginning their NPS journey. As a lifelong resident and product of NPS myself, I am very dedicated to Norwalk and believe in my city. While I am not in the educational field, I graduated from UCONN and education has always been very important to me. What inspired me the most to run is simply kids and a strong sense of, we can do better. Norwalk students truly are our city’s future and I want to be a part of that. The future is bright.

“Making the decision to stay in Norwalk as our own kids began their school career was a serious one for my wife and I. As it is for all parents. We had the confidence to move forward because of our dedication and lifelong commitment in Norwalk. I feel we have absolutely made the right decision but I also see the need for great change.

“Positivity is important. I want to improve communication first and foremost. Parents and teachers know the students best and their voices MUST be heard. Students deserve the very best. Communication is everything. I hear of more and more parents leaving the system due to lack of communication and shortfalls that simply should not be. I feel strongly no parent and no child should have to leave the system unless they choose to do so. I am fueled by the need for improvements in special education in Norwalk. These parents and kids need more and deserve more. We need to come together and figure out how to ensure we are functioning and working together at all levels. It’s for the kids. The system must work for ALL. Together we must succeed.

 

What qualifications do you bring?

Carpio: “I have a student, I have a vested interest in the future of our public schools.  I am bilingual.  I have the capability of communicating with our Latin community, which will make it easier for them to understand and likely become more involved in the NPS.”

Christopher: “I’m dedicated to hard work and determination with a solid corporate background. Accountability and communication is a strength that I would certainly bring to the board if elected. At the same time, listening and communication is even more so a quality I posses. I’m compassionate and believe in people NOT politics. I’m a great listener and I believe no one knows the students better than the parents and teachers. Although my children’s NPS career has only just begun, I have attended countless meetings and researched the issues and concerns heavily in the past two years. Data and numbers are important and I understand both and apply it daily as a successful Business Analyst every single day and would do so as a Board of Education member.”

 

Why should people choose you over your opponent?

Carpio: “I have been involved in the NPS for the past 11 years.  I have volunteered throughout my son’s school years.  Currently, I am President of the Norwalk Parents Club at Norwalk High School. I have assisted ELL families to understand the resources that are available for their children.  I have also worked as a physical therapist with children who have disabilities.   I know first-hand of the challenges that families face to get services for their children.”

 Christopher: “Everyone brings something different to the table and I respect and appreciate just that. I believe strongly in education and in NPS. I am a product of Marvin, Nathan Hale and Norwalk High School. I went on as Phi Thetta Kappa President at NCC and graduated from the University of Connecticut. My background in business and analytics allows me to research data and apply where necessary to ensure fiscal responsibility to the board if elected. As well as gather information and statistics and apply it to help make impactful decisions. With that said, At the same time, my best asset to the board is simply a caring heart and a strong will to ensure every child gets the opportunity they deserve. Being a dad and a parent doesn’t make me lose sight of the emotional components needed as well. I feel I would bring the perfect balance of accountability, compassion, communication and strength in research and analytics.

 

What is the biggest challenge facing Norwalk Public Schools?

Carpio: “I feel the biggest challenge facing our schools is that sometimes we forget the simple concept that kids should be kids.  It’s not always about testing.  There is more to determine a child’s intellect than testing.  The last few years, so many changes have been implemented at one time. It feels as though the decisions were being made with little or no communication. Improving our schools is a priority, but it should never be at the cost of our teachers, families and students.”

Christopher: “Norwalk is a city and as a result there are many issues and concerns that we are faced with. Overcrowding, budget concerns, school infrastructure and building improvement needs. However, based on my experiences, attendance of meetings and conversations with parents and teachers…the biggest challenge is Communication! In every issue and concern I discuss with parents and teachers, it all comes down to a lack of communication. A disconnect.

“Technology communication efforts at NPS have come together and the enhancements with email, phone and text are impressive. But, when I state, communication as a top issue, I feel in so many ways there’s a breakdown between departments, the district, parents, teachers and students. Across the board, there’s a disconnect. One of the biggest ‘communication’ frustrations is with Special Education. Case workers are overloaded, social workers are inundated and parents are burnt out, hopeless and defeated. As a result, kids aren’t getting the necessary attention they need. Resources are being under utilized and the efficiency is lacking.

“It stems outside of Special Education as well. Overall, communication is needed. Parents and teachers need to be given opportunities to give valuable input and be included in decisions before they are made. I believe with this challenge the search for a first class superintendent upon the currents contract coming to an end will be critical.”

How would you address it?

Carpio: “Because I am an advocate at the schools, I will speak to them about their concerns.  I will take these concerns and discuss them at the BOE meetings. I will ask as many questions as needed in order to understand how the BOE makes their decisions.”

Christopher: “Accountability. Bringing positivity and results by working together collectively with parents and teachers. Bringing departments together regularly and opening lines of communication further. The district and parents must come together. We must put students first and utilize our resources to full effective capacity.

“Lastly, if elected I would strive to bring in a first class superintendent based on the input of teachers, parents and the premise of communication. With the hire of a new superintendent I believe the promise of a long term commitment and strong open lines of communication will greatly help bring this issue together in a positive way.”

 

 

 

District D

Bryan Meek, left; Erica DePalma, right.

Republican incumbent Bryan Meek is being challenged by Democrat Erica DePalma in District D. As an incumbent, some of the questions to Meek were different than DePalma’s. As an incumbent, his answers are being presented first.

Question 1

Why are you seeking reelection?

Meek: “The past four boards since 2011 have turned this school system around dramatically by working together in a bipartisan fashion to make sound decisions.  Healthy debate arises when we have balance in government.  Norwalk Schools can not afford to go back to the status quo where mediocrity was acceptable.  This happened when there was unilateral control of the entire board by one political party.  Opposing viewpoints were shut out of the conversation and Norwalk suffered as a result.  And while not intentional, it is only natural to make bad decisions when you can’t see the issues from different perspectives.  I am seeking re-election to continue this approach to governing our city.  The next board will have at most three seats for the minority party voice on a nine member body and possibly zero.  I am invested in this city and we can not afford to regress.”

What has inspired you to run for office?

DePalma: “Success in a global economy looks different now than it did in the past. As we adopt a digital curriculum moving forward, I believe it’s important to have a member of the Technology sector on the Board. I’m also both a SPED and General Ed parent, and with that comes an awareness of the opportunities to address the City’s Achievement Gap, while maximizing the potential of all students in the system.

“I also felt a perception issue was developing in Norwalk that was driving young families out of town. We are often bogged down with confusion that escalates due to lack of communication. Ineffective communication diverts time and resources away from our core agenda. And as Marketer, my job is to raise awareness, shift perception and create favorability.  I feel strongly that there are opportunities to model positive behavior, more effectively communicate and redirect the conversation to socializing our strengths. And in time, the momentum will shift in a better direction.”

 

Question 2

What do you consider to be your most important achievement in this term?

Meek: “Hiring Dr. Adamowski and adopting the Strategic Operating Plan that followed as a result.  The growing success of our school system is the direct result.”

What qualifications do you bring?

DePalma: “My career is in the field of Marketing Technology.  I’m tasked with using data, technology and workflow systems to deliver results while maximizing profit margins for my clients and my firm. To be successful in my field, it requires a commitment to active listening and collaboration with key stakeholders.  In my position, as a Senior Vice President with my firm, it’s my responsibility to evaluate and distill expected outcomes, as well as the dependencies and the trade-offs, in a concise and digestible manner.  My strategic leadership has been recognized by my clients and peers in numerous industry awards and I’ve held several Board positions that cut across both professional and non-profit organizations.”

 

Question 3

What’s the most under looked aspect of your work?

Meek: “More hours are probably spent behind the scenes on things like negotiating Labor contracts than the sum of all of our public meetings.   I think the average citizen just thinks there are a few meetings here and there.  Done properly, a board member probably puts in about 50 hours a month in various committee efforts.  Naturally negotiations are behind closed doors, but I’ve been on this committee for four years and we have managed to get significant concessions from labor that will save the city tens of millions in the future, while still providing our talent with some of the best wages and benefits in the country.  The numbers of applicants we get from some of the top universities in the world is a testament to this.  Besides the commencement ceremonies every year, going to the new hires teacher breakfast is probably the event I enjoy the most.”

Why should people choose you over your opponent? 

DePalma: “Human nature is to draw on what’s familiar, but in a digital first, global economy, too much dependence on experience can stifle forward thinking.

“Like many who work in technology, I relearn my job every day. The landscape evolves rapidly, and it results in a high-pressure environment that requires that I combine data with instinct to capitalize on opportunities. As a result, I’m proactive and not reactive. I constantly reevaluate the tools, the partnerships, the talent and the contracts I have in place to affirm they are appropriate for solving tomorrow’s challenges. In the same vein, science has identified critical windows in a child’s life that we need to be cognizant of.  A child’s development doesn’t wait for us to get out of our own way. We need leadership that operates at the pace of change.”

 

Question 4: What is the biggest challenge facing Norwalk Public Schools?

Meek: “The growing student population and how we manage that is becoming a very critical issue right now.  There is only so much that property taxes can go up and the state grants aren’t even keeping up with inflation, let alone the numbers of additional students coming into Norwalk.”

DePalma: “Closing the Achievement Gap is the rising tide that will lift all boats. To that end, there is an ongoing need to address consistent equitable education practices and environments across the district, as well as compliance and communication.”

 

Question 5: How would you address it? 

Meek: “In part it has been with our near $200 million Facilities Master plan.  That is currently underway and hopefully the State can stop dragging its feet on our new SoNo schools that we desperately need to help absorb the influx of new students.  We also need to continue to partner with the City Council and Board of Estimate and Taxation, which control the purse strings, to properly finance what we are legally required to provide under state and federal statutes.  At this point, we really don’t have a choice but to add school space and request additional revenues to accommodate the growth.”

DePalma: “I’m a believer in embedded and systemic Tier 1 intervention as a proactive approach to identifying and helping struggling learners. And while that may seem expensive, it can also reduce referrals to special education services, as some children struggle because they simply haven’t been taught certain skills that cut across not only academics, but also social-emotional awareness and self-regulation. Many schools are realizing the long-term benefits of bringing a multi-tier system of supports into the general classroom in order to benefit all students. High quality, early intervention, promotes healthy development which translates to long-term savings for taxpayers by reducing more expensive interventions later in a child’s education, as well as their adult life.”

4 comments

Bryan Meek October 21, 2019 at 8:22 am

Given more context of the questions presented to the candidates who are not incumbents, I would like to add a few things in the comments here.

1. Significant part of the $3.6 million surge investment in SPED was done with the intent of strengthening the Tier 1 and multi-tiered supports that are critical to a child’s development and economical in terms of getting in front of the issues early in a child’s education. I’m glad my opponent recognizes the importance of these and it sounds like she would continue the efforts.

2. Communication issues have been a constant struggle. We need to over-communicate and we have made improvements here. We have a new communications department established in my tenure that is embedded in social media, publishes monthly and annual newsletters, and broadcasts important messages as needed. They won an award last year too.

3. Technology and the benefits of using certain components of it can have tremendous advantages, but can sometimes not be as cost effective as some might think. I didn’t learn this from my MBA in Technology. However, the past 20 years working for and with several hundred global companies as the customer support lead for the world’s number one financial consolidation software package has taught me a lot about practical uses and wasteful spending at the same time. Finance and Operations, which is the focus of running a school system can’t suffer a 99% success rate, whereas in bringing products to market a 2% success rate is sometimes acceptable.

4. We did this interview a long time ago. Since then, I was looking at the various platforms and positions of candidates and mostly the lack thereof and I’m concerned about the possible composition of the next board with respect to the committees where most of the work is done. Given the current state of affairs, I believe there are only two candidates, and one current board member, qualified and capable of running the Finance Committee without significant formal education or on the job experience. I see both of them continuing their important work Chairs of Curriculum and Facilities. The former lead by Dr. Kimmel who has prior experience on the Council’s Finance Committee and the latter $100 million plus effort by Mr. Barbis, a CFA. Not that my Masters in Accounting or CPA strictly qualify me, but I would be the only one with the experience and the qualifications to run this important committee. Long story short, my platform has evolved to raise this a bit higher in terms of campaign objectives with the budget cycle starting in a few short weeks amongst other things.

Mike Lyons October 22, 2019 at 7:39 am

Funny you say that, Bobby – Mayor Rilling seems to think the BOE is VERY functional. Here’s what he’s quoted as saying at the debate: “Our Norwalk Public Schools is the most successful public school system right now in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “We have achievement gap index higher than any of those in our district representative group. And we have made some tremendous strides in reducing the achievement gap. And that’s because we work together with the Board of Education.”

David Mapley October 25, 2019 at 8:17 am

So CT is a sanctuary state and Norwalk is footing a huge ELL bill – why are we not getting a full recompense from Hartford. Why is Duff under-representing us? My property taxes are so high, and while I laud the efforts of the BOE I choke at paying for a system that should be centrally funded, not a local burden. Please pressure our state representatives to recover more from Hartford than the paltry 9 cents in the dollar!!

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