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Opinion: Election shows parties no longer hearty when it comes to education

By Lisa Thomson

Co-founder REd APPLES of Norwalk

NORWALK, Conn. – “Washington may be broken, but Norwalk doesn’t have to be. There’s no Democratic or Republican way to run the Board of Education. It’s about driving achievement for ALL students with the most productive use of our taxpayer dollars.”

Those three sentences on meet-and-greet flyers and advocacy campaign posters caused a stir in traditional party circles, as a grassroots, bi-partisan organization supported two Republicans and two Democrats for the Board of Education (BOE) this year. All four candidates were advocates for students, but only two of the four, Democrats Heidi Keyes and newcomer Sherelle Harris (who edged out fellow advocate and incumbent, Republican Sue Haynie), garnered spots in an election that saw a record ten individuals, from three parties, vying for four at-large seats.

On the other side of the aisle, the impact of endorsements from union leaders for third party Norwalk Community Values candidates Steve Colarossi and Andres Roman, Democrat Shirley Mosby and Republican Artie Kassimis also demonstrated that party affiliation isn’t what it used to be. Two of their candidates also won: a Democratic former BOE member and daughter of a retired custodial union president and the other, a Republican who, by all accounts, seems more aligned with far left BOE Dems than members of his own party.

Another aspect of this election was the “winning blank.” The BOE ballot had 9,923 of them! There was also a large voting gap between those who voted for mayor and those who skipped the BOE candidates altogether. Records indicate that 16,520 residents cast a vote for either Moccia or Rilling. Yet the highest number of votes cast for an at-large BOE candidate was only 7,517. Out of all of those who voted for mayor, 9,003 skipped the BOE ballot altogether! Sadder still, is that out of 52,000 registered voters only 32 percent voted in this election!

As the saying goes, voters get the government they deserve.

I don’t understand why so many voters who actually took the time to show up at the polls passed on voting for those responsible for overseeing nearly 60 percent of the city budget and ultimately the value of their homes and neighborhoods? Could it be as simple as forgetting to turn the ballot over?

Increasingly, the BOE elections are becoming less about Republican versus Democratic slates, as evidenced by the creative clusters of lawn signs in the neighborhoods. New political battle lines are being drawn between those candidates who are perceived as more favorable toward employees versus those candidates advocating for students and taxpayers. How BOE members will vote on critical topics such as curriculum, employee contracts and the use of new technology is what’s at stake. This year’s campaign revealed how political party leaders are losing control of what’s really going on in education, as both union leaders and grassroots residents, like this author, have their own ideas about the candidates and have not been shy about backing candidates in both political parties.

This year’s BOE election was a draw, despite power shifting from the Republicans to the Democrats, 6-3. Norwalk still finds itself caught in the national trend of a political stalemate when it comes to reform. Will this BOE deliver a narrow 5-4 vote to support nationally recognized Superintendent Rivera in implementing his Strategic Plan for Norwalk’s schools? Will those BOE members aligned with the status quo attempt to run another superintendent out of town?

Enter new mayor-elect Harry Rilling. Harry campaigned on the concept that ‘Norwalk can do better.’ What role will the new mayor play with regard to balancing public education funding, governance and student achievement – the Achilles heel for many cities, including Norwalk? Was the voting gap for mayor versus the BOE due to a confusing ballot or something else? Do Norwalk residents want their mayor to have more authority in education matters? Having made support for the new superintendent a corner stone of his campaign, the mayor-elect will have his work cut out for him, as he navigates a divided board; with the divisions NOT conveniently based on party lines. How will the new mayor help the new superintendent move the school district and city forward?

In closing, Norwalk’s charter revision was a constant topic in the candidate forums and debates. Most comments focused on longer terms for both the mayor and common council. More time governing, less time campaigning and term limits to avoid the cronyism complaint that plagues both political parties and our educational establishment. However, no mention was ever made about a growing trend in the U.S. – increasing the mayor’s role in reconciling local education and city governance issues. Given the apathetic trends in voter turn-out, perhaps the highest elected post, with the highest voter participation, SHOULD have a more visible role in what has become the largest and most important investment of our city.



14 responses to “Opinion: Election shows parties no longer hearty when it comes to education”

  1. marjoriem

    And we hear from Lisa Thomson again! Lisa, perhaps voters were so disgruntled with the rudeness, the fighting and the ‘return to 19th century’ education that the Apple candidate (the incumbent who lost) repeatedly supported, that voters chose not to support anyone. Maybe voters are not so stupid that they didn’t know there were more candidates. It might have been a choice on their part.
    Lisa, first you campaign heartily for your bipartisan Apples, then you state that the mayor has his job cut out for him as he navigates a divided Board.
    But you already know the vote on the Board will be 5-4. Why? Because you have five Apples on the Board. They will vote together.
    You assume the BOE members who are not your Apples, are aligned with the status quo, but you support the new Mayor who was backed by the teachers’ union.
    Lisa Thomson, who are you kidding? You are an Apple and are looking for control over the school system. I am sure Manny Rivera, if he is all he is cracked up to be, is smart enough to see right through your intentions, your hatred agenda and your supreme desire for power.

  2. Mr. Ludlow

    A sad plea for attention. Why else would she claim to be behind anonymous election flyers? Is a fine from the State Election Enforcement Commission cheaper than full page newspaper ads?
    The problem for Lisa Thompson is that what she’s selling no one is buying. The only apple candidates who won were DEMOCRATS, who got swept in with Rilling. If the Apples had any political oomph, Lauren Rosato would not have finished last among Republicans.

  3. Don’t Panic

    The numbers are almost all wrong. You don’t take the combined totals of two candidates who ran head to head and compare that to one candidate who was one of four selected out of ten running. Turnout percentage was 37% not 32%.
    The story is not one of what voters didn’t do– it is one of what they did do. It appears the turnout was higher than usual for a municipal year election because so many came out to vote for the Mayors race. That seems to follow in a year when there was a very competitive primary.
    In addition, the assumption that reform is the desired result for the city and the parties and that anyone for the unions or against “reform” is somehow not intested in doing right by our schools is just plain wrong. Sometims supporting the people who teach our children is the best way to support our children.
    Yours is a false paradigm.

  4. M Allen

    @Panic – You’re right, you can’t look at the election numbers that way. It’s pretty clear a lot of voters failed to vote or chose not to vote for various offices. But that’s nothing new. Too many have no idea who most of the candidates are. Thank god we got rid of the “lazy lever.”
    But you know what is a false paradigm? That more tax dollars will solve anything. Reform is necessary, in one way or another, by one group or another. Because they better find a way of getting the job done without the continued growth in spending. And we better start managing the expectations of the general public that we are well past the point of diminishing returns on each incremental dollar spent with regards to narrowing the achievement gap. There will never, not ever, be equality in education because we are unable to mandate children have good parents. We are also well past the point where there is anyone to hold accountable other than elected officials, and I’m not sure that adds up to much accountability. I’ve made that statement before and heard the hue and cry from people who actually think they are held accountable. But nobody truly is. In the end, reform needs to happen. Maybe it isn’t the Apples path. But it sure isn’t the Education Establishment’s path either. I’m all for supporting the people who teach our children. But it isn’t going to be with an endless supply of dollars. Because that isn’t supporting them anymore than giving more meth to a junky is supporting them. It’s just a crutch. They better learn to innovate and do more with less, because times are a changin for all municipalities with regard to their ability to fund themselves without bankrupting themselves.

  5. Suzanne

    I consider myself a reasonably well-informed voter. I found the platforms for mayor as well as Council positions well-delineated in the press and other forums. Not so much the school board candidates. I could discern very little differentiation between the candidates and was not at all interested in any partisan affiliation especially when it comes to the education of our kids. While their responsibilities do encompass the allocation of 60% of our tax dollars, I would prefer it would stay there with no tax increase to us with some efficiency and re-allocation of funds to focus on educating students, something that seems to be infrequently mentioned amid the arguing over salaries and unions and new computer notebooks and a new “nationally ranked” supervisor. The administrative, in other words, has seemed to eclipse the educational. And the reputation of Norwalk schools along with their statewide ranking via test scores? Still deplorable. Maybe everyone has just reached a saturation level of frustration with the entire system. The kids’ education seems to be losing and we are incapable of doing anything about it. I doubt ten people for four slots makes much impact to any future changes, especially improvements in the structure that seems to stagnate, weighed down by differing priorities when it needs to be all about the kids.

  6. M Allen

    Ugh Suzanne – you make me reply in two places lol
    You probably are well-informed. But our weak Mayoral position got all the attention and little attention was really paid to the BOE. From the election standpoint, its a tertiary position behind Mayor and Common Council (but ahead of Constable, thank god). The issues are very high level and they don’t spend the time talking about those issues the way people spend their time talking about the really important stuff like civility, respect, BJ’s, etc. The voters only hear: “We want to narrow the achievement gap and we will fully fund the school budget” yada, yada, yada from all candidates. Nobody says how. But because time and coverage are both limited, it makes it pretty hard to differentiate if you’re really trying to look at each candidate individually.

    I will disagree with you on one thing though: When you mention the reputation of Norwalk schools and test scores being deplorable and that there is nothing we can do about it. Test score may be deplorable on the aggregate level. But good students do well in Norwalk schools. The facilities are good, the teachers are excellent and the curriculum is fine. Test scores across the school system don’t prove much. They are weighed down by kids that don’t have good support systems at home. As a result, because there is no other way of measuring anything, the schools get a bad rap. Dollars aren’t going to change that, but we’ll keep being asked to throw more dollars at the problem. We send that money to the schools, but in reality there is a big portion being spent on trying to make up for bad homes or bad parents. At some point, the growth in education budgets is going to have to slow way down. It just isn’t sustainable to keep raising taxes to pay for it. In the end, people won’t flee Norwalk because of the schools, because the schools are actually bad. They will flee because of the taxes to support the schools.

  7. M Allen

    *aren’t actually bad

  8. marjoriem

    Okay, so we’ve been overly saturated with Lisa Thomson’s opinions and her nationally incredible superintendent whom she is obviously trying to win over. Nancy On Norwalk, here’s a respectful request. Could we please hear the opinions of other people, regarding the schools, on this site? Thank you.

  9. M Allen

    marjorie – write a letter to the editor as she did. NON would be happy to print it, as they have for others beyond Ms. Thomson. We could all use some more content now that the election is over.

  10. Suzanne

    I actually do not mind Lisa Thomsen’s opinions but a little balance would be appreciated besides the fiscal perspective of pberman and the, whether true or not they are grating, berating of the Apples by marjoriem. I think Ms. Thomsen researched this letter well and asked some good questions. That is content that is provocative and thoughtful, something worth considering.

  11. Norwalk Lifer

    Dear Ms. Thompson:

    You wonder about the voters in this town overlooking the BOE candidates, and use the typical rationale for not casting a vote. Did you ever stop to think about the shameful legacy the BOE has yet to clean up?

    I have to caution that zeal can turn into something very ugly, overreaching ideals of power and a sense of entitlement, This is what turns PTO’s into toxic waste dumps.

    The amount of acrimony I have read about the BOE over the years, has turned me off; from the Jack Chiaramonte’s calling the head of the union a liar in print; we would never allow our children to behave in such a disrespectful manner in school.

    The example I saw of Ms. Haynie’s petition for re-election left me wondering about her qualifications; the only tape I have seen of Ms. Haynie showed a preference for attacking her opponent instead of enumerating her own accomplishments. You do not chop down trees to make yourself appear taller.

    That’s called character assassination, the truth is voters and a lot of parents in this town have an indifferent view of the BOE; it’s time for the BOE to check off boxes, not the voters.

    Clean up the act, and just maybe, people will listen to you.

    Norwalk Lifer

  12. Lisa Thomson

    Norwalk lifer – You raise valid points about the rancor that surrounds the BOE. If not for a chance appointment on the District Data Management Team, I’d be doing something else. But I did volunteer, get involved and have seen. Many fail to understand what goes on behind the scenes. No different than any other public or private institution – to be sure – but other adult organizations don’t hide behind “the kids.”

    Current financial times, shifting national demographics or historically passive BOEs or combination of all three has resulted in bigger and bigger budgets and less and less in terms of actual learning programs for students. Structurally things have got to change. BOE members volunteer their time and see what most don’t. Those you mention have been the subject of personal attacks, bordering on libel in Mr. Mellion’s Vanguard newsletter for years – where he spreads ‘his version’ of vitriol against superintendents or BOE members who question his position. These folks come and go, but Mr. Mellion is the constant over the past 40 years. Those who step up to volunteer in governance roles, get a quick reality check of how institutionalized public education has become. Why does the cumulative spend of ~ 14,000 school districts -more than any other country, yield such average achievement on the international stage?

    So, having gotten involved, do I remain silent as budgets grow, taxes go up, staff still get laid off, and no new programs or technologies are deployed? Annonymous attacks on me as being power hungry makes me LOL. Do I save the dialogue for a PTA meeting or sideline conversation as a soccer mom? I don’t think so. Cities like Norwalk can’t afford the “we’ve always done it this way approach.” The new superintendent got a standing ovation from TEACHERS at the convocation for vowing to try and change things. I hope he gets the votes to do it.

  13. Norwalk Lifer

    I am not interested in your opinion of Mr Mellion Ms, Thompson, I’ll draw my own conclusions, the acrimony and the vitriol seen on the BOE is shameful, if you are so inclined to think that “getting involved” is tantamount to character assassination, I’ll remind you; we don’t teach our kids that here in Norwalk.

    The kids in this town act far better than the adults.

    Norwalk Lifer

  14. marjoriem

    Lisa Thomson, I strongly urge you to reflect on your actions and the propaganda you keep espousing. People like you and Sue Haynie are the bullies. You hurt people’s careers, or hope to hurt them, without care or emotion. Unfortunately you are like the energizer bunny and keep on keeping on. Your truth is not truth, but distortions. And we keep on hearing these distortions over and over. What distortions? Let’s talk about the fabulous negotiations win for your Apple alliance. Unfortunately the truth is that we have a deficit of 4-5 million dollars in the budget for next year. Now you are going to extremes about the superintendent who, you state, practically walks on water. I wonder if you are trying to impress him with all this flattery. If he is smart, he will see right through you.
    You are a bright woman, no doubt, but your actions reveal a self satisfying, power-driven hidden agenda.

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