The board of education in Lyme-Old Lyme is losing three long-time members this November: Erick Cushman, Stacy Winchell and current chair Mimi Roche.
Three Republican and three Democratic candidates – all first-time candidates for elected office in Old Lyme – are running for the open seats: Steven Wilson, Suzanne Thompson, Jenn Miller, Sarah Bowman, Jason Kemp and Lorianne Panzara.
None of the Democratic candidates would speak to the CT Examiner for this article. All three Republican candidates identified increased transparency and community involvement with the board of education as the key issue for the coming 4-year term.
“In my term I would love to see a system put in place where we can operate openly, transparently and where the opinions and voices of the community are heard,” said Wilson, who recently became a full-time Old Lyme resident and has two children at the high school. “We need to set up a system where the board is operating at the will of the people instead of in a bubble. Taxpayers and parents of students who are directly impacted by actions of the school board need to know what’s going on. I want the community to be involved. I want the community to lead, not the board.”
Wilson has owned a seasonal home in Old Lyme for 15 years while working in New York City. This year his family has decided to live full-time in Old Lyme to take advantage of the quality of the local schools.
“We came because of the engineering program at the school. My son was the one who made us look into moving out here full time. My daughter wanted to spend another year in the city, but then she took a tour and decided she wanted to move too,” Wilson said. “We came to live here full time because of the school. I want to do what I can to preserve what it is, and improve it where possible. Onward and upward is my goal.”
Wilson was a member of the board of his children’s school in New York City. In addition, as the parent of a child with dyslexia, he said he would bring a different perspective to the board. He hopes to serve on the LEARN committee and discuss options and alternatives for children with learning differences.
Thompson echoed Wilson’s concerns about a lack of communication from the current board, especially in regards to the recent addition of universal pre-kindergarten.
“My biggest concern about that is the way it was handled, the process, the decision. The town could’ve done a better job of explaining this and open this to transparency in how the decisions are made and why,” Thompson said. “I want to bring the big picture concern and writing skills to the board to help us stay on top of communication.”
Thompson is a freelance writer and former reporter for the New London Day. She previously was a Parent Teacher Organization volunteer and Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau board member. She currently has two children in the Lyme-Old Lyme schools.
Miller expanded on the idea by saying that if she were to be elected to the board of education she would want to make sure the communication channels between the teachers, principals and other school employees are clear.
“They need to be able to come forward and speak to the board,” Miller said. “The board role and the superintendent role is clear, they are the decision maker and he is the management, he is there to implement. It is different from a corporation.”
Miller had two children graduate from the Lyme-Old Lyme school system and said now she would like to give back to the community and schools for the great education her sons received. Miller served in the Army at the start of her career and has a background in finance, accounting and auditing.
“There is a large communication gap. Social media has made me aware of that. The more we can get residents aware of the impacts and how it affects the greater Old Lyme community, the better,” Miller said. “I know lots of people who have never had children in the schools and they need to be part of the conversation as taxpayers too.”
In addition to communication, the potential installation of a turf field at the high school was raised as an issue by each candidate.
“It’s sort of an ongoing issue with the astroturf and the athletic fields. I’ve only heard from a few people and they tend to rely on rumors more than facts. I’m interested in learning more about that and to make sure everyone understands what’s going on,” Wilson said. “I would love to see the point of contention resolved.”
Thompson said that she thinks more research and background information on the environmental and health impacts of turf fields needs to be part of the conversation.
“I have become aware that we have a big-ticket problem looming: what to do with the high school sports field,” Thompson said. “I don’t know the current state of sports medicine recommendations for young bodies to play sports on plastic grass. Let’s stop and look for medical research and decide if it makes sense and also if it is cost effective.”
The issue of school budgeting was a broader point raised by the candidates.
“I want to spend money for the benefit of the children, but to do so as prudent and practical as possible,” Wilson said.
Thompson and Miller both stated that maintaining a low mill rate in the town would be important to them.
“The tipping point that I hear mostly is if the mill rate goes up, I’m not for it. Something else has to go,” Miller said. “I want to see a roadmap of priorities to understand a five to ten year plan when it comes to facilities and finances.”
Part of keeping expenses down, Thompson said, will be to make sure that the school district doesn’t have a blank check when it comes to technology and “the next big thing.”
“It is an expensive town to live in for property prices,” Thompson said. “It’s enviable that my middle schooler has a chrome book, but we have to make sure that we don’t have a blank check to do that sort of stuff.”
Miller and Thompson both stressed the importance of the schools thinking beyond the students who play sports and take multiple AP classes.
“We need to respect the differences and need to provide a consistent program for all the students registered here,” Thompson said.
Miller said as a mother she has seen several 19-20-year-olds coming out of Lyme Old Lyme without focus or direction because they didn’t fit a priority for the district schools.
“These kids are surrounded by kids who had high interest levels when they came into high school and felt like they were the only ones that weren’t sure,” Miller said. “How do we help those kids figure out other options?
Steven Wilson wrote to clarify and correct two aspects of this story. First, to make clear that he served on the board of his children’s school, not on the school board. Second, that he believes that “learning differences” rather than our phrasing of “learning disabilities,” more accurately describes the issue. The story was edited on 10-17-2019 to reflect these comments.