EAST LYME — Leading up to Election Day on November 5, seven candidates are vying for five contested seats on the Board of Education, in which all but one of the incumbents are Republicans and all of the newcomers are Democrats.
Longtime school board chair Timothy Hagen is running for re-election for a two-year term in an uncontested race. The Democratic candidates are all seeking four-year terms and their party did not nominate a challenger to Hagen.
The candidates consistently identified budgetary challenges as the most important issue facing East Lyme Public Schools in the years to come, noting cuts in aid from the state and local pressure to keep from dramatically raising the mill rate.
During budget delibrations last year, the Board of Finance reduced $500,000 from the school board’s $49.5 million budget request, before advocacy from parents and others at a public hearing motivated the finance board to return $250,00 of that reduction.
The candidates described their qualifications and priorities if elected in interviews with the Examiner.
Republican incumbent Eric Bauman is seeking his second term on the school board, after first being elected in 2015.
Bauman has worked at Pfizer for 22 years as a financial professional specializing in mergers and acquisitions, strategic planning, budgeting, and forecasting. His three children graduated from East Lyme Public Schools and are now in college. In addition to the school board, he previously served for eight years on the board of East Lyme Youth Basketball and currently is treasurer for the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.
He said that, given his work experience, budgets are “his wheelhouse.”
He continued, “It’s really important that we work with the Board of Finance so that they understand the challenges that are in our budget. I think we can continuously improve the discussions between the two boards and say, if we’re going to reduce by X dollars because that’s what the town needs, then this is the implication: we’ll probably need to do A B C.”
In addition to working on the budget, Bauman listed among his priorities advocating for more technology in classrooms to reinforce math and reading skills, more investment in world language education for younger grades, and working towards having a computer for each student by the time they get to higher grades.
“I think I have a good track record over the four years of what I have done and we have done as board. I think we’ve really made a change in the East Lyme school district for a positive. I’m a firm believer in continuous improvement and I think there’s more to go, and I think I can be a strong candidate to help drive those changes.”
Republican incumbent Jaime Barr Shelburn is seeking a fourth-term on the school board, having originally be elected in 2007. She’s the current secretary of the board.
Barr Shelburn works as an assistant clerk in New London probate court. She has three children in East Lyme Public Schools. In 12 years on the board, she said she’s worked to continuously educate herself through workshops, conferences, and listening to residents.
“When I was first campaigning, I used to put my baby in a backpack and go door to door while my oldest was at preschool, and talk with people and learn,” she said. “I listen to everybody — when people call me up on the phone or if I’m out at the grocery store, I will listen to what you have to say and weigh your issues without a predetermined mindset.”
She said that reduced funding from the state and opposition to raising taxes in town were likely to make for the biggest challenges before the board in the coming years. To meet the challenge, she said the board gets to work on the budget early in the season and invites the Board of Finance to hear the school administration explain the costs.
In her 12 years as a member, Barr Shelburn said she’s proud to have worked with the board to implement full-day kindergarten, hire Jeffrey Newton as the district’s superintendent in early 2015, and most recently to renovate and redistrict the elementary schools to more evenly distribute student enrollments. But she emphasized that this is the work of a group and not any single individual.
Democratic incumbent Jill Carini is seeking her third term on the school board, having originally being elected in 2011. Carini previously served seven years on the Board of Assessment Appeals and two years on the Board of Finance. Her daughter is a graduate of East Lyme schools.
Carini described herself as “a champion for Board of Education” while admitting that she can be “too generous” at times.
Carini works as a loan officer and previously was a bank branch manager. She said that and she her husband originally moved to East Lyme for its school and noted that the school district is valuable even to residents without children for maintaining property values.
“Good school systems to some extent drive the value of your property when you purchase real estate. East Lyme’s school system I think is one of the main items that makes this such a great town.”
From her eight years on the board, Carini said she’s been proudest to see the district implement full-day kindergarten, hire current Superintendent Jeffrey Newton, and recently redistrict the elementary schools.
In the coming years, she said the board should be supporting the school administration in pushing to add more foreign language programs for younger students, improve data collection studying district programs, and explore funding for expanding preschool offerings.
Democratic newcomer Esteban Garcia said that he believes school board should try to better collaborate with the finance board and added that his own background in finance would be helpful in that collaboration.
Garcia works as an associate bursar at Southern Connecticut State University and prior to that was an assistant vice president at People’s United Bank, where he had a focus in working with small and medium-sized businesses. He also volunteered for the United Way for two years on analyzing funding requests from potential grantees.
He has one child in kindergarten in the school district and child who’s just a year old, and his wife is a teacher at East Lyme High School.
“I have over 10 years experience in finance and banking. I have a lot experience in researching budgets and making sure that organizations are maximizing their resources.”
At the same time, Garcia said it was important that the budget allows for the school district to try new initiatives to improve student outcomes and test scores.
Having a background in higher education, he said he also thinks that “it’s important that we’re not abandoning trades or anything else that is not higher ed. We should have a robust program to ensure that kids know they have multiple paths to employment, not just college.”
Democratic newcomer Barry Sheckley is Professor Emeritus in education at the University of Connecticut, where he worked as head of the Department of Educational Leadership within the Neag School of Education. He has two grandsons in East Lyme schools.
Over his career, Sheckley has researched different ways to design learning environments so that they encourage learners to take more agency in their education and develop creative problem-solving skills and initiative.
“When you set up the opportunity for kids in a learning situation where there is not a right answer and they’re given the freedom to exhibit their agency they can come up with some really terrific ideas,” Sheckley said.
Sheckley has applied this research in different ways with school systems, including two years of pro bono professional development for East Lyme Middle School teachers, as well as businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.
He added later, “My naive optimism, maybe, on my part is if I get on the school board I can bring these ideas to the front and get the school board to take these topics to the forefront and bring ideas from the research to making the most of students’ learning.”
Sheckley also currently serves on the board of UP Academy, which is a nonprofit seeking to found a school for students with brain damage, and he previously served on the Connecticut Apprenticeship Council.
Republican incumbent Ryan M. Shrader is running for his first full term after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in August 2018. He has two children at Lille B. Haynes School and a third child who has yet to start preschool, which he said shows he has a long-term interest in the schools.
Shrader works at Electric Boat as an engineering supervisor for a team of about a dozen engineers focusing on computer simulations of tactical systems.
He said his approach during board discussions is to listen, remain calm, and focus on the facts. At a public hearing in April, after the Board of Finance had moved to cut $500,000 from the school board budget, he made a presentation showing that East Lyme spends less per pupil than comparable school districts.
“That’s my approach,” Shrader said, “it’s trying to ground discussions in the relevant facts, and I was glad I was able to support the parents and support the board and make a pragmatic case as to why our spending was not out of control.”
He said declining state aid and rising enrollment will be the biggest challenges before the school board in years to come. He said the school board should look to improve outreach to parents and to the finance board on explaining their goals.
“We’d like to do that by building a stronger relationship with the Board of Finance so they understand where we’re coming from, why we’re asking for what we are and to let them have an understanding of what drives our budget, how much our budget is contractually obligated and how much wiggle room we have. I think treading an understanding between the two boards is part of that solution.”
Democrat Catherine Steel is seeking her first term on the board. She’s worked in education for over 35 years, primarily as a speech pathologist — sometimes including work in East Lyme schools — and as a college instructor in educational psychology. Her three children all graduated from East Lyme schools.
“I’ve been an educator my whole life and taught in multiple locations and multiple settings,” Steel said. “I think I understand education top down bottom up inside out. I love kids and school and doing what we can do for our teachers. I feel our teachers work hard and need to be supported and need to know that we will support them.”
She said she’d also push for communication with the finance board and the First Selectman while also encouraging administrators to seek opportunities for outside grants and regionalizing services.
But in the long-term, she said that it was worth it for the town to invest in its schools because the schools encourage people to move to East Lyme and drive up property values.
Steel said she’d like to see some of the recently renovated elementary schools hosting different community events in the evenings, perhaps as classes taught by area artists, engineers, and scientists.
Steel has also previously served on the boards of nonprofits such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl Scouts of America, and the Connecticut Storytelling Center.