OLD LYME — “Why are you running for the Board of Education?” was Tuesday night’s opening question to four candidates who gathered on the middle school stage to answer questions and state their positions on topics which included Region 18’s strengths and weaknesses, declining enrollment and regionalization, among others.
Republicans Suzanne Thompson and Steve Wilson and Democrats Sarah Bowman and Jason Kemp participated in “Meet the Candidates for Board of Education,” hosted by Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau (LYSB) and the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by LymeLine.com. Two candidates, Democrat Lorianne Panzara-Griswold and Republican Jennifer Miller, were unable to attend. All six are first-time candidates and will vie for three seats on the Board of Education on November 5.
The event was moderated by John A. Collins III, who read a series of written questions that each candidate had a set amount of time to answer. Collins is a 35-year town resident whose firm, Suisman Shapiro LLC of New London, serves as counsel for Old Lyme.
Thompson, who has two children in the Old Lyme schools, was randomly selected as the first candidate to speak. Thompson said she decided to run this spring because of concerns about regionalization and the board’s lack of communication concerning universal pre-K. She said she wanted to offer the board her professional skills and experience gained from work in broadcast journalism and as a legislative aide, as a communications manager for chemical companies and, currently, as an environmental advocate for land in Oswegatchie hills.
Wilson, a 15-year part-time resident who moved to town full-time this year, said he and his family were drawn by the quality of the schools, especially the district’s engineering program for his son and quality education services for his daughter who has dyslexia. He said he brings a technology background and has served on various boards for schools in New York City.
“I care about value in our budget and an excellent education for our students, a good platform for the teachers and to serve the residents of Old Lyme well.”
Bowman said she and her family moved to Old Lyme in 2010 for the schools. She has served on the boards of the Junior Women’s Club, the Connecticut River Lacrosse Club, the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center and currently serves on the board of the Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau.
“After years as a room parent and coach for my daughter and producer of musicals for my son, it’s time to serve the greater student body of our town. I do see the main priority of the Board of Ed to provide the highest level of education for each and every child in our community and I feel I bring a unique set of skills as a litigator and a parent of two amazing teenagers who have benefited from the Region 18 schools. I have finished listening to the rumors and misinformation around the town and I want to be a part of the decisions for Old Lyme.”
Kemp, who has three children in the school system, said he was running because he’d always had a passion for education. He said his job as a family relations counselor with the state working with families in the court system made him an excellent candidate for the position.
“I’m used to balancing competing interests, taking a look at finances and parenting schedules when emotions are high … and helping people keep a focus on the children, which I do think is the main role of the Board of Education.”
Region 18’s strengths and weaknesses
Wilson said the district’s greatest strength is the curriculum, giving children freedom of choice and a high level of academics resulting in high test scores.
“I honestly don’t know if I can list the greatest shortcoming. One weakness that I’ve heard is that we could have more transparency between the board and the community … I’d like to see the community have a big voice in what happens with the schools ultimately,” Wilson said.
Bowman said the diversity of opportunities, whether in the arts, sports, college preparation or military testing were among the district’s strengths.
“I agree that transparency is tough, but I think that through this process I have learned that there is a lot more ways to get the information if you seek it. Could we make it easier to get it on the web site? Probably, but the information is there … ask questions and be a part of it.”
Kemp said he knew of four families who had moved to Old Lyme for the schools. “There are so many opportunities in this town for such a small town,” he said, adding that declining enrollment was the area in greatest need of improvement and the town needed to continue to attract tuition-paying students.
Thompson said the town’s facilities, teachers and staff were among the district’s strengths. The town’s size and lack of diversity were weaknesses, she said, and the town will need to find ways to attract people to the community in order to keep taxes low.
On the topic of declining enrollment, all of the candidates agreed that the town needed to market itself to attract tuition-paying students to the district.
All four candidates were against mandated school regionalization.
Thompson said she was already in touch with Senator Norm Needleman, Paul Formica and Devin Carney, who are all against forced school regionalization, and would continue to be vigilant.
“Governor Lamont said he’s not taking it on right now, but it’s not going away,” she said.
“We need to have eyes in the back of our heads.”
Wilson said he didn’t like the idea of losing local control nor the homogenization that regionalizing schools would bring.
“The draw is our school system — we don’t want to dilute that by being like Groton or Guilford — we should be Old Lyme,” he said. “I would resist governance from afar.”
Thompson said the nine-member school board was meant to provide guidance and support and ask tough questions, but not to function as micromanagers. She said listening to the community is key to building trust.
“We need to figure out how we can solicit information from the community and make sure we are listening, paying attention and factor in what people are saying and then coming up with decisions,” she said. “I look forward to the opportunity to keep the community engaged, try to tamper down some of the mistrust or a feeling of not knowing what’s going on.”
Wilson said listening to the community — the students, the faculty, the administrators — was essential as was making a long-term commitment to the town.
“It’s important not to operate in a bubble. We need to have our ears and our eyes open and do what’s best ultimately for the students first,” he said. “This is my home and I want to do what’s best for it and I believe that everybody on this panel shares my perspective that we really want to do what’s best and what will last and serve the community well for years to come.”
Bowman said she would strive to put the town first and make fiscally responsible decisions that are in the best interest of the children.
“I will use commonsense to protect our children and the Region 18 schools that I care about so much,” she said.
Kemp said he had a commitment to the community, the ability to learn about issues and the desire to communicate with members of the town.
“I have the ability to make decisions around policy and budget, which are important topics that board [addresses]. I’m a patient and analytical person and I think those are traits that will help me on the Board of Education when issues become heated or parents want to know about what’s going on, I can help bridge that gap for the board,” he said.
Collins also read statements from Miller and Panzara-Griswold.
Miller wrote that she wanted to bring a more methodical approach to budget decisions and planning. She said increasing open communication between the taxpayers and the board was critical and pledged she would make it happen if elected.
Panzara-Griswold, who works with people with disabilities, said her work has taught her about “effective communication, integrity, social awareness, assertiveness, creativity and empathy.” She asked for the opportunity to serve the Old Lyme community on the Board of Education.
The event will be broadcast on Comcast Public Access Channel 14 on November 1, 2, 3, and 4 at 7:30 p.m.