As Lyme-Old Lyme’s Board of Education prepares for a sizable turnover in November, slates endorsed by the Democrats and Republicans took questions from CT Examiner about their spending priorities, about communicating with the public, the teaching of History and measures needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Four incumbent members of the Board — Richard Goulding (D), Stacey Leonardo (R), Jean Wilczynski (D) and chair Diane Linderman (D) — are not seeking re-election.
The Old Lyme Democrats have endorsed incumbent Martha Shoemaker (D) and newcomers Alexander Lowry (D), Marisa Calvi-Rogers (D) and Jason Kemp (D).
The Old Lyme Republicans have endorsed Michael Presti (R) and Chris Staab (R), as well as two unaffiliated candidates, Laura Dean-Frazier (U) and Mona Colwell (U).
Several of the candidates have backgrounds in education and working with young people.
Calvi-Rogers, a Democrat, currently works at Mystic Seaport as a museum educator, but has previously worked as an adjunct college professor teaching business and marketing, taught business and marketing at Southington High School and served as assistant principal and principal at schools in Bristol.
Mike Presti, a Republican, served 24 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He worked as a guidance counselor at the Coast Guard Academy and now teaches 8th grade social studies at a charter school in New London.
Democrat Alexander Lowry has worked in education for 20 years, first at an alternative school in California for chronically truant and expelled students, then as a naturalist teaching natural and human history at Green Meadows Outdoor School in San Francisco. For the last seven or eight years, he has worked in Connecticut as a special education teacher with LEARN, teaching middle and high school students.
Martha Shoemaker, a Democrat and the only incumbent running for re-election, taught elementary and middle school for 35 years, nearly all in Waterford Public Schools. She was also president of her union in Waterford.
Democrat Jason Kemp works as a Family Relations Counselor with the Connecticut Judicial Branch, and has worked in family court and criminal court.
Laura Dean-Frazier, who is unaffiliated, works in social services in Clinton and Old Saybrook. Prior to that, she worked for Shoreline Soup Kitchens.
Republican Chris Staab, works as a director of global quality for the medical device firm Cooper Surgical.
Mona Colwell, an unaffiliated candidate, is an agent at Ballard Insurance Agency.
Staab and Colwell each said that sending children through the local schools had drawn them into the race. Staab said he felt having two young children in the school system gave him a “vested interest.” Colwell, whose youngest child will be a freshman at the high school this year, has also worked as a substitute teacher in Region 18.
A number of the candidates praised the current board of education for what they say are improvements in communication with the public, including sending out newsletters, and making sure that meeting minutes are available online.
Kemp said he would like for school board meetings to continue to be made available online even after the pandemic ends, so that parents with small children, who might not be able to attend in person, can still listen in.
But Kemp made a distinction between the role of the superintendent and the role of the board in communicating with the greater community.
“The superintendent is kind of the executive of the school system. So, really, the superintendent has to be the main voice for a lot of things,” he said.
Presti said he would like to use surveys to solicit public opinion on important issues. Presti said he believed that official communications and policy decisions needed to come from the board as a whole, but that individual members should be available to answer people’s questions.
“[If] people come up to us, have questions … absolutely let your thoughts be known,” Presti said. “I think you should have access to the board members. Absolutely.”
Colwell said she believed the board would ideally speak as a single unit.
“I have appreciated that the board has done a great job working in a bipartisan environment,” said Colwell. “As long as the board continues to work in that capacity, where they are working together for the best interest of the town and of the students, then it would be great if it is just one voice working together.”
Lowry said he believed members had the right to express their opinions, but could also see when it might be advantageous for a board to present a unified statement.
Dean-Frazier said she thought board members should have the ability to share individual opinions with the public.
“I do feel that people should be able to speak what they’re feeling individually,” she said. “I think one of the things about a board of ed is that hopefully you are getting individuals so you have different perspectives and different ideas on things. And hopefully we can listen and learn from all of us.”
Calvi Rogers said that it was critical to provide as much information as possible to people, perhaps through periodic press releases or articles informing the community of what is happening. She said board members should be present at school events and available to answer questions that parents might have.
“The more transparent you are, the more information you provide, the better you can curtail misinformation,” she said. “The worst thing you want to do is not share.”
Colwell and Staab said greater communication also depended on people being interested and getting involved.
“It takes two. So it’s the board reaching out more and making sure that people know what’s going on and the decisions being made, But it’s also the people,” said Staab. “You can’t just scream from your backyard. You have to go get involved and be part of it.”
Kemp said he felt it was important to get input from the town and allow town residents to approve large board expenditures through a vote.
“I would certainly want to make sure that we have a variety of input from residents as to appropriate ways to address any large projects coming up and just try to keep costs at a reasonable level and bonding at a reasonable level,” he said.
He referenced the recent installation of the turf field as an example of a large expenditure that residents might have been given the ability to vote on directly.
Mona Colwell, criticized the district’s decision to put in the turf field. She said the communication with the community was poor, and said that repair to existing facilities should have been prioritized over installing a new turf field.
“I was very loud and very vocal because I wanted everybody in the community to know this is our tax money. We pay over $35 million a year for our school district. That’s huge. And I believe that the taxpayers should know where their money is going,” she said. “The school district is going to be facing $15 to $20 million in repairs in our existing facilities.”
Both Colwell and Frazier said that fixing Lyme-Old Lyme’s tennis courts, which were in need of repairs, should have been a priority.
“There’s a lot of different sports we have at our schools,” said Dean-Frazier. “I think parents and community members were a little … upset with where money was spent and where money wasn’t spent.”
Lowry said that while investing in school infrastructure was important, he has found that human resources, such as building administrators, providing educators with meaningful training and forming partnerships, can be even more critical for student’s experience.
“Investment in human resources can be really pivotal in the teaching and learning community,” Lowry said. “Often human resources are what has the greatest impact on students on a day to day.”
Regarding infrastructure, Staab said that existing facilities should be prioritized.
“I think if it’s budgeted appropriately and there’s money set aside appropriately for all expenses and there’s money left over to do extra activities like a turf field, I think that’s certainly a direction we could go,” he said. “But I think we have to take a look at the infrastructure of the school system, of air conditioning, windows, et cetera, et cetera, roofing, that may come up and we need to make sure that we’re budgeted appropriately for those.”
Calvi-Rogers said that upkeep for existing infrastructure was the first priority, but she also said that she supported the turf field. She said that turf fields can bring in revenue for the schools if districts are willing to rent them out to other groups for competitions.
“You have to look at the long-term impact. So I know it’s scary to think about that kind of money being put out for a field, but the question is, what’s the long-term impact. And in my experience from previous districts, it’s been pretty positive,” she said.
Calvi-Rogers also served on the advisory board for the African American and Latino Studies Curriculum that will be offered in high schools across the state beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that what we teach is an accurate depiction of all of the people represented in our country and where they come from, what their contributions have been, what the difficulties have been, discussing issues of racism, all of that,” said Calvi-Rogers.
Shoemaker also said she believed history needed to be taught through a lens of learning from past errors.
“I think it’s important to present to students the past and allow them to understand that, you know, mistakes have been made, and we’ve learned from those mistakes,” she said.
Presti said he was not opposed to teaching about race or racism in history, but he said that he believed it needed to be taught within the context of the time.
“At a middle school and high school level, I think you have to err on the side of caution and of primary sources and of more of a traditional tact,” he said.
Presti said he believed there should be an opportunity for students to talk about their heritage and culture, but that he opposed telling students how to feel.
“I try not to say ‘You should feel this way about what your ancestors did,’” he said.
Others expressed concern about teaching history in a manner that is skewed or has a political agenda.
“I don’t think you can change history and going back and rewriting history doesn’t make sense,” said Staab. “There’s clear documentation of all history and that’s how it should be taught. And it should be taught with an open mind, not a slanted view of it.”
“I do feel like a lot of the problems that other school districts are facing are political issues that are being pushed down from Hartford,” said Colwell. “I believe there’s no place for politics in our school districts.”
Colwell added that she might be willing to support “open discussions about different ideologies” in the upper levels of high school.
Lowry said he was cautious about offering an opinion until he could see specific curriculum proposals.
“A lot of what’s going on, to my observation, are conversations that generate a lot of heat and very little light,” he said. He added that he thought it was important for individuals to enter into conversations like this in a well-informed way.
Lowry said he wanted to focus on curricula other than just history, and particularly around forms of learning that would get children to spend time outside. He said he would like to form partnerships with the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center and the Lyme Land Trust.
“I think we’ve got a really incredible array of community resources and natural resources in Region 18 that we could leverage to enhance student experience all the way from high school to the pre-K kids over at Center School,” Lowry said.
Shoemaker, who currently sits on the board’s policy committee, said she worked on numerous policies to address the COVID-19 health emergency. She said she would like to stay on that committee and make sure things run smoothly in the coming year.
Shoemaker also said that — more than concerns about learning loss, even — her primary concern is the social and emotional health of students.
Staab said he was concerned that mask-wearing in schools could create challenges with developing friendships, and Colwell said she was worried that the masks might create educational difficulties for young children because of the inability to see facial expressions and watch the mouth form words.
“If I were a preschool teacher right now, I would really have a tough time letting those kids come in with masks anymore,” she said. “I substituted in the school district last year. I was in the Pre-K. I saw those kids. They were healthy and thriving despite having to wear those silly masks. So it’s just, like, they already did it for a year. How much longer do they have to do it?”
Calvi-Rogers, however, said mask-wearing has slowed transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and that students are able to adapt to wearing them in the classroom.
“We have to just stick with the science and make sure to implement what’s in the best interest of kids. It’s always gotta be what keeps them safe.”
Lowry said he thought health strategies like masks were especially important for the elementary schools, where the majority of students were unvaccinated. Dean-Frazier said the ultimate goal was to make it to the other side of the Delta variant while still allowing the kids to go to school in person.
“Of course nobody wants to wear [masks], but I think that it’s worth wearing them if it can keep us in school and keep us healthy,” she said.