MADISON — All six Republican and Democratic candidates for the town’s Board of Education agree that the district’s school buildings need a major upgrade.
The current Board of Education has outlined a four-part, $85 million school infrastructure plan, which includes constructing a new pre-kindergarten to fifth grade elementary school, closing Jeffrey and Ryerson Elementary Schools and the Town Campus Learning Center, converting Brown Intermediate School into a kindergarten to fifth grade school and renovating Polson Middle School.
That plan will be put to a vote at a February 2022 townwide referendum.
In interviews with CT Examiner, the candidates voiced support for the $85 million project, agreeing that it would provide a safe and healthy learning environment for Madison’s children. Some candidates also emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility and public outreach.
Democratic candidate Maureen Lewis, whose three daughters attended Madison Public Schools, said that her youngest, who is now 19 years old, suffered from asthma while she was in first grade at Ryerson. She said she believed her daughter’s condition worsened in the building.
“She had to sit on a chair during reading time instead of sitting on the carpet, like everybody else, because she would wheeze too much,” said Lewis, who has served on multiple PTO boards and as chair of the Parent Representative Council. “Most of the year, when she’s not in school, we forget she has asthma. And then when she’s in school, I’m constantly refilling the inhaler.”
According to Lewis, when her children were enrolled at Polson Middle School, the temperature in the building fluctuated so much that they would bring layers of clothing into school, in case they needed to bundle up or change into short sleeves.
Democratic candidate Steven Pynn said that besides issues of school security and ventilation, which he called “non-negotiable,” the new schools could create an environment that would help students develop the skills they will need in the modern workforce.
“Part of what that requires is the design of different kinds of spaces. Spaces that allow for project-based learning, that allow for some entrepreneurship, that allow for opportunities for students to apply their learning and not have it be just something that’s a matter of preparing for test-taking — that allow for students to work collaboratively in groups,” Pynn said.
Republican candidate Jennifer Gordon, who is the president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Ryerson and previously worked as a high school athletic trainer, said that it didn’t make sense to reject the plan if it meant spending even more money down the road trying to maintain the older buildings.
“If we go with the 10 year maintenance plan to the tune of… I want to say it was maybe $100 million… where do we stand in the future?” said Gordon. “Are we looking down the same alley of still needing to do a new building plan after we’ve already invested that sort of money in maintenance of older buildings? I’m of the motto … spend your money right the first time.”
In 2017, Madison held a referendum that would have approved borrowing approximately $34 million to rebuild Ryerson Elementary School. The referendum failed with a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Emily Rosenthal, a Democrat and the only incumbent running for re-election to the board, said she believed this referendum had some key differences compared to the one that failed four years ago. She said that some people felt that the prior referendum was not equitable, and that there was some confusion around what would happen if the referendum didn’t pass.
“That one was focused on rebuilding one elementary school, and it was also connected and sort of muddled with the closing of another elementary school,” explained Rosenthal, a licensed social worker who directed the Wellness Center at Southern Connecticut State University for six years. “It was obviously a smaller price tag than this current referendum, but it was not nearly as comprehensive.”
In 2018, members of the Board of Education, the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectman formed a working group to develop options for what to do with the school buildings. In September 2019, the Board of Education adopted the current plan from those options, and after a delay due to COVID, made plans to bring it to the voters in February.
In response to public concerns expressed at a recent Board of Education meeting regarding possible
traffic problems and lowered property values stemming from the plans, Democrats Lewis and Rosenthal, and Republican Mary Ann Connelly all told CT Examiner that traffic problems were not anything new for the town. Lewis said it might be possible to address some of the congestion by modifying drop-off and pick-up times at the buildings.
“Traffic is an issue, but that is not a reason to not have safe buildings for our children,” said Lewis.
Gordon, a Republican, said she believed that having the new Jeffrey Elementary School located on Mungertown Road, rather than the previously considered site in front of Polson Middle School, would allow for better traffic flow.
Most candidates agreed that rather than lowering property values, new school buildings would make Madison a more desirable town.
“I think the whole town benefits from an investment in our schools,” said Rosenthal. “It’s our schools and our beaches and our community that draws people to Madison.”
Pynn, a Democrat and a former principal in the New Haven school district who now works as a consultant with the Connecticut Association of Schools, said he’d spoken to parents who were taken aback by the aged appearance of the existing school buildings.
“I’ve walked through the schools and I’m going, this is substandard,” he said. “They look tired. They’re old. They are not impressive.”
Pynn added that the quality of the buildings was also important for attracting high-quality faculty and administration.
Gordon said she was concerned that the old buildings might discourage families from moving there.
“As a young family moving to town, your first impression is driving up to the building,” said Gordon. “When new families see the investment that a town places into its school system — and that’s in terms of quality of teachers and also in quality of facilities — I think that does nothing but improve … a potential buyer’s perspective of the town.”
“An expensive undertaking”
Republican candidate Christine Maisano, who has a background in financial accounting, underscored the expense of the project, and said that the finance team should make sure that every possible source of funding was explored in an effort to spare taxpayers the full brunt of the cost.
“It is imperative that the plan provides clear and definitive answers about all aspects of the project including, timeline, cost, funding source, and location, to name a few. This is an expensive undertaking and should not be taken lightly,” wrote Maisano in an email to CT Examiner.
Maisano, who served for more than eight years as a member of the East Haven Board of Education, said that while she understood there was a definite need for the infrastructure overhaul, she felt that the project needed to be backed with “comprehensive data.”
She also stressed the importance of presenting clear information to the public. Maisano said she wanted to have tours where parents could come to look at the current school buildings and public forums where members of the community could come and ask questions.
“It is clear that many residents of the town lack a full understanding of the project. It is the job of the BOE to educate our citizens on the needs of the district and the benefits the students will gain from these improvements,” Maisano wrote.
Rosenthal, a Democrat, said the current board was planning more public outreach this fall. She praised the work that the committee has already done.
“I think the plan that we have is an excellent one. I think it’s comprehensive. We had a really successful Tri-Board working group that met over a long period of time regularly to review all the options,” she said.
COVID, test scores, and homework
Several of the candidates said that, beyond the facilities project, a critical focus for the school year would be addressing the fall-out of the COVID pandemic — supporting teachers, staff and students, making sure the necessary health and safety measures were in place and addressing any academic losses the students might have experienced.
“The health and safety of the children is number one,” said Connelly, a Republican, and a retired pediatric nurse. Connelly also worked for 25 years as a school nurse. Two of her ten grandchildren, Connelly said, currently live in Madison, and she has lived in the town for 25 years.
“I have this big vested interest in the Board of Education and what is going on right now,” she said.
Rosenthal said that while the district was fortunate to have had elementary and middle school children in classrooms since last October, the district still faced challenges. She said the public health situation was still extremely fluid.
“It’s been a challenging year for our staff and our teachers. So that is a priority for me — making sure we’re keeping kids and teachers and staff safe and in school and in-person as much as possible,” Rosenthal said.
“I don’t think we yet even know the full scope of the impact the pandemic has had on our students from an academic and social and emotional standpoint,” said Lewis. “I think we absolutely need to look very carefully and closely and thoroughly at all of those things.”
Maisano said the Board of Education needed to find a way to navigate the wide range of opinions of parents and students about how to go forward with the school year.
“For parents, the emphasis lies on creating normalcy for their children in a safe and effective way. However, normalcy is an ambiguous term and each and every parent and student have a different view of what they consider “normal’…” Maisano said. “Our students deserve and need to interact, socially not only for educational growth but more importantly for personal growth.”
Maisano said one of her goals was to create more forums and ways that members of the public could access members of the Board of Education.
Gordon said that, along with a commitment to fiscal responsibility, if elected, she would like to change the “no-homework policy” for younger grades.
“Even some minimal homework would instill in our students a sense of responsibility and time management skills,” Gordon said.
Rosenthal also said she wanted to continue to support the superintendent, Craig Cooke.
Pynn said that he felt the board’s job was to give the superintendent the ability to implement the district’s mission statement and create “an extraordinary public school system.”
“But in order to do that, it has to have the resources and the support,” Pynn added. “This community has to represent a community that believes strongly in public education and supports. If we don’t — as in with the last superintendent and the referendum not passing — guess what? They leave. And then you begin a downhill path.”