GUILFORD — A “fusion slate” of Democratic and Independent candidates for the Guilford Board of Education spoke to CT Examiner about their views on the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, the importance of maintaining top-rated public schools and how the board can improve education with the larger community.
In August, The Independent Party of Connecticut endorsed five candidates, including two Democrats, for the Board of Education, in an effort to sidestep rules that would guarantee at least some members of a slate of Republican candidates affiliated with Truth in Education would be seated after the November elections.
The Democrats are incumbent Moira Rader and newcomer Arnold Skretta. The three Independent Candidates are Jennifer Baldwin, Kristy Faulkner and Noel Petra.
The independent candidates all said their decision to run for Board of Education was a direct response to the slate of candidates put forward by the Republicans.
“I basically have been compelled to run at this point because I knew that there was something I could do to protect our town,” said Faulkner, a molecular biologist with a master’s degree in education who has three children in the Guilford Public Schools.
Petra, Skretta and Baldwin praised the Guilford Public Schools as being some of the highest quality in the nation, and said their goal as Board of Education members would be to keep the districts on that course.
“It’s really important to me to keep Guilford going as strong as it has been. We are always one of the top schools in the state, as well as the country,” said Baldwin, a public defender with two children, one in middle school and one in high school.
Petra, who has two children, said that Guilford’s schools, besides benefitting the students, are also one of the most important assets of the town. He said the quality of the schools attracts people who bring new businesses into the area and maintain the town’s property values.
“Our schools attract families to Guilford from all over the region — from New York, from the Boston area. And they come here, they pay a premium for housing, and the whole point is to allow their children to benefit from one of the best school systems in the country,” he said.
Skretta said he wanted to support the administration both in developing a strong curriculum and encouraging innovation around technology, which he said was critical for students to be able to navigate in order to succeed in the future.
Rader, an architect and the only incumbent on the board, praised the district’s handing of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve done some amazing things, even through the pandemic,” she said. “We got our kids through, and teachers and staff through, a really, really challenging time. And through really careful budgeting and planning and keeping their health and safety paramount, we still manage to come in on budget.”
Rader, Faulkner and Petra praised the bi-partisanship that has historically characterized Guilford’s Board of Education.
“[The Board] was very collaborative and you could sit at a meeting and really not know what party somebody was affiliated with,” said Rader. “And that’s really why I ran four years ago — because I didn’t want to be in the politics of it. I wanted to be in the work of it. And that’s how it’s been.”
Faulkner expressed concern about what could happen if candidates were elected who would create division on the board.
“There’s got to be an expectation of kind of coming together and being willing to discuss and be open-minded and work toward a greater good,” said Faulkner. “I feel that a lot of their viewpoints are so polarizing, it would just lead to a situation where it was hard for the board to really accomplish anything across party lines.”
“The bipartisan board that’s been in place for, I don’t know, the last 15 or 20 years has done a stellar job,” said Petra. “Sure, they argue. But … when you come to the common ground in an argument, you usually get to the best place.”
Diversity, equity, Critical Race Theory
All of the candidates praised the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, which includes conducting an audit of the kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum, hiring a family equity liaison and participating in a state of Connecticut-run teacher residency program to bring a teacher of color to the district.
Petra said he saw understanding diversity itself as a skill set, and said that leaving the students without the ability to navigate in a diverse environment could place them at risk when they go to college or into the workforce.
“I think that teaching our kids to understand, accept and embrace diversity is a critical factor in their ability to succeed in the world,” he said. “If they go out into a diverse world without being prepared, they could say the wrong thing. They could do the wrong thing. And very quickly they’re thrown out of school or they’re fired from their job, or they’re … maligned on social media.”
Baldwin said that as the parent of a special needs child, promoting equity in the school district had a special meaning for her.
“When we were growing up, they were put in a room somewhere down the hall and you never saw those kids. He’s in the classroom with his peers and they are learning about him as much as he’s learning how to deal with his issues. Which I think is amazing,” she said.
Baldwin said that having people be aware of the emotional and behavioral difficulties that some children have ultimately creates greater empathy and kindness in the world.
The Republican candidates, who ran under the campaign “5 Reasons Why,” have said that the effort to promote equity in schools disadvantages high achievers. However, Baldwin, Petra and Rader said this was a misunderstanding of what “equity” actually means.
“Equity means that everybody gets the same opportunity,” said Petra. “It means everyone gets the resources that they need to achieve the best results that they can.”
Rader and Skretta also pushed back against the claim by the candidates endorsed by the local Republican party that the district was teaching Critical Race Theory, an academic lens with roots in legal studies that is based in part on the idea that race is a social construct, and that racism is embedded systematically within society, law and its institutions.
“They’re not teaching Critical Race Theory. That’s a graduate law program,” said Skretta, an attorney who has five-year-old twin daughters in the Guilford schools. “This is simply to expose students to different perspectives on various issues and give them a more complete lens … for them to develop their picture of the world.”
“This team of five … have claimed that we are Marxists and indoctrinating our children. We’re hurting our kids. We’re teaching children who are white that they are racist, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” Rader said. “I’m a mother of four and three of them are still in the school district. And to think that I would support anything that would do any of those things for our kids is ridiculous.”
Infrastructure, communication and the fallout of COVID
Beyond the diversity and inclusion work, candidates discussed issues of infrastructure, special education and how the district should continue to confront the residual impacts of COVID-19.
Petra, who works as the Deputy Commissioner of Real Estate and Construction for the State of Connecticut, said he was particularly interested in working on the board’s infrastructure committee.
“Our grammar schools are in pretty good shape, but our middle school is old,” he said. “It’s showing that it needs some work. And I think we need to look at investing in that school to bring it up to par with the rest of the schools.”
Faulkner said that she was particularly concerned about students’ mental health, and wanted to make sure they were getting the necessary support.
“I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard that, you know, suicide and anxiety are through the roof,” she said. “We’re all so mentally strained. We’ve got to find a way to get these kids what they need.”
Baldwin said she was also concerned about students’ social-emotional well-being, and emphasized the need to provide a school year that was as normal as possible, even if with masks. Skretta said the district should continue to follow the guidelines of the public health experts.
Candidates expressed different feelings about how the board could go about improving communication with the community. Petra said he didn’t believe that the complaints about a lack of communication from the Board of Education were well-founded.
“I can tell you that the people who are dissatisfied with the communication of the board are the people who aren’t getting exactly what they want,” he said. “The board has done an excellent job of being calm and professional and trying their best to work with these people. But it’s an all-or-nothing thing with this group. They either want what they want, and if they don’t get exactly what they want, then they go to the media and they say the board’s a mess.”
Skretta also disagreed with the idea that the Board of Education was not effectively communicating with the public. He said he would continue to make important information readily available to the community online.
Rader said she felt that, between the opportunity for the public to attend meetings and the fact that Board members’ phone numbers were available on the website, there were “complete open communication channels” between the board and the public.
“There’s never a time when the public isn’t part of the process,” she said.
Baldwin said that about five years ago she had become the secretary of the PTO because she wanted to improve parent-district communication, and that she would “do everything in my power” to make sure that parents felt heard and responded to.
Faulkner said she felt that COVID had created an “invisible wall” that made it difficult for families to establish and maintain relationships with the school. She said she wanted to find more informal ways for people to have their voices heard, possibly through a focus-group model.
“This doesn’t end after November 2nd. Our town is suffering and clearly there are a lot of parents who are feeling unheard and underrepresented,” she said. “I really look forward to being a bridge and making sure that constituents feel they have people they can come to and know that their voices will be heard and represented among the board and to our superintendent.”