Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education Candidates Take Questions in Public Forum

OLD LYME — With less than two weeks until the municipal elections, competing slates of candidates for the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education answered questions on Wednesday evening about topics that ranged from vaccines and masks to a study of kindergarten to 8th-grade facilities and a three-year strategic plan for the schools.

The Democratic slate includes incumbent Martha Shoemaker and newcomers Alexander Lowry, Jason Kemp and Marisa Calvi-Rogers. The slate endorsed by the Republicans includes Michael Presti and Christopher Staab as well as two unaffiliated candidates, Mona Cowell and Laura Dean-Frazier.

The event was hosted jointly by the Lyme-Old Lyme Youth Services Bureau and the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce. 

Masking and vaccinations 

The majority of candidates said they support a requirement to wear masks in Lyme-Old Lyme schools as a public health mitigation strategy, and expressed the belief that the Department of Public Health had the authority to make the decision. Many of the candidates from both parties also emphasized that, until February, it was a mandate handed down by the State, and not a decision for local Boards of Education. 

Lowry and Calvi-Rogers emphasized the need to turn to experts for advice in situations of uncertainty. 

“We were one of a handful of districts in the entire country that were able to deliver in-person learning all year last year,” said Lowry. “This did not happen because of a magical bubble. This happened because of well-thought-out layered mitigation strategies, including masking, that came from experts in public health.” 

Kemp said that he supported the Department of Public Health’s ability to make decisions about masking. He pointed out that young students were still unable to be vaccinated.

“I think that the Department of Public Health does have the best interest of the state in mind. And I do think that the masks have shown themselves to be a useful tool — a very useful tool — to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Staab and Presti both said that they wanted to get out of masks as quickly as possible, but that it was necessary to “follow the science.” 

“Personally, I so very much look forward to not having to fight that daily fight with my students,” said Presti, a middle school social studies teacher in New London. He added, however, that the decision to unmask would have to come with input from the state, local health district and community. 

Colwell said she believed it would be worth taking a closer look at the data on masking and its effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID.  

“As we’re seeing the reports in the news now about the social problems children are having, maybe it’s something that we should be looking into more,” she said. 

The candidates divided nearly evenly on party lines when it came to mandating vaccinations for elementary school children. 

Colwell said that she believed in “medical freedom” and “medical choice” when it comes to the vaccine. She emphasized the need to look at the data around vaccine efficacy and to be able to have mature conversations about vaccination. 

“The data can vary however you want to look at the data, but I think it’s important that we all can sit down and talk about the data,” she said. “I have to say, even if the Connecticut State Department of Health says that vaccinations are okay for adults, I think the story’s still out on children. And I felt before we force-vaccinate any of our children, I think it’s important that we understand that the experimental trials have been completed, and we had looked at the data and then we can assess the risk on our own children,” she said. 

Staab said he felt that the district had managed to keep schools open when there was no vaccine available, and that there was no need to mandate vaccinations. 

“I think vaccination is a personal decision. It’s a family decision. And I don’t think any government agency should be telling us what to do with our bodies like that,” he said. “Our schools are safe, our children are safe, and I don’t think we’d have to go to these extreme mandates to be successful.” 

Dean-Frazier said that while she personally supported vaccines and believed that they had helped decrease the spread of the virus, she understood the difficulties that parents with young children were facing when deciding whether to vaccinate their children. 

“I’m willing to listen and to learn and to hear other people’s opinions,” she said. 

Shoemaker said she expected the decision about vaccines to be made on the federal or state level, and Kemp said he believed it was appropriate that that decision be made on a higher level than a Board of Education.

Lowry and Calvi-Rogers said that the district should follow the advice of experts when it comes to vaccination. 

“I look back at history and history has shown us that vaccinations have eradicated a number of diseases that killed people at a time where the diseases were most prominent,” said Calvi-Rogers. 

As the parent of a child with an autoimmune disorder, Calvi-Rogers said she understands the danger for people who have similar conditions. 

“COVID right now is very dangerous for her. And what makes it dangerous is the fact that there are people who are not vaccinated and [it] puts her at extreme risk,” she said. “If this is what we need to do to get rid of this disease, then this is what needs to be done.”

Diversity and equity in teaching

Candidates also split fairly evenly along party lines when it came to discussions about the idea of teaching equity in schools. All the candidates emphasized that Critical Race Theory was not being taught in Lyme-Old Lyme schools. 

But the candidates expressed a mix of ideas about how history should be taught. Colwell said she believed that Old Lyme should focus on education rather than on “the color of people’s skin.” 

“I think that the best thing that we do is keep kids feeling included and involved and make everybody feel great. Because that’s what every kid wants,” she said. “They don’t want to be picked out in a crowd for how they’re different. They want to feel included and loved.”

Calvi-Rogers said she thought it was important to expose children to a variety of cultures in order to prepare them for the future. 

“We live in a global economy. We live in a world that’s very small. Many of our students are going to leave this area and go on to careers anywhere in the world,” she said. “And it’s important, I think to build an awareness of the different types of cultures, [the] past contributions of many of these different races and cultures and create that sense of unity.” 

Kemp said the board could make sure that children are gaining “a complete picture” of the world through its work in approving and reviewing curriculum. He praised some of the cultural programs that already exist in the district, such as the Chinese language program.

“There’s been some great projects in town to teach a complete view of history within our town and within the country and within the world,” he said. “Those should be encouraged and expanded, um, you know, where possible — make sure our children are well-rounded.” 

Presti said he thought it was important to discuss how race as a construct affects our daily lives. However, he said he did not think it was appropriate to discuss “generational blame” or focus on the motivations of the founding fathers. He did say he recognized that the students in Lyme-Old Lyme had advantages, and said that students needed to be taught empathy and understanding. 

Staab said that he believed in teaching “the good and the bad” of history. However, he said that as the father of two African American boys, he didn’t agree that racism was a problem in the town. 

“We don’t have an issue here, so let’s not make a big thing out of nothing,” said Staab.

Dean-Frazier, however, who has a child with a physical disability, described a different experience. 

“It is hard when you have something different about you in a town like this, because you don’t really blend in,” she said. She added that while her son still had a great experience, she felt there was “always room for improvement.” 

“If we bring up kids and educate our kids to be empowered, to be knowledgeable, to be kind, to be respectful, to not judge someone by what they see, but get to know people and be a part of the solution, be a part of figuring stuff out and making this world a better place,” she said. 

Facilities and strategic planning

Lyme-Old Lyme is currently conducting a facilities study for four of the district’s schools: Mile Creek, Center School, Lyme Consolidated and the middle school in order to evaluate what investments need to be made in the buildings. 

Presti said it was important to look for ways the district could seek reimbursement from the state. He also said that it was important to distinguish clearly between what the district needs now versus what might be more of a luxury. 

“The economy that is currently before us does provide challenges. And I think within our own small town here we must really have a tiered system when it comes to what we want to do,” he said. 

Colwell said she recognized the critical importance of making sure that the buildings were equipped for 21st-century learning.

“We want these renovations and improvements, at the expense that they are, to be lasting for the next 20 years or so.” 

She also said she wanted to get more input from the community as the project rolled out.  

“I do find that sometimes that’s difficult, to try to get people involved with the process,” she said. “And I’m really hoping that with this project, we will be able to figure out a way to really get everybody in our town involved in working together to collaborate to make the best decisions for the taxpayers, the students and the parents.” 

Shoemaker emphasized that the last major renovations on the schools happened nearly 20 years ago. She said that the district was undertaking the project in stages in order to maintain fiscal stability. 

“This is thoughtfully plan[ned] so that as our debt service decreases we’ll be able to add new projects on … to keep the budget more stable over the coming years,” she said. “As homeowners, we all can relate that what we’re planning for our major home projects, it’s necessary to maintain our property and our budget.” 

She also said it was important to her that the buildings be a pleasant place for students to learn. 

Lowry said he wanted to focus on the Board of Education’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. 

“As a town, as a region, as a country, as a planet, we are facing a climate reckoning,” said Lowry. “big changes are on the horizon, and it is responsible to plan ahead and think about how our choices will impact the planet.” 

When asked how the candidates would address overcrowding at Mile Creek and Lyme Consolidated, Kemp suggested looking at the use of outdoor classrooms as spaces that students could rotate in and out of throughout the day. 

Dean-Frazier said it would be important to look at less-traditional classroom spaces, such as open classrooms. She also said that, in light of COVID, it was important to make sure that there was enough space for children to learn safely. She also suggested making connections with community organizations to give kids outside opportunities for learning. 

“We have a great art program in our town. We have a lot of great things that kids can go to and be outside and other ways of learning than just here on our campus,” she said. 

The strategic plan

Candidates were also asked about the goals they had for the strategic plan, which the district will discuss in a public forum on Wed. Oct. 27. 

Calvi-Rogers said that a strategic plan has multiple components, including the diversity and the quality of the curriculum, the staff who are part of the district and the district’s relationship with community organizations. 

“Are we providing quality education to our students as far as the courses that we offer? Do we have a diversity programming where we’re giving students opportunities to excel? … Do we have high quality staff? How do we retain that high quality staff that we have? And that includes at all levels — anyone that is ever in contact with a student needs to be of the highest quality. How do we develop partnerships within the community and beyond to provide our students with opportunities to learn beyond just what we offer here?” she said. 

She added that there needed to be a way for the district to measure that it was achieving the goals it set out for itself. 

“You have to be able to have achievable goals, measurements, collection of data, and be able to support that … your goals and objectives [are] being met. And that has to be reported on frequently to be able to keep track,” she said. 

Staab underscored the importance of clarity and communication with the community in formulating the strategic plan. 

“We can have the best strategic plan in the world and things like COVID could hit and we have to be flexible. We have to have different mindsets on the board and different experiences to be able to deal with that and be able to flex around and have multiple plans in place,” he said. 

Kemp said he wanted to make sure that the district was able to continue to offer the wide variety of programming that it has, so that students can have as many opportunities as possible.

“Our school system, for such a small system, is lucky to have a lot of diversity of academics, offerings of music, art, athletics … and I think that’s great. We need to make sure that we continue to support children through a diversity of paths that they might have interest [in] post-high school,” he said. 

He said it would also be critical to keep enrollment strong in the district. 

“We’re one of the few small school districts that’s had an enrollment that’s actually increased slightly  instead of decreasing like all the other districts in the area, and enrollment is important in order to be able to offer these programs or otherwise there’s not enough students to support them,” he said. 

Mental health and safety

In response to a question asking how the district can best support the mental health of its students, Colwell emphasized the importance of getting students involved in extracurricular activities, and said it was critical to make children feel “safe.” 

Shoemaker said that the district had already used some of its federal coronavirus funding to hire another school psychologist for the middle and high school. She said she believed the district should consider hiring more psychologists or social workers for the other schools.

“We have five schools and they’re very spread out,” she said. “Traveling time for a school psychologist or a social worker to get from one school to the other, in an emergency situation with a student, takes a great deal of time.” 

Calvi-Rogers said that strong mental health support for students needed to be something that involved not just school counselors, but also teachers, parents, coaches and family members. 

“We have to understand the individual stories of each of our students,” she said. “In the school I have come from, we had built very strong programs in place where we talked about kids that we had concerns about right from the first day of school, and then put them on … a plan of working with any expert that needed to be involved — families, et cetera — to make sure that each student have that plan to be able to address those specific needs.” 

The candidates were also asked to reflect on how the district can provide for the physical safety of the students. Presti said that schools can invest in technologies and implement preparedness drills. He also said it would be important to have relationships with outside experts, and he praised the district’s security personnel. 

“We have to engage the experts. You have to maintain strong relationships with the first responders and the police fire medical that deal with this on a daily basis,” he said. 

Dean-Frazier also emphasized the need for community members, parents, students and teachers to talk and to listen to one another. 

“I know it’s been hard this last year or so because we sort of got disconnected, but we need to talk … As parents, we need to speak up and talk to others if we know something,” she said. “These school shootings are people that we know. They’re not people coming from somewhere else.” 

Why You?

The candidates were also asked how they would balance the desires of the community with their own personal beliefs.

Kemp said that he believed that everyone was working toward the same goal — a school system that best serves the children. 

“The end result we’re all looking for is that our schools need to be a place for our children to grow and develop — academically, artistically, athletically and so on.” 

He said that in his role mediating between parents dealing with divorce and custody issues for the Connecticut Judicial Branch, his job was to “keep the conversation focused around the children” — an attitude he said he would bring to the board.  

Dean-Frazier said the important thing was to be available to everyone in the community so that their opinions could be brought back to the board and discussed.

“It’s really not about my opinion, it’s about how I work with everyone’s opinions,” she said. 

Presti said he would try to make decisions “without pride or passion.” He said he was prepared to work collaboratively in the best interest of the students.

“I will take everyone’s opinion as a gift to be evaluated, to be used in the best way possible,” he said. 

The candidates ended by expressing their views on what it means to serve on the Board of Education, and why they would be the best fit. 

“I want to bridge the gap between the school board and the community,” said Staab. “I want to be a person you can voice your opinions too, and come out and talk to me and be able to get your voice heard on the board,” he said.   

Colwell said she also wanted to be a voice for the community. She said that her volunteer experience has given her the chance to collaborate with people across political parties. 

“I can work with everyone in town. And if I’m honored to be elected as a board member, I want to hear from you. I’m approachable. I’m understanding. I love to collaborate with others,” she said.

Calvi-Rogers described herself as a “Renaissance person” who has worked in the corporate world, as a teacher, as a public school administrator and now as a museum educator at Mystic Seaport. 

“That Renaissance person is someone that has such a wealth of experiences, but most importantly, a passion — a passion for students. There wasn’t ever a decision that I never made that didn’t say ‘How will students benefit first?’,” she said.

Shoemaker, who was a teacher for 35 years primarily in Waterford, said she wanted to continue working on the facilities project, balancing the budget and dealing with the fallout from COVID. 

“I know that the effects of the pandemic will continue to have an impact on our students and I will make their needs a priority as we move into the next year,” she said. 

Lowry, who spent 20 years as an educator in both California and Connecticut, said that he saw being a Board of Education member as a form of stewardship. 

“Stewardship is the notion that we take care of something greater than ourselves for the greater good. I hope to leave the school district better than I found it,” said Lowry. 

Latest from Emilia Otte