Stamford Board of Education Candidates Take 8 Questions

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STAMFORD — Six candidates are vying to fill three open seats on the Stamford Board of Education this November — Democrats Michael Hyman, Daniel Dauplaise and Versha Munshi-South and Republican candidates Lisa Butler, Diane Melchionne and Joseph Andreana Jr. 

The candidates spoke with CT Examiner about how the district can continue to support students who are making up for the losses of COVID, the Board of Education’s role in facilitating relationships between teachers and administrators, and the idea of bringing equity into the district’s grading system. They also shared their thoughts on last year’s debate over class scheduling at the high school and for providing opportunities for students who choosing a variety of life paths after graduation.

By rule, no more than two of the three open seats can be filled by Democratic candidates.

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The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Michael Hyman

CTEx: What are the most important issues for you if elected to the Board of Education? 

Munshi-South: I would say the health and safety of our students is the priority. And when I say health and safety, I mean that on all levels. Physical health, making sure that whatever else comes out of COVID, that we’re staying on top of those practices and protocols. Mental health — we need to make sure that students and teachers are well taken care of. Teachers in particular, I think we’ve put a lot on them. They need resources for how to support students who are coming in. 

In Stamford we have some infrastructure issues. We have some buildings that are in need of renovation, and so our kids and teachers need to be going to clean, safe buildings that are free of mold. Mold is a big issue here. We have a long-term facilities plan for repairing the buildings. And so that aspect of health as well, I think we really need to prioritize. And then second to that is academic supports and academic excellence. We’re finding research now that early-grade reading and upper elementary and middle school math are places in particular where kids have really struggled and have just enormous gaps going into this school year. And certainly there’s federal funding. There’s lots of support coming in, and we need to make sure to align those things — making sure that the way that we’re spending money is really addressing the needs of the kids. 

And the only way we’re going to know that is really having a robust way of collecting data and responding to what we’re seeing. What could be happening in one school in Stamford could be really different from another school. And so we need to have a really good sense of how our kids are doing who needs extra support and make sure they’re getting them. We also want to make sure that kids who are performing at grade level aren’t being held back because there are some kids who do need quite a lot. So we need to have a data-driven approach to assessing our students academically and making sure that whatever it is that they need, they’re really being met and challenged at their level.

Andreana: The priorities that I have are really making sure that our kids and our staff are safe. With the current climate that is going on with this world, safety is of the utmost importance — not only physically, but also mental health and stress. I want to make sure kids go to school feeling safe, and the stress that they have is worrying about did they study enough for the exam or what is needed to succeed in education rather than am I going to have someone make fun of me, beat me up, or bullying and things of that nature? I don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want that to be in our schools. The other thing is, I want to bring our education back up to a standard that is not below the Connecticut average, but above the Connecticut average. I want to make sure that we have a rigorous curriculum that is actually holding kids to get to the next level and focusing on development of our kids.

Dauplaise: I think the most important thing that we’re going to be doing over the next three to six, really nine years, is managing the construction of new school buildings and renovation of schools in Stamford, through the Board of Ed working with the state delegation. We are now going to get a 60% reimbursement on new school construction and, and in addition, we’ll have an 80% reimbursement on the reconstruction of West Hill High School, which is badly in need of reconstruction. Those are very large projects. The Board of Ed needs to ensure that they’re done efficiently — effectively. We need to be good stewards of taxpayer funds and make sure that we’re building schools which serve the interest of all of our students in Stamford. 

Melchionne: As we’re going and meeting with many of our Stamford Public Schools, our principals, and taking some tours and understanding what sort of things are going on, we’re seeing quite a few discrepancies between the offerings of every school. And I think it’s really important, as we think about academic excellence, for all students to ensure that every school has the same opportunity. And so understanding, what are the best practices that we’re seeing with schools that are fully staffed in terms of full-time teachers, subs, paraeducators, et cetera. What are they doing that’s different from other schools? How do we leverage those best practices and bring them over to other schools? The biggest focus of the Board of Education should be helping the superintendent focus in on how we bring academic excellence to all students in Stamford Public Schools. And when you see these sort of discrepancies between schools, you’re wondering, why is that happening and what’s being done about it to rectify it?

Hyman: We’ve got to do a better job at managing our facilities and building the new schools that are so important for our students. But I think equally important is what’s going on inside the buildings. And what I mean by that is —  how are we educating our children, and who’s doing it, and what qualifications do they have? Are they familiar with how to reach out to those students and families that have been marginalized and to bring them in? I feel as though we’ve had a system that, for too long, has delivered an excellent education for a certain group of students in our town. 

Stamford has nothing to be embarrassed about. We send as many students to Ivy League schools and to the elite colleges that are available, as any other town surrounding us — Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan. But we don’t do as good of a job with some of the students on the other side. To the extent that we have teachers who do an excellent job with reaching our top students, we should have enough expertise to figure out what are the programmatic things that we should be doing with those students who have had difficulty in our Stamford schools— and difficulty, not just at the high school level, but at middle school and upon entry to the school system. Our educators should be coming up with inventive ways of reaching out to parents and to students that we’ve not done before. It’s one thing to have a parent night. It’s one thing to have parent and teacher conferences. It’s quite another to do those things inside the neighborhoods and do them at times when people are actually available – to hear the message and to collaborate with parents who want the best education for their children as well. 

Butler: I’ve seen a lot over my 12 years of dealing with the public school system. And I think since Covid, I’ve really seen the academics go downhill a little bit, and I just feel like we need to raise the bar for all students. They’ve eliminated the midterms and finals for two school years. I understand the covid year we needed to do that, but the second year I didn’t think that was really appropriate because you have kids that are going to go off to college that don’t know how to study for an exam or take a cumulative test. So that really concerns me. The other thing that I want to focus on are facilities. We’ve had a lot of deferred maintenance that hasn’t been done over the last several years. We used to outsource the maintenance and it didn’t appear like much was getting done under them. We have an in-house company now and they’re doing a fantastic job, but they need to catch up for years of neglect. 

Diane Melchionne

CTEx: How should the district be addressing student academic achievement and social-emotional health post-pandemic? 

Munshi-South: We need to see — what are the mental health needs, the academic needs. Some of that data has been collected, but in Stamford we really have a shortage of collecting actionable data. For example, the district did a survey of students and parents and teachers in the spring. We still haven’t seen that survey data. So what we don’t want to do is throw a bunch of money at a bunch of different things without really understanding the needs. And so that survey could have given us and I think hopefully will give us at some point really the data that we need to act on in terms of what are the needs of students and families and teachers.

Similarly, the district has been engaged in a two year long curriculum audit that we still have not seen the results of. That information from that audit should really drive what curricular resources we’re spending money on, what training we’re spending money on, how we’re getting teachers ready for whatever new curriculum they need to be using.

Andreana: I have three kids who have gone through the pandemic and are in the Stamford Public School system. So I’ve seen firsthand what they’ve lost. One thing that really hit home was last year when my daughter took the SBACs and it incorporated third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade. The stress that that put on her was unbelievable. The other thing that I would like to do is try to evaluate these kids on where they are today based on what they lost not only in school, but mental health and the effect on child development and trying to build programs with the city of Stamford to help the kids to ensure that they have the early childhood development that they need to have social skills as well as, getting back to understanding and having the mind power to be able to focus. We should be building programs within the schools as well to have kids evaluated and seeing are they behind in math? Well, if so, let’s build a program and an enrichment to get the kids that are behind.

I think some of the constant testing adds to some of the emotional issues that are going on. In elementary school, there’s like almost a test or two a week and we need to try to see, is it causing anxiety or is it helping kids learn and retain? We need to look at our social workers and try to make sure that we have the right balance of social workers to the students in each school to ensure that they have the capability to talk to someone who can help them. There are rumors that say kids stand on the green circle, and have sat there for over a half hour before they can be seen. And that is probably because we don’t have enough people to help them, and we need to look at that to make sure that kids have the right support for emotional development. 

Dauplaise: I think probably the social emotional stuff is what we really need to focus on, especially among our cohort of third, fourth, and fifth graders right now. A fourth grader would’ve missed part of the second grade due to the pandemic. And that’s a critical age. Kids are learning to read. Between kindergarten and second grade is when we expect that all Stamford students will begin to master reading. There have been learning losses and I think we need to be doing more to address them. And I’m hopeful that in the next budget, we’re going to include supports for that particular cohort of students. Which, I think we’ll basically bear the memory of that pandemic in terms of their academic development for quite some time.

Melchionne: The SBAC scores were released, we saw a huge drop. [But] those numbers were decreasing prior to the pandemic as well. So I really do think we need a complete overhaul. But I think what we should look at is understanding where the are kids struggling most. One of the things that was interesting to me to find out was, um, we removed — they call it tracking —  the grouping by academic level. It’s really hard for teachers to teach to five different academic levels in one class. I think we should be thinking about, are there ways that we can take academically like-minded students in levels and bring that back so that they all get the focus that they need. I hope that we can think about ways where we could pull out the students who are really struggling, get them into more specialized classes where we can focus on their needs and specifically the content that they’re struggling with.

In terms of social-emotional, I think we are hearing from guidance counselors and school psychologists that we need additional help. There’s, for example, a green circle in schools where students, if they’re having a hard day, can go stand on the circle and then talk to somebody. But we’re also hearing that a student could be standing there for very long periods of time before they’re able to have a conversation with somebody. I don’t know too much about the logistics of this every day, but I also want to say that it may not take a guidance counselor or a psychologist to have the conversation. Sometimes kids just want to talk to somebody. And so are there opportunities for teachers or administration to step in and just say, “Hey, let’s go for a walk around the school.” and leverage all adults. I’d also recognize very much that our teachers are working extremely hard. Right now we have a number of openings. Teachers are being asked to cover classes because we don’t have subs. They are burnt out. I think with the recruitment and retention person that Dr. Lucero put in place, we should have a goal to have all of these roles filled very quickly and have a good bench of subs so that our teachers don’t have this extra burden. 

Hyman: The most immediate thing of coming back from Covid — and we saw signs of it immediately when people were coming back into the classrooms, teachers and students alike — is that we seem to be extremely fragile on all sides. We saw an uptick in the number of students being dismissed from classes or from school or being suspended. And so that social emotional part of it is extremely important as to asking a question: How are we doing? How are we feeling? And how do we manage this? So the investments in healthcare centers at the schools is an important item for us to do. 

There should have always been an expectation that the amount of time that we spent away from in person learning that this particular gap was going to occur. The testing shows that it has. We should not have been surprised by it. But what we should be doing is making sure that we’re not only doing things to remediate what’s happened, but that we’re also doing things to get us back on track with where we need to be. And I don’t want to see us return to normal, because normal means that we go back to the way it was — that we end up operating two school systems in one building: one track that allows those students with parents who can afford it, are all doing well and headed off to the Ivies, and the other track is for the others who we seem to forget. And I believe that we shouldn’t forget anybody in the school building, whether it’s a student that comes from a home or a life of trauma or poverty, or whether it’s just the regular working class student or a middle class student or those whose families are affluent and who do quite well. Our school buildings should allow all of those students to be a part of and feel welcomed in those buildings. Right now, I don’t think that we’re doing the job that’s necessary.

Butler: I think we have to start in elementary school and middle school. I think we need to start implementing some after school programs, more tutoring programs so that we can make sure these kids are caught up so that when they get to high school, they’re not falling further behind. So I think the answer is partnering with community programs in Stamford to provide tutoring so that these kids are caught up. Because some families can afford to pay for tutoring, but not everyone can. The teacher situation and recruitment is a big issue that falls under Dr. Lucero and her team. But it would be good to try to do an analysis of the surrounding towns and what they’re paying teachers and what we’re paying substitutes, to see if we are similar, because why aren’t we able to attract teachers and recruit them? And that’s really a function of central office.

Versha Munshi-South

CTEx: How do you believe the controversy over scheduling at the high schools should have been handled?

Munshi-South: The kinds of questions that I would’ve asked would’ve been about the feasibility of rolling out a schedule like that, which eventually became the, one of the reasons why the Board of Ed came out strongly against it — was that the school principals said, “we can’t do this.” That question should have. Months before it actually did come up, because scheduling at a high school level is very complicated. And so if you can’t make a schedule, you can’t make a schedule and kids won’t get the credits they need. There’s, I think, a level of questioning and engagement with staff and with administration that just didn’t happen that as a Board of Education member, I would have called for much earlier in the process. 

Andreana: When you have people who are your frontline workers telling you it is not a good idea, and those are principals, teachers and family members, parents, even students, you have to listen and then hear them and try to take that under consideration. We should focus on what’s going to help the community of Stamford. And that community in Stamford said it wasn’t going to work, so it should never have gotten to the point where it was and where it had gone. 

Dauplaise: My position is that that was a decision to be made by the administration, and that interference by the board was actually probably inappropriate there. In terms of the actual schedule, 4×4 versus A/B, I think both have merit. That’s the reality. They both have advantages and they both have disadvantages. And I think ultimately what happened was the administration decided that some of the advantages of the A/B outweighed the disadvantages. And I think that’s fine.

I think that unfortunately the relative rancor in the process was probably due more to the fact that the entire system was under a great deal of stress from Covid and, had Covid not occurred, the transition from a seven period schedule to a block schedule would’ve been a great deal smoother. And so it’s unfortunate that those two things happened at the same time. The state of Connecticut mandated that essentially the number of credit hours change. And so that’s why the transition had to occur last year. And so in theory, we would’ve had an extra year to transition, but because of Covid it was all put on hold. 

Melchionne: I certainly understand the challenge of communicating and executing change management. I don’t think that is an easy feat by any means. However, the superintendent was hearing from teachers, administration, parents speaking up consistently, and saying that they had very deep concerns about this move to this schedule. There were logistical nightmares that were going to happen, and it seemed like all of those were falling on deaf ears. And so I don’t think it was handled well. I think Dr. Lucero could have done a better job of pulling back for a moment, understanding where the shortfalls were, getting that feedback and then addressing them head on. And it was disheartening to see that it took Principal Forker and Principal Rinaldi to step up and say “This is not going to work. Please. You have to stop.” for it to take a pause and I don’t think it should have had to get to that point.  

Hyman: As a political — and I mean with a small p — matter, it was probably the right thing to do at this point, to lay it aside and to go forward because it was taking up so much energy and fuel. Everything should be on the table as far as how we get to that point where we can deliver to students an education that allows them to interweave the idea of career exploration so that it should not be outside of school. There should be some involvement, some intersection between what I learned in school and that [career] opportunity. The business community in this town, and I’m talking about the larger corporate community, local private businesses, would be interested in assisting the Stamford Public Schools with career exploration with young people being involved. It’s possible to make something like that work, but to do it, there is some scheduling that would be required to make that happen. 

Butler: I was very vocal and not a fan of the 4 x 4 from the start, and I was very disappointed that it took until June for the two principals of Stamford High and Westhill to come out and outline why it wasn’t going to work. I figured once that letter came out, it would’ve ended the 4 x 4 conversation. And then it took a Board of Ed member to really put the brakes on it. They needed a certain number of Board of Ed members to vote against it. So I’m disappointed that we took so much time and wasted so much time on that when we should have at some point said, okay, it’s not going to work. But I was not a fan of it the whole time. I just looked at learning loss — if you weren’t guaranteed to have your math or English class the second semester, and then therefore you had it a full year later, I didn’t think that would be good for any student.

Joe Andreana Jr.

CTEx: What is your position on how grading should be handled in the district?

Munshi-South: There’s a lot of misinformation about what grading for equity is. At the middle and high school level, teachers basically make up on their own how they’re going to grade, which means that a child like my kids who are in middle and high school, as they go through their day, they’re going from adult to adult, and they each can have radically different ways of grading students. And the equity piece comes in because that difference between teachers really allows for bias in grading.

Understanding teacher criteria from teacher to teacher and making sure. Consistent is really important. So I think grading for equity moves us in the direction of saying, it’s not about a bunch of subjective measures like participation or things like homework or attendance. Grading for equity is really about — Are you learning? Because the problem is that when we sort of inflate their grades on things like attendance, participation, homework, it gives parents a really skewed perception and kids a skewed perception of how the kid is actually doing with regard to grade level standards.

Andreana: I don’t think grading for equity actually does a service for anyone. It creates a bit of comfort to not doing the work that you need to do. What I mean by that is, if I don’t give a homework assignment in, in the past I used to get a zero. Today you get a 35, or in some cases you get a 60. The reason that I think we are talking about this grading for equity is the way that we are scoring and evaluating our kids. They are 65% for quizzes, in-school participation and evidence of learning, 35% for homework assignments. When you have two things that you’re evaluating someone on and showing if they’re going to pass or fail in their grades, you have a major impact when someone doesn’t do something, and we need to go back to where we were pre-pandemic, where they had four or five criteria that would actually allow the students to be evaluated for their grade. I think we should just evaluate our grading as a whole, And then looking at, is there a need for grading for equity?

Dauplaise: I think grading for equity, much like critical race theory or some of these other buzzwords that you hear in the news, really kind of obfuscates what’s actually going on on the ground. There is a movement generally in education to move away from grading practices that can be viewed as punitive or grading practices that either reward or punish. Things that are outside the scope of academic mastery. And so for example, one of the things that’s talked about frequently is the use of the zero. In terms of just pure math, [a zero] is destructive to a person’s average.

I think more generally, education is moving toward grading practices which are much more surgical and granular in expressing whether or not a student has mastery of a subject. And I believe in that. If a student understands the concept that’s being taught, we should grade them appropriately and we shouldn’t essentially dock them for things which may or may not be outside their control.

Melchionne: While I think it’s important, certainly, to show mastery in a subject matter, I do believe that it’s important to include things like participation, timeliness, et cetera, because those are life skills. When we have those included in schools, that teaches kids for the long run. So, for example, you can’t just sort of have this thing where you can show up 15 minutes late to class, you don’t have to show up at all because in the real world, public transport runs on time. You have to show up on that time or you miss that train, that bus, et cetera. So that is a very important skill that we’re teaching students. I think participation’s also super important, whether you go into a trade or you go off to college and then go into a corporate setting or wherever your life may take you, all of those things require communication. How you communicate with people is incredibly important and you only get to being a better communicator when you are actively participating in classes — when you’ve had a lot of exposure to communication styles.

I think if we want to split out the grade and say, this grade in particular is around the mastery of the curriculum and it’s based off of tests, et cetera, but there is this other piece of the grade based off of participation, timelines, et cetera, I think that’s fine, so parents can understand — okay, is it that my child is not doing their homework or is it that my child doesn’t understand the content? And then if they need to focus in one of those areas, they at least know where and how. But I certainly believe very strongly that when it comes to grading, including things like participation, homework … I think these are really important skills that we’re teaching students. So to remove them completely, to me, would be an absolute detriment to the long term success of our students.

Hyman: The book [Grading for Equity] really does ask you to consider — are we grading the right things? No one has a conversation with you about how to grade — so you arrive at the classroom and you make your decisions about what’s important to you. I do believe that it’s important for us to figure out a way [so that] it’s okay to ask the question and to have the conversation. What are we afraid of about having the conversation around what this looks and feels like? 

I do know that many of those students who are on the other side of the scale, who have been marginalized, that the grading systems that many teachers use are sometimes so punitive as to be part of the reason why we push people away from even attending school. And so if we want to ignore that and to say, “Well, I’m here, I’m teaching, and they better just simply get the work done,” it removes that idea that teachers should be connectors – I think — in helping young people to understand that we respect them, we value them, there’s something important that you, as a teacher, are delivering to them, and to engage them in a way that allows them to respect the teacher back and to respect the idea that an education is important. So I think that there are things in the idea of grading for equity that are important, that need to be asked, that need to be discussed, and some of them that need to be implemented as well.

Butler: What I’m not in favor of as far as Grading for Equity is giving kids a passing grade, even though it’s maybe a 60, if they didn’t do the assignment. And that’s where accountability of students — we really need to step that up. If someone’s not turning in an assignment, they shouldn’t be given a zero. Perhaps the teacher needs to work with them and find out why they aren’t turning in assignments. There are after school tutoring programs that I’m aware of at the high school level, and perhaps they have to make those mandatory, but no one should be getting a passing grade for not doing the work. Because when you graduate high school and you go off to work at a job, you still have to show up on time. You still have responsibilities. And if we’re not teaching those, then we’re not giving these kids the skills that they need wherever they end up after high school. So I’m not a fan of giving a grade for not doing any work, for grading for equity. I’m also not a fan of giving someone a lower grade if they earned a higher grade.

Daniel Dauplaise

CTEx: Do you believe there are enough pathways available for all students — those thinking about going to a two-year or a four-year college, as well as those going into trades or straight into the workforce? 

Munshi-South: I believe that Stamford Public Schools is on track to developing a robust set of pathways for students. Those pathways will include career development, workplace learning, and career-connected coursework in a variety of fields. Our district is looking towards the future and creating a diversity of opportunities for students to pursue their interests, passions, and be set up for economic and social mobility. In the coming years, the district will be tasked with following through on these plans, monitoring the effectiveness of these programs, and making adjustments based on feedback, other data, and the changing workplace landscape.

Andreana: I think we need to build upon that. I think we need to actually recognize kids at an earlier age. I think at middle school, we should have some tracking to see — how are they trending in the school and where are they moving towards — so we can recognize things early enough. Then when they get to high school, we can make sure that they’re getting the skills to survive and be productive members of society, based on the Board of Ed’s vision statement. And we should see, are these kids developing at a later age [toward going] to college? If not, maybe we should have our counselors talk to them about, are you interested in trades? And try to find out what we can do to give them the right tools to be successful in their lives and actually help them create a pathway to have a family, to help society and be a part of society and be successful.

Dauplaise: I think one of the things we do a pretty good job of is making sure that students do have a wide variety of opportunities. One of the things that’s talked about more often, but perhaps less often in Stamford, because we’ve got right tech — if you’re interested in the trades you go to Right. Tech —  I think that the fact that we’ve gotten away in high schools  from things like, it’s a bit of a dated term, but home economics, shop and those, those sorts of things — classes to teach you practical skills in life. I think t\hose are valuable things and we shouldn’t get away from them. There should be a basic set of skills in life that we eject you from the Stamford school system and you should have them. So I definitely support wider avenues like that.

Melchionne: I think we could be doing a lot better on the trades in particular. I think we certainly talk a ton about going to college. But I don’t think we’re doing enough with the trades. I think if we got a lot of students to understand the importance of trades, they could lead very successful lives in the future. The folks that are in these professions today, they are going to retire. And when they retire, there is nobody left in these trades. And so the people left in these trades are going to be able to charge whatever they want. We are always going to need electricians. We are always going to need plumbers. I am very, very, very excited about Dr. Berlage’s focus on apprenticeships, internships, career readiness. And I think one of the things that we should all do as just Stamford residents in particular, is link her staff up with private companies in the area to see where students could intern and understand, “Oh, do I want to go into a corporate setting? Do I want to go into a restaurant? Do I want to go into a trade?” Anything like that. So, you know, I’m excited for the work that she’s doing and what that program can blossom into. I think that’s what we really do need.

Hyman: We should use our opportunities within education to introduce students and to find out what their interests are, and then to allow them, along with us, to build a pathway to get there, to whatever that might be. There’s been resistance in the Stamford Public Schools recently from the current board to the idea of looking at other pathways for students. And I think that’s essentially because we’re hearing from one group of parents more than others, who believe in the time-tested and true approach [of] you come to school, you do well academically and you get into the best college. 

But I also know that there are other students who may not go immediately to college, but may do some other things first. And we are not giving voice to and listening to that. Those programs that offer an opportunity to expand, for internships, for example, to creating work-study type programs that allow an opportunity for students to mesh both what they’re learning in the classroom and what they might learn by being in an internship with a corporation or a not-for-profit — we’ve missed something by not doing that. I know that those things actually work, so we should not offhandedly just simply reject it because it’s taking a student out of the school building.

Butler: For the college students, yes, I think there’s enough challenging courses. What I would like to see, though, is that the midterms and finals are brought back, and for the kids that are going to a trade school, I would love to see more courses offered in woods, engineering and metals. Where I grew up in Litchfield County, we had a class in that and it was mandatory. So I do think that we could do a better job at offering more classes for kids that are going to go to a trade school. And then if they’re going to go directly to work, I know that Claudia Berlage is working on this Career-to-Pathways program — and I don’t know the details of that yet, but if it’s for kids that are going to go directly to work, it’ll be a great opportunity. And we just need to hold our kids accountable to show up to school as well.

Lisa Butler

CTEx: What do you think is the Board of Education’s role in facilitating communication between the teachers and the administration? 

Munshi-South: I think just as any good manager is a supervisor, but also is a coach, is a support, helps the person get better at their job. Asking those questions like – “Okay, what is your community engagement plan in order to roll out this change?” “How are you going to use quantitative and qualitative data to make a decision?” I think that under the Board of Ed’s function as being a good manager is really pushing with those questions. At the end of the day, there are some things that are just going to be the superintendent’s decision and the Board of Ed just has to be okay with that. But I think that along the way, there are ways that the Board of Ed can motivate and influence and coach the superintendent and her team in a way that allows for the development of the superintendent. And it just doesn’t come at the end as something punitive or evaluative, but actually works in partnership with the superintendent to make the best decisions possible.

Andreana: One of the functions of the Board of Education is to be the boss of the superintendent and make sure that the superintendent is meeting goals and achieving what is going to help our school system. I am going to hold the superintendent to the goals that are out there and make sure that we evaluate that on a regular basis and make sure that we are helping our students, taking care of our teachers, and making sure our staff and all of the community is actually getting the best education in Stamford that it could receive. I also want to implement smart goals, where we actually have something that is measurable and has a timetable. That will actually help drive direction. And I think that that could help us in making sure that the superintendent we have today is driving to the needs and aligned with the teachers and the families to make sure that the education is giving the excellence that we so deserve for our kids in our future.

Dauplaise: One of the things that I personally suggest to the administration regularly — and they do — is including representatives of the bargaining unit whenever major decisions are made. Representatives of the bargaining unit sit on all the major committees. I think that’s probably the most effective way. But I think also,there’s often a disconnect between what’s going on on the ground and what’s going on in the school administration. So I think that just to work on a day to day basis to try and remedy that, that’s probably the best thing that we can do.

Melchionne: One of the things we normally see — and I believe that this is available today for the Stamford Public Schools teachers — is an engagement survey. I think that should be a very regular occurrence, that happens maybe bi-annually, and something that should be reviewed by the board to understand what is the sentiment by our teachers and our administration and our faculty. I very much believe that the superintendent’s role is to be the CEO of the school system, and the board should just be the group that manages the superintendent’s performance. It’s also the board’s responsibility to hold the superintendent accountable for those deliverables. And I think one of them should be employee engagement and sentiment. We should have a superintendent that can rally her staff and her teams and get them to collaborate with one another, and she should have leaders in place that certainly do that underneath her as well. I think it’s the board’s responsibility to have a gauge on that and certainly hold the superintendent accountable to a high employee engagement.

Hyman: The acrimony that has occurred between the teachers and the superintendent need not be. I believe that this particular board has excessively ginned up a fight that has not been useful for the school system or for our students. We need to be able to put our students first. Votes of No Confidence by the teachers union or by school buildings are an item that maybe we should listen to, but that’s not the only voice that’s there. There are parents out there who are saying, “I want my child to be educated. I want us to look at various ways to do that.” And some of those ways are different from what may be in a union contract or what a teacher may want to do or a group of teachers may want to do. But we should not be so averse to risk that we’re unwilling to take a look at new ideas that may offer a better opportunity for us. I think that we need not have a tin ear when we’re listening to ideas or be so prepared to reject them, as opposed to — let’s sit back, analyze them thoroughly, rationally, and come up with what’s best. We should be able to come to the table and actually hear everybody out. We can’t educate students without teachers, and we certainly shouldn’t do it without parents, and we’ve got to be able to listen to the students as well.

Butler: I’m a communicator. I’m always around. I’m always listening to parents and teachers. I feel that we have to keep the lines of communication open and we have to listen to these teachers. Not every concern will be valid, but if you’re hearing the same thing over and over from a group of parents or teachers, the Board of Ed really needs to take that into consideration, and I just wish there was more opportunity for the public and teachers to communicate with the Board of Education. It’s very difficult. They used to provide phone numbers and now they don’t. They only provide an email. And I understand that being on the board is a volunteer position, but you really need to be connected with the community. There were times when I would contact a Board of Ed member, and it would be like two weeks or sometimes not even a response. And if I’m elected, I wouldn’t do that.

CTEx: What does the word “equity” mean to you? Is it something Stamford Public Schools should be striving for, and how is the district doing in achieving it? 

Munshi-South: Equity in education is the process of ensuring that every child has everything they need to be successful, like resources, teachers, and interventions. Equity calls for understanding the unique challenges faced by individual students and providing additional structures that help them overcome those barriers. While SPS currently directs extra resources to the most vulnerable students, it is essential for the district to regularly be evaluating the effectiveness of those supports and adjusting them as necessary. There is also a need to engage in a regular feedback cycle with students, families, and teachers to assess the quality of student supports. Finally, our district would be well-served by a transparent approach to reviewing academic and school culture data so that we can examine how students in various demographic groups are performing at each school, and where there might be gaps in access and opportunity.

Andreana: Equity should be something that we do strive towards. Not everybody has the same level of financial backing to provide the services that they need to succeed. So, with that, I totally believe that there’s an equity need. However, there are students who are of special needs who may need to have more services and funds than others. Now, do they still have the same tools to be successful? Yes. But do they need to have something that would be more Paraeducators, more sensory things to kind of help them to have the ability to learn and stay focused? Yes. So we have to look at things across the board. 

Dauplaise: Equity to me means that everybody gets an even shake.That’s the bottom line. So in other words, we’re going to make sure that every student has an equal set of opportunities to succeed. Now, the area where this causes conflict, I think, especially for some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, is that they believe that that means we’re going to lower the bar. I think lowering the bar is kind of a terrible way to put it. It’s not lowering the bar, it’s giving assistance to folks that can’t quite reach the bar. And I think that in doing so, we necessarily raise the bar. If we give more students access to the tools to succeed, suddenly we make success more achievable for everybody and then we have the ability to say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to define success as a little bit higher, now that we have more people that are able to reach for it. 

There are a lot of situations where you have students who need additional supports. I don’t think anybody will disagree with that. And equity is just making sure that those students get those supports so that they have the same opportunity to succeed as their fellow students.

Melchionne: I think there are some people that immediately hear that and think we’re going to change the way you grade or rate people or et cetera to get it to be equal outcomes. Whereas the other side might say, well, the equal outcome we’re looking for is for all children to read. I can’t think of one person that would disagree that we want the success of every student in our schools. I don’t know somebody that would disagree that we want to ensure we create an environment that is open and welcomed and respecting of people from all different backgrounds. I think where it gets dicey — and this is where I think it just bears more conversation — is what do we specifically mean by equal outcomes? Our duty is to ensure that we are providing every single resource and opportunity for a student to learn and take it on [and] also expend their own effort. One of the things in particular that the diversity and equity policy in the board policies focuses on, which I really agree with, is student’s success is determined and shared by — certainly, the district, but our families, our communities and a student’s own efforts. And so I think, generally speaking, there are parts of the diversity equity policy that completely makes sense and I think everybody agrees with. And then there are times where there’s more conversation that needs to happen. We just have to understand whether we’re asking to change the bar to get to those equal outcomes, or if we’re saying we need to provide more resources to students to get to the bar.

Hyman: Resoundingly yes. My own upbringing, the first six years, is from legally-segregated schools in South Carolina. And I was a part of that group of students who helped to desegregate the junior high school in my town. So I know what public schooling looks like on a segregated basis, but I also know what it looks like on a regular, non-segregated basis. I’ve paid for parochial school for my brother to attend. I’ve worked for a charter school as an administrator. I have also attended one of those elite boarding schools in New England, and so I know what that looks like as well. In each of those areas within my life, I have seen students who have thrived because of the relationships that they’ve had with teachers. That’s made the difference. What we need to be about is educating all students and figuring out how. There are enough models out there. We’ve seen enough people do things. Why are we so afraid to step into taking the reasonable risk, the calculated risk, that will allow us to unleash young people who can thrive within our school systems?

Butler: I have not seen, in my years in the public schools, that we haven’t given opportunities to certain people. I think everybody has the same opportunities. It’s whether you take them. Communication is also very difficult in Stamford as far as understanding and knowing what’s going on. Especially at the high school level because it’s so big. Parents come, they get a lot of information when they’re at the elementary schools, the middle schools, but then when they get to high school, there’s just so much information all the time. I wish there was a better way to keep them involved. I know that they’re trying and they have PowerSchool and they have emails that come out from the principals. But if people don’t know those are available, how can they get the information?

CTEx: What does Stamford’s Board of Education need to do to address the mold issues in the building? 

Munshi-South: We’ve been really lucky in that our state delegation and our mayor and our superintendent have really advocated for Stamford to get unprecedented funding to, to deal with the facilities — far more than we thought would be possible. At the same time, we have a long term facilities committee that has a multi-year plan. In terms of the Board of Ed’s role in this, at this point it’s really about enacting the plan, making sure that it’s happening, and learning from our history and our mistakes in the past as a city — which is that these buildings just haven’t been maintained. There’s been a lot of just ignoring problems, not keeping up with maintenance. And so really it’s more about overseeing, enacting the plan, making sure it’s being done well, having checkpoints to make sure that the progress is being monitored so that we’re not again kind of building on a foundation of sand.

Andreana: There’s not just mold that we have to worry about. There’s extreme heat. Kids are going to school and they can’t even concentrate because we don’t have the right quality of infrastructure for them to focus. There are schools where kids are feeling very faint because it’s too hot and they can’t concentrate. So not only do we have to focus on mold, we have to focus on the safety of the students and the teachers and the staff to make sure that the air flows appropriately as well as without any toxins that can actually harm them. We have to make sure that … everybody involved in the SPS is able to function and be able to succeed in their day to day without getting any health issues. We need to look at the studies that we spent [money on] previously and see what actually has been done to fix [the things found in] that study. And it’s actually, I think, in the budget for this upcoming year to do a study on the air quality and air flow. If we haven’t fixed anything, it’s just going to tell us it got worse. We can better spend our money on actually trying to fix what the studies say, rather than just spending taxpayer dollars with no return on investment.

Dauplaise: The Mold Task force, which then became the Stamford Asset Management Group, continues to oversee that. Operations has a pretty good handle on what’s going on now. There are still some schools that have issues, and those issues are remediated. I think Westover still probably has some latent things going on. I know there’s atmosphere control, things that get checked on every now and then there. So as far as I understand it, it’s something that the Operations Department has fairly well under control now. So it’s not the crisis it was several years ago.

Melchionne: We’ve heard about it for years now. We did a walkthrough earlier this summer at Westover, which was one of the schools that had the biggest mold crisis and it seems like we’ve implemented a lot of things there that have ensured no mold has resurfaced. I think we need to do a better job of just consistently checking our schools and making sure that they are evaluated to the highest standards. I think that also, besides the mold piece in particular, just our facilities — ensuring that we have places that students and teachers want to come to because they’re excited about school. I think we, it’s on us to provide these really great places. And maybe that’s connecting with the custodial staff a bit more. I think it’s holding the superintendent accountable to a certain set of standards and metrics and consistent reviews. 

Hyman: That is one area that I think that the board — the task force that was put together — finally has a handle on getting it right, but along with getting it right means that we’re more attentive. We should hold our contractors, the superintendent, responsible for management systems that allow us to be on track with where we’re headed. We allowed our buildings to get to this state for any number of reasons. Part of it was mismanagement. Decades, literally, of not maintaining the buildings properly. And part of that was that in many instances we did it ourselves, which was beyond our pay grade. We should have allowed the contractor to come back and fix it. I do believe we’ve got a system in place now that will allow us to manage this in a better way. The board had better make sure that happens because we’re about to invest a half billion dollars of the state’s money and our money in building new schools. I also think that with some of the mold problems that we’ve had at other places that have come up that were not remediated properly — the Westover school is one of those examples — somebody should have taken a look and said — let’s go back and talk with the lawyers about what has happened here and why this was built in such a way.
Butler: I believe they are dealing with them. I’m not sure why after the rebuild at Westover we still had mold issues. I just think that someone needs to be paying better attention before signing off on work, because that was a shame — that these kids were sent over to the temporary location, I believe it was for two years, and when they came back, they still had issues with the air conditioning handlers. My kids were at Stamford High — it’s probably one of the oldest schools in the city — and they’ve said we don’t have mold issues. But then you look at Westhill, Westhill’s a newer school and they have mold issues. So I think more attention needs to be paid when they’re doing these rebuilds so that we don’t fall into these issues in the future.


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com