LYME/OLD LYME — As the district grapples with a $57.5 million school renovation project, questions about what library books are appropriate, and demands for greater transparency in the aftermath of an oil spill at the middle school, candidates for the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education spoke to CT Examiner about their visions for the future.
In Old Lyme, current Republican board members Steve Wilson and Suzanne Thompson are joined by newcomer Michael Presti. Democratic contenders are Alexander Lowry, Susan Fogliano and W. Scott Brown.
In Lyme, Democrat contender Gavin Lodge is vying against current board member Mary Powell St. Louis for one of the town’s two seats on the nine-member board.
Many of the candidates praised the Lyme-Old Lyme school system.
“I want to maintain what is an excellent school system,” said Brown, a former principal of Lyme-Old Lyme High School and a professional development and secondary school coordinator at LEARN.
“I was the principal there for 20 years — from 1979 to 2000 — so they’ve improved immensely all along the way. They’re a premier school district, and I just want to be sure they get the resources they need each year,” he said.
Presti, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London, said he could bring a teacher’s perspective to the Board of Education. He also said he was pleased with the district’s academic achievement.
“I was at the last Board of Education meeting, and they [pointed] out that SAT scores were five and seven, respectively, in the state. So that’s amazing,” he said.
Republican and current board member Suzanne Thompson, who has worked with Save the Sound to protect the Oswegatchie Hills in East Lyme, said she wanted the district to continue offering a wide variety of courses even if the high school population decreased.
“When you drop below that, around 100 per class, then you have to really make sure you’re able to continue the variety of classes — Chinese, Latin, as well as Spanish and French. They were adding an anatomy class … a new program. And so, those require teachers. We want to make sure that we have the unique classes that we’re able to offer,” she said.
Fogliano, who served on the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education from 1995 to 2011, said one of her priorities was offering more support to the teachers. Teachers across the nation are facing a lot of pressure, she said.
“There’s a lot of pressure from outside the classroom. There’s a lot of administrative overhead. And I think that I would like to see our staff be more celebrated and less criticized because they are putting in superhuman efforts every day,” she said.
Fogliano said she also wanted the district to encourage teachers to keep students off their phones as much as possible.
“I think that the overabundance of screen time is a net negative for the education of children,” she said.
Lowry, who has worked as an educator for 25 years in California and Connecticut, said he was pleased with how the district recruited talented educators.
“Talent recruiting and retention has been good,” he said. “The schools do a pretty good job of creating an atmosphere of striking a balance between academic rigor and the sort of intangible pieces that make kids excited about being part of their school community.”
He said he viewed his role as being a “steward” of the district — not making sweeping changes, but caring well for what is already there.
Building on Budget
Last November, the town approved a $57.5 million bond referendum to renovate three of the district’s four schools, including code upgrades, changes to the HVAC systems and the boilers, and expanding Mile Creek Elementary School. The board has since selected members of a building committee, who are responsible for overseeing the project.
If elected, Presti said a priority would be keeping the building project on budget. While unforeseen expenses do arise during building projects, he said, the board needs to ask “tough questions” about what’s necessary and communicate with the community.
“If surprises do come up, we really have to ask the tough questions like: Is this a want, or is this a need? Is this following the scope of what’s already been proposed and approved, or is this something that is growing out of a certain change?” he said. “You just can’t say OK and take it [at] face value.”
Powell St. Louis, who is also vice chair on the building committee, told CT Examiner that the building committee was already asking questions about how it could save money on the project. She said the number of classrooms being built at Mile Creek Elementary School had decreased from 10 to six, and that they’ve inquired about cost differences between a heating oil-based system for the HVAC versus a more carbon-friendly system with electric and propane.
“We are asking them hard questions. We are not just accepting things presented to us,” she said.
Powell St. Louis, a medical doctor who serves as director for vaccine clinical research and development at Pfizer, said she had pushed for the building committee to include people with diverse experiences.
Thompson also underscored the diversity of the committee, and said the Board of Education needed to trust their judgment.
“We purposely did a robust process where people could apply. We selected them based on trying to provide a good diversity of experiences and perspectives. And so we need to let them do their job, but we also need to provide ongoing oversight of that without micromanagement,” she said.
In response to earlier concerns from community members about the process of narrowing down five renovation options to a single project, Wilson said he wished the board had approached the project with a budget and matched the scope to the budget, rather than the other way around. If reelected, Wilson said this experience would give him more foresight the next time the board was presented with a project.
As chair of the building committee, Wilson said they need to balance people’s desires with the need to keep the budget low. For example, he said, they needed to determine what level of security was necessary to keep students safe without spending excessively.
“You have to make these choices, and you have to keep your budget in mind to have something that is functional and works,” he said. “Nobody wants a child to be harmed in a shooting, right? But when you look at the actual statistics of it, you can still provide that 99 degree, or 99.9 degree of safety. But oftentimes people say, ‘Well, spare no cost.’”
Lodge, executive director of the nonprofit American Alliance of Artists and Audiences, said the board should ensure meeting minutes are available to the public, that there’s an open line of communication with the architects, and that the project stays on time and on budget.
“I think it’s about transparency and regular meetings to make sure that we’re staying on task and holding the contractors and the architects accountable, so that we all move together as one as efficiently as possible,” he said.
Lowry said good stewardship meant getting a quality product while sticking to budget.
“[Good stewardship] looks like not wasting our money. And it looks like making sure the project is done to industry standard, not better,” he said. “If we’re overhauling the HVAC system, will it meet the industry standards for interior air quality… will it do the job it’s being asked to do?”
Fogliano, who was on the board when the district made renovations to the school buildings in the early 2000s, agreed.
“We did deliver our last project – the high school project – on time and on budget when I was there, and I’m very proud of that,” she said.
Oil Spill Transparency
When it became apparent that an August 2022 oil spill from one of the boilers at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School could have affected the drinking wells of people living nearby, neighbors asked why the board had not done more to communicate with homeowners.
Wilson said his greatest achievement as Board of Education chair from 2021 to 2023 was improving communication and transparency across the district, and encouraging community members to write letters to the board.
As far as the oil spill, Wilson said the district did the best it could with the information it had at the time. He explained that members of the Facilities and Finance Committee were split on whether to inform people about the spill when it first happened, but that they ultimately decided against it because the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said it wasn’t necessary.
“It … happened in August, but it wasn’t until December that DEEP had any idea that [the spill] was outside of the boiler room,” he said.
Wilson said if he could do it over, he would have sent certified mail to the people whose properties were affected and actively communicated, rather than posting information at Town Hall.
Powell St. Louis said the Facilities and Finance Committee should have been given more information about what was happening on the ground.
“I think many of us, including on the facility committee, were kept in the dark from the beginning. And I don’t think that was right,” she said. “I think there should have been emergency meetings called at the facility committee, and I think there should have been open conversation from the beginning.”
Meanwhile, Fogliano said board members generally have to use great discretion when deciding what should and should not be disclosed to the public.
“Board members need to have the grace and the judgment to know when to communicate and when not to,” she said. “Most often, if there are issues related to public safety and health, whether it’s the board’s fault or not, it is best for you to get out in front of it and take responsibility and fix things as quickly as humanly possible. Where personnel issues and issues with families and students are concerned, actually the opposite is true. The best thing you can do for all concerned is to handle it with extreme discretion.”
Lowry said the Board of Education was fairly transparent on the oil spill issue, and that it made meeting minutes readily available online. He also noted people need to make an effort to look for the information.
“I think that for people who want to follow the workings of the board, it’s pretty transparent,” he said. “[It] seems that when people are expressing that they are feeling a little in the dark, that a lot of the time — my observation is that that information is knowable.”
Library Book Complaints
Questions surrounding the appropriateness of library books also take center stage in this election cycle.
In June, parents and community members signed a petition asking for the removal of a book from the teen section of the Phoebe Noyes Griffin Library. The book, titled Let’s Talk About It: the Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human, includes explicit commentary and cartoon graphics about sex, including masturbation and oral sex. The petition, dated June 16, garnered over 130 signatures. Following a review, library staff eventually decided to leave the book in the teen section.
Wilson said he did not sign the petition but felt the community should have open dialogue about their concerns. He said the school board does not decide what books stay in the library, but that he personally believed schools have the responsibility to provide age-appropriate books.
“I encourage parents to be inquisitive about what their children are doing. This whole idea of leave it up to the teachers and to the librarians … these are trained professionals. They are experts. But there’s no reason that we can’t be curious about it. And I think that squashing that curiosity is dangerous,” he said.
Wilson also said the district needed to have forms easily accessible for parents who wanted to file a complaint about a library book.
“That chain of command gets broken when parents can’t take the next step easily,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve looked at the Board of Ed website or the school website with the intent of accomplishing something, but oftentimes finding the information you’re looking for is not easy to do.”
Powell St. Louis, who did sign the petition, said parents should express their concerns to library staff first, before coming to the Board of Education with complaints.
“I don’t think someone should be coming to the board and say, ‘Well, I found this in the elementary or middle school library and I’m offended by this.’ Because if you haven’t talked to all the other personnel before coming to the Board of Education, I don’t think the Board of Education as a whole should have anything to say,” she said.
She said she signed the petition not as a board member, but as a community member and parent.
“I don’t think [the book] had age-appropriate material in it. As a scientist, as a physician, encouraging young people as young as 10, 11, 12, to be seeking out things that are illegal, pornography, saying that things like sexually transmitted diseases are not such a big deal and ‘Well, you might have to go seek some medical treatment.’ … This is not appropriate material for our youngest minds,” she said.
Powell St. Louis said she confirmed with Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser that the book is not available at any of the school libraries.
Lodge, who is vying for Powell St. Louis’ seat, said he was opposed to the idea of any form of censorship, including book banning.
“I think the town of Lyme, it’s an area that represents the values of open-minded self-expression,” Lodge said. “There’s always been a unique population in Lyme that supports different thoughts and different philosophies and whatnot, and if we close off access to different thoughts and challenging thoughts and challenging ideas …”
He added he could not picture himself voting to remove a book from the library.
“I think the parents do have the prerogative that if they feel strongly about something, they can very easily opt out of reading a book that might be sanctioned in the classroom, and they can certainly encourage their own kids to avoid a book that’s in the library. But the library is not stacking its shelves with anything that isn’t meant to be for the kids’ enrichment,” he said.
Brown also expressed concern about instances of censorship and risks to intellectual freedom that he’s seen happening across the country.
“The board should rely strongly on the professional staff and what the professional staff considers age-appropriate materials,” he said. “Once you get to high school, it’s clearly time to treat them as adults intellectually, and most of the high school kids are within two to four years of voting.”
Fogliano said she also worried that politics could “infiltrate” conversations between board members.
“I’ve seen it too often — people who bring political agendas to the table. It’s not helpful to the process of educating children,” she said.