LYME/OLD LYME — Artificial intelligence, armed guards and gender identity were all on the table Wednesday night, as school board candidates debated a variety of topics submitted by community members.
Asked what was the most important issue for the school system right now, several candidates pointed to the successful management of the $57.5 million school renovation project.
“We’ve been blessed to receive $10 million towards the Mile Creek renovation and another $12 million for HVAC renovations across all the other schools. But the overall budget for the renovation is $57 million. We cannot exceed that without going back to referendum for the two towns,” said Mary Powell-St. Louis, a Republican and current board member from Lyme. “My skills, in terms of my business background, allow me to look at the plans from a strategic point of view and make good decisions along with the other committee members.”
On a question about school security, Democrats expressed hesitation at the idea of having armed guards in the schools, while Republican candidates maintained that it kept students safer.
“The question of armed guards in classrooms — there’s research on both sides that says it may or may not be the right choice,” Democrat Susan Fogliano said. “I would think that the best approach, if I was to be on the board, would be to continue to research best practices.”
Current board member Republican Suzanne Thompson said while the decision to have armed guards in schools was “emotional and difficult,” it’s ultimately the right call.
“Every morning when I go and I drop my 16-year-old off at the high school, I say a little prayer going, ‘Thank God — and I hope I see her this afternoon,’ and I’m so sorry that I have to think this way. But this is the country that we’re in right now,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans also differed on their responses to a question about gender non-conforming students. Republicans underscored the legal obligation in the state to provide accessible bathrooms and allow students to play on sports teams that align with the gender with which they identify.
Powell-St. Louis said Connecticut put gender identity into law in 2011, and that districts were obliged to follow. When it came to student pronouns, however, the discussion became more nuanced.
“That’s a little bit more of a discussion that has to be held with guidance counselors, teachers and administrators of the school in terms of who deserves to know and whether a student versus a parent has a right to demand notification of a request for permanent change,” she said.
Democrats, on the other hand, said it was not just a legal obligation, but a moral obligation, to support students regardless of their identities.
“I think in terms of pronouns, kids know what they need,” said Democrat Gavin Lodge, who identified himself as a gay father. “Kids know what they need. We kind of have to adapt to it. They might change from time to time, and guess what? That’s fine. As long as we’re raising kind, smart kids to go out and make the world a better place, let’s follow their lead.”
Candidates also discussed the advent of artificial intelligence into the classroom, and how it could impact student learning.
“Any new technology comes down to balance. It comes down to how does it best fit in our schools and how can we support our students to learn,” Republican Mike Presti said. “So within my classroom, I know that I oftentimes resort back to pen and paper, and then … check it with available technology to see how you’re doing.”
Democrat Alexander Lowry said he would consult with experts if artificial intelligence tools became an issue for the Board of Education.
“I am something of a latter day Luddite. I prefer to do things with my students that are hands-on and experiential. That is not to say that I don’t understand the value and importance of the digital 21st century,” he said.
Powell-St. Louis said her son told her students are unsure how to use AI tools and whether they’d be penalized for it.
“I think the students in our district in the middle school and high school are aware of ChatGPT and how it can be used, but I think also they’re scared. I think they’re scared of being accused of cheating on assignments,” she said. “I think there is some value to add, but we also cannot take away the critical thinking skills of our students to put together a thesis and a resulting assignment.”
Lodge said AI should be part of classroom discussions across the board and that it provided exciting opportunities.
“AI needs to be addressed. How can the kids use it effectively? Because we know it’s not going away,” he said. “So that digital literacy part is so important to help them navigate new fields and use it opportunistically, so that we as an entire region are still fulfilling the goals of creating critical thinkers who are kind, who are going to go out and make the world a better place.”
Several Republican candidates said they wanted to develop more opportunities for students who were not college bound.
“Not everybody can afford a $4,000 or $5,000 field trip. And we need to come up with other ways for our students to have life-enriching experiences that don’t cost nearly that much, or they have ways to fund them through fundraising, or scholarships or activities. Be more of a community about it,” said Thompson.
Republican Steven Wilson, the current school board chair, said he wanted to create more resources for students who learn differently, such as students who are hands-on learners rather than classroom learners.
“I think that we need to bring in role models who can show these children that there are many paths out there, so they can stop getting so frustrated because they can’t read, or do math or feel smart, because they are a fish being judged on climbing a tree,” Wilson said.
Lodge, who is running in Lyme, said the most important thing for him was that students are taught “digital literacy.” Since the pandemic, he noted, young people have become more focused on their devices and should learn how to use them correctly.
“There are so many elements that they need to focus on, such as being able to decipher between truth and fiction, and being able to have those critical reasoning skills to know how to research something safely and with competence and integrity,” Lodge said. “And then of course, it trickles down to elements of just social media abuse, being addicted to dopamine levels that are rising all just based upon all of our interaction with our screens.”
Presti said he wanted to examine culture and climate issues in the district, as Region 18 librarians and teachers have left for lower-paying jobs in other districts.
“We’ve lost some really good teachers here in the past couple years, who leave our district — a premier district. A premier town. A premier state. So that’s something maybe we need to take a look at a little closer,” Presti said.
Fogliano said she wanted to address what she described as “an epidemic of bullying and hate discrimination in our schools.”
“Parents and teachers alike have told me that they feel like they hit a dead end and get no resolution even after incidents are reported. Part of the problem seems to be that a lot of this occurs out of the classroom in the form of cyberbullying, bullying by groups,” she said.
She suggested the creation of a “bullying roundtable,” a task force made up of parents, school staff, board members and students.
Democrat W. Scott Brown said he’d like to see more parent involvement in the district.
“I’m thinking back to when we opened this high school and split from the middle school. The amount of parent involvement — the right way — has grown over the decades. Through things like the Friends of Music Organization, parent advisory board, athletic boosters, the student government … a lot of that social-emotional learning that comes through having Broadway musicals, and of course all of the athletics. But that’s where we need a lot of parental support,” he said.
When asked what new programs they wanted to bring into the schools, Fogliano and Thompson said they’d like students to work with the community on environmental sustainability through initiatives like recycling, conservation and Pollinator Pathways.
Asked what the role of the Board of Education was in determining what books should be present in the school library, most candidates said the board had a limited role in making that determination.
Fogliano said the only role school board members had was the approval of textbooks, and Wilson said parents should direct their concerns to teachers or librarians in a “civilized conversation.”