HADDAM/KILLINGWORTH — Retaining teaching staff and management of a potential $130 million facilities project were among the key issues Region 17 Board of Education candidates discussed Monday night.
Of the eleven candidates, five are competing for Haddam’s three open seats, and six are vying for Killingworth’s three open seats.
Two candidates in Haddam — Shawna Goldfarb and Jennifer Favalora — are current members of the board running for another four years. The other three — Heather Pach, Brenda Buzzi and Sidney Blackmon — are either newcomers or former board members.
Two candidates in Killingworth — Suzanne Sack and Nelson Rivera — are running for re-election. The additional four — Arthur Wrotonowski, Derek Phelps, Heather Scholfield and Jennifer Voegtli — are running as newcomers.
The Region 17 board includes 11 members with staggered terms, comprising six Haddam seats and five Killingworth seats.
In Monday’s discussion, Shawna Goldfarb, a Republican and board facilities committee member, said she had extensive experience with special education and could help parents who are struggling. She emphasized the importance of the district providing an education for students regardless of learning level.
“That doesn’t mean [just] for those children that are struggling, but those children that are also doing amazing and just are really not being challenged the way that they are,” she said.
Regarding the district’s Master Plan for all four schools, which includes an estimated $130 million in facilities upgrades and renovations, Goldfarb said the state of the buildings required a long-term plan extending 10 to 15 years.
“Knowing a lot of what has happened in all of our buildings, with the immediate emergency fixes we’ve had to do, the money that this district has had to put into some of our facilities, really pushed the idea that there needs to be a final master plan, not just a capital spending plan or capital plan.”
But Goldfarb also said the plan needed to be taken step by step, and that the high school was her first priority.
“I remember the first time I toured it when my son was going to be a freshman, and I looked at those lockers and said, ‘What? [You] can’t even fit a coat in the locker,’” she said.
Goldfarb said her budget priorities included upgrading the facilities, using a special education assessment – currently underway – to determine district priorities, and looking at the math and science curriculum.
Jennifer Favalora, a Republican who is endorsed by both Haddam Republicans and Haddam Democrats, and a member of the board’s negotiating committee and facilities committee, agreed that the Master Plan was a necessary step after years of the board not funding the capital fund, resulting in significant deferred maintenance.
After working with an architect, she said, it became clear that it wasn’t just the high school that needed renovations. Three other buildings were “very old,” she said, plus the outdated portables at the elementary needed to be addressed.
“We came to the point where we either need to decide to just keep fixing, which is an option, or we need to take a stab at renewing some of our buildings,” she said.
Favalora said that one of her budgetary goals was to bring in more grant funding and take advantage of state and federal funding.
“And increasing our communication with our representatives so that they are fighting for us as well because we are a small district and sometimes we get lost and forgotten about in the big picture of the state,” she said.
Favalora said she wanted the students in the district to be surrounded by a community of support — a tenet she said was part of the Board’s Vision of the Graduate.
“We’re sending them off into an incredibly changing world right now, so we want them to contribute to improving the world around us,” she said. “When they go off and they do wonderful things — write books, change medicine — we will all benefit from that. So I still believe that us surrounding our students to make sure that they have everything they need in terms of critical thinking. Compassionate communicators to improve our world is our mission, my mission.”
Newcomer candidate Heather Pach, a Democrat, who worked in public schools for 28 years, both as a teacher and a school psychologist, emphasized the need to put students’ mental health at the forefront.
“Mental health is about giving kids the coping skills, the problem solving, the critical thinking that allows them to be successful in life,” she said. “We know that one in five kids is going to struggle with something while they’re in our schools. And so what are we doing to help support all of those kids when we know … that the more that we do to support our students, the more successful they are when they come out of school?” she said.
Asked about the facilities Master Plan, Pach said the high school’s appearance could be deceiving because certain parts, like the gym and the auditorium, had been renovated and were the most visible to the community.
“If you haven’t gone on a tour … and see the science labs, and see the maze that you have to walk through to get in there, to see that there’s things that are not operational, to walk down the hallways, to be in a classroom in the afternoon that’s been having the sun beat on it and no air conditioning — it’s not an environment that’s conducive to learning,” she said.
Pach said another priority – that was also a budget priority – was understanding why teachers were leaving the district. She said the district should encourage exit interviews and learn what other districts are offering.
“We need to recruit really great staff – they need to stay with us – and we have a problem there. Parents are asking me…‘Why are these teachers disappearing? This great teacher that my student had is no longer there when my next child gets there,” she said. “…I do think that there are issues within our contracts that don’t compare to other districts, and that’s why we’re losing some of the great staff.”
Brenda Buzzi, a Democrat and a former Board of Education member who is also a school-based social worker, echoed Goldfarb’s sentiment about meeting students where they were — including graduates not going to a four-year institution.
“Not all children are bound for college, and we need to focus on that. I’m really excited for the new apprentice program, so that kids can get vocational or any other experience outside of just what we offer in the classroom,” she said.
Buzzi noted that much of the Board of Education’s budget was made up of fixed costs, like salaries and benefits. She said it would be great to double or triple teachers’ salaries, but that it wasn’t a realistic plan.
“What is realistic is to support the teachers more,” she said. “The teachers need to be supported and also appreciated for what they do because they are paving the way with teaching the children that we have for the future.”
Buzzi said she’d worked at every school in the district before being on the board, and that she was well aware of the needs of the buildings.
“They are old and they’re crying and they need help, so we do need to come together as a community and decide what to do going forward in the most effective and responsible manner that we can,” she said.
Sidney Blackmon, a Republican who served four years in the Marine Corps, three years in the National Guard and 20 years as a correctional officer, said he was drawn to the Board of Education because his wife worked as a teacher in Middletown.
Blackmon said he wanted to talk with teachers to find a way to retain them in the district. But, he said he was aware of the stress that teachers faced.
“My wife comes home stressed pretty much every day,” he said. “A lot of her stress deals with lack of support from the administration, overburdened, with too many kids in the class for her to support by herself. And obviously pay is a factor when dealing with all of those stresses.”
Blackmon said the district was fairly competitive with pay for new teachers and for long-established teachers, but that it was in the middle where retention became a challenge.
Blackmon said his budget priorities broadly centered around the students, including school facilities.
“My priority is making sure that our budget is such that it keeps our kids in the forefront, meaning they have all the resources and tools that they need in the environment in which they need —a school building that works for them and is not breaking down every five minutes. To provide an environment for them where learning is optimal,” he said.
He also said he wanted to see students taught critical thinking skills.
“We’re not teaching that anymore, and that’s very important. I want people to be — my students, my sons — to be taught how to think, not what to think — you’ll figure that out on your own,” he said.
In response to a question about the Master Plan, Suzanne Sack, a Democrat and the current chair of the Board of Education, said that the board was trying to determine whether to opt for an estimated $130 million in facilities upgrades simply to bring the buildings up to code, or to look at renovating or building “as new” with additional educational benefits.
“If we want to approach the state and get a meaningful reimbursement for our investment, what we’re going to need to do is provide not only a short term plan of what we want to do in the spring for a referendum, but what we want to do for the long range plan. So currently, we’re working on both of those pieces,” she said.
Sack noted that ultimately, the decision around the Master Plan was up to the community, but she warned that the cost could be high.
“We are trying to work outside the box to think very critically about how we can do this and not have it cost too much for the community to bear. But I will remind everybody that when we built [the middle school], we probably increased our operational budget alone in the expenses associated with the building by six to eight percent. So it’s not a small ask of a community,” she said.
Sack said the Vision of the Graduate, which the Board created, discussed two pillars: helping students achieve their best and igniting passion.
“Our job is not to necessarily shape them to what we want them to be, but to shape them to be the best versions of who they can be,” she said. “Critical thinking, contributing productively, having a growth mindset. Lots of things that will help them go out in the world, as every parent knows, and be independent and to be self-reliant, and so they can solve problems with courage and grace.”
Sack also said that, contrary to what others had described, most of the teachers leaving the district were retiring or leaving education altogether. She said the district had started the year fully-staffed.
“So we continue to be an appealing place to be,” she said.
Nelson Rivera, a Democrat running for his second term on the board, and an assistant principal at Oliver Wolcott Technical High School in Torrington, said his goal was to see students happy and enjoying coming to school.
“Are students prepared for life after high school? Are they going to be productive citizens? Are they happy and healthy? And if we can do that at the end of 12 years, I think we did a good job,” he said.
Rivera noted that in the budget, the district needed to continue to support extracurriculars like athletics and after-school activities. He also cited the Master Plan as one of the main reasons he was running again.
“Whether we build new, renovate as new, or just maintain, we’re going to be spending money and I think it’s important that we spend it the right way,” he said. “Are we getting value from the money we’re spending, and how is this impacting student experience? It’s as simple as that.”
Rivera said that with regard to the teacher shortage, the board could take action in the areas of pay, workplace environment and advancement, among others.
“I think it’s important to have fair and regionally competitive contracts. I’ve had conversations with teachers that have either left or arrived, and they’re moving because of one of those reasons,” he said. “I think we need to have a work environment for teachers that is supportive and makes people want to come to work. The job is hard enough … And the other thing is, I think it’s important to have a system in place where we develop and train and have opportunities for teachers to grow and advance.”
Newcomer candidate Arthur Wrontonowski, a Republican, former biotech analyst and the current president of the Greater Education Council of Connecticut, described his vision for the district, which he referred to as the “HK2028 Project.” Some of the tenets, he said, were to improve the district’s state ranking, doing an “innovation audit” and comparing the district’s performance against top schools.
He said he wasn’t sure how the district should handle the Master Plan, but that the board needed to “think outside the box” because of the cost to the community. Regarding the budget, he said he was concerned with readiness, particularly around science programs, but that he wanted to create “the richest, most diverse environment for learning.”
“Research shows that between the ages of 14 and 17, a lot of children will focus on things that they will probably end up doing for the rest of their lives. So making sure that we do everything we can in that age range, in that environment, is extremely important,” Wrontonowski said.
Concerning teacher retention, he suggested polling current and former teachers for feedback on why they stayed or left the district. He also advocated for a “best practices study.”
“To look at other schools … and to understand why have they been successful with retention when we keep reading all these reports about our teachers leaving the system,” he said.
Newcomer candidate Derek Phelps, also a Republican, who works as head of policy and governmental affairs at a chemical company, said his daughter – who wants to be a teacher – was observing in a classroom in a low-income district where students receive free breakfast and lunch.
“The teachers almost always, at the beginning of the school year, dig into their own pockets to go to the local Walmart or Target to buy school supplies. That chips away at the self worth and the respect that they feel that the school system has for them. I don’t want that to happen here in RSD 17,” he said.
He said he wasn’t sure he would support a Master Plan that consolidated school buildings, and said the state legislature might be able to help with costs. He said his goal for the budget was stability so that families who moved to the area were able to plan for the future long-term.
“Our budget’s approaching $50 million a year. It’s the lion’s share of the tax burden of the taxpayers, of both of our towns,” Phelps said. “You’ve got empty nesters. You’ve got young families, young married couples who might be thinking about where they’re going to buy a home and where they’re going to raise a family.”
Phelps added that students needed to be taught skills for navigating Artificial Intelligence in the future.
“It’s a little too easy to just say, ‘Get back to basics: reading, writing, arithmetic.’ The big, messy world is waiting for our kids — demands that they enter the world with many more skills than probably my generation left with,” he said. “To the extent that the internet was the thing in the 90s, Artificial Intelligence is the thing that is going to be demanding certain skills of our young people really for the next several decades.”
Heather Scholfield, a Republican and newcomer candidate who taught for 10 years in Hartford and Westbrook, said that teachers needed to feel respected and be treated well if districts expect to keep them.
“The problem with people leaving is that they’re not going to leave a district where they feel heard, where they feel listened to, valued, and they feel like they’re making a difference,” she said. “I’ve been told by other people that there have not been kind things said — that there have been people saying things that are absurd about not just teachers but paraeducators and support staff. And that’s not okay. Because our job is to make a difference in the life of kids. And if we feel valued, we will do that here and we will stay here forever.”
Scholfield said the board needed to find a balance for the Master Plan between facilities that attract people to the district and keeping costs under control.
“It’s kind of a double edged sword, right?” she said. “We want to have the school buildings that are the best. We want people to be drawn to our town. But at the same time, we don’t want to be costing the community an arm and a leg. It needs to be really innovative in the way that we are budgeting for this plan and the things that we are projecting.”
She said her budgetary priorities were investing in the science of reading curriculum, making sure the district was adequately staffed and addressing PFAS in the elementary school.
Ideally, she said, teachers in the district could be flexible with their lesson plans to adapt them to students’ needs. She also said students needed to feel welcome and a part of the school community.
“It’s really important that our students are met where they’re at – socially, emotionally, and academically,” she said. “And … to dig into the science of learning a little bit, there needs to be a level of trust in the building with the students and the staff in order for the kids to be able to learn.”
Newcomer candidate Jennifer Voegtli, a Democrat with a background in molecular biology who has served on the Parent Teacher Organization and as a substitute teacher, said the building project was a significant concern, and the high school was the first priority.
“We have safety issues. We have health issues. No air conditioning. That all does need work,” she said.
She also noted the need for community input, particularly since the Board of Education had presented scenarios that involved closing a community elementary school or building new elementary schools.
Voegtli said she had a lot of respect for teachers after her own experiences with substitute teaching in the district.
“[It’s] the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with bacteria,” she said. “Substitute teaching and teaching in elementary, middle school – it’s rough. But I have high respect for our teachers.”
She said her goal for the budget was to make sure the teachers had what they needed to educate “productive graduates.” She also said the district should be proactive about retaining its teachers.
“I was on the PTO. The only thing you can get people to volunteer for is teacher appreciation. Because we do appreciate you. The parents do love our teachers,” Voegtli said.