Tuesday’s Board of Education candidate debate, the first of three, was held in the Greenwich High School performing arts center and moderated by League of Women Voters’ Jara Burnett.
The even was hosted by the Greenwich PTA Council in conjunction with The League of Women voters. All of the questions asked were culled from the district’s 15 PTA’s, Committees and Executive Board. The questions were not shared with the candidates in advance.
A group of about 70 people turned out for the event.
Candidates included two Democrats – Meghan Olsson, a mother of three, who grew up in Greenwich and attended Greenwich Public Schools before becoming a tenured teacher at Mamaroneck High School, and Kathleen Stowe, also a mother of three, whose career has been in investment banking and private equity.
Stowe and Olsson, neither having held positions in town government, are assured success on November 7, as they seek the spots being vacated by Laura Erickson and Debbie Appelbaum.
Burnett’s first question, about being mindful of all students educational and socio-economic needs, drew subtle but stark differences between Republican candidate Peter Bernstein, an incumbent who was passed over for endorsement by the Republican Town Committee, and newcomer Republican Jason Auerbach, who has served on the RTM and was endorsed by the RTC.
Auerbach, a parent of three boys in the school system, talked about scarce teaching resources. He said the middle 70% of children don’t get their share of resources.
“The top 10% of our kids will be successful no matter where they go. The kids at the bottom 20% – we devote tremendous resources to them,” Auerbach said. “On the Board of Education, we need to be focused on the kids in the middle.”
Bernstein, whose sons attended two different Title 1 schools in Greenwich, both having become magnet schools to address racial imbalance, said he understood diverse educational needs and socio-economics.
He said his sons magneted into Hamilton Avenue School, where Bernstein served as PTA president and served on the school improvement committee, and then sent his children to another Title 1 magnet, Julian Curtiss School.
“In all our buildings we have exceptional students, and in all buildings we have students with challenges including English Language Learners. We need to serve all our students in every way possible,” he said. “I have an interesting perspective on the diversity of our schools.”
A double barrel question about Charter Change, (a proposal that would end the longstanding four slots for Republicans and 4 slots for Democrats and possibly give 5 slots to one party and 3 to the other) and Term Limits was posed to the candidates.
“In Greenwich, we are the only district out of 150-plus districts that has dedicated seats on the the Board of Education for political parties, who, in more cases than not, control what happens on the Board of Education,” said Peter Sherr, the other Republican endorsed by the RTC.
Mr. Sherr was appointed by the Board of Selectmen last year to be the board chair after the board repeatedly failed to garner enough votes for any single candidate.
“I support any proposal that would return governance of schools to the voters through the ballot box,” he said.
Mr. Sherr said he hadn’t thought much about term limits, he said, noting this would be the third term. Nevertheless, he said, “If voters don’t want people on the board, they should do that through the ballot box,” he said.
Ms. Olsson said she was fundamentally opposed to charter change. “There is a longstanding history in this town of bipartisanship. There is no place for divisive politics in our schools. It’s been a fair and balanced board since the 1930’s.”
Mr. Auerbach said he supports charter change and, in fact, introduced the idea two years earlier. He went on to quote President Reagan on leadership.
“He said, ‘First of all, I think you have to have some principles you believe in. In mine I happen to believe in people. I think people should be dominant in our society.”
Auerbach went on to say, “Today, the Board of Education is controlled by the political parties in this town.”
He asked the unaffiliated voters in the audience to raise their hands. “None of you have ever been elected to the Board of Education. …We have a fundamental disagreement here on the stage….I’m proud that my children can watch me campaign for office because I believe we should give voters a choice and people should be held accountable.”
Like Mr. Sherr, Auerbach said he opposed term limits. “I am against term limits because I believe that all things should be determined by the voters in this community.
Mr. Bernstein said the current system already allows for accountability, and that he hadn’t been endorsed by the RTC precisely because he opposed charter change.
“As an organization the RTC didn’t even entertain the idea of offering other candidates,” Bernstein added.
Ms Stowe said she also opposed charter change, and that to her knowledge it had been difficult for the party to recruit even the two existing candidates. She said that over the decades, and specifically in the 300+ votes in the past five years, rarely had there been a deadlocked vote over party lines.
“As for term limits anyone in office too long gets stale,” she said, though she was not a believer in mandating term limits.
Asked about evaluating the change in school start times and finish times, Ms Olsson said she had spoken at a Board of Education meeting with concerns about how the change might impact working families. “We have to make sure students are health and safe,” she said. “The point is always what is best for the students.”
Mr. Auerbach said that Greenwich’s school rankings have dropped over the past ten years. “So I don’t agree that it’s working.”
Mr. Bernstein said he supported the board’s vote to change start time changes, though he voted against the 8:30 start time at Greenwich High School because he thought more time was needed to determine potential impacts and unintended consequences.
“I’m hopeful we can make this work for our students’ benefit,” Bernstein said.
Ms. Stowe said a lot of time went into making the decision on school start time, but that not all “hiccups” could be foreseen. “The decision has been made. …We’re going to keep analyzing it, and I look forward to contributing to that. When I look at student performance I look at the whole child: Are they performing academically, are they sleeping better?”
Mr. Sherr echoed Mr. Auerbach’s sentiments, which was a pattern on Tuesday night.
“Beware when you hear someone talk about studies,” he said. “The reality of start time is the administration and the superintendent, Dr. McKersie, studied this for more than a year and a half,” Sherr said.
“When we talk about listening to our superintendent, we can’t be selective. Also, we have an obligation to kids. If you believe in the whole child, you can’t ignore the advice of the Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC and the AMA. ”
Sherr said the start time change was then planned for a year with the administration with the administration and support of the board.
“Clearly it didn’t go as planned,” he said. “There were challenges. Those need to be addressed with urgency. …Anything the board can do to help superintendent Dr. Gildea in addressing, traffic, busing and, particularly, athletics, we need to do. This needs to be measured in student’s whole health. We need as a board and the superintendent to be out meeting with parents on this issue. …And we need to resolve the situation with Mr. Effros. It’s very urgent,” he said referring to Bill Effros, the Old Church Road neighbor who sued Greenwich and won.
GHS Cardinal Stadium, operates under a set of lighting restrictions that stem back to a lawsuit against the Town by Mr. Effros, that was settled back in 2003 in Stamford Superior Court.
Effros, who sued and eventually settled with Greenwich over its approval of a project to install lights in Cardinal Stadium, argued that the lights shined into his and his neighbors’ homes. Since 2003, Effros has consistently prodded local officials, citing what he says are violations of the 2003 settlement terms, which are explicit and numerous.
Asked what were the district’s greatest capital needs, candidates put the situation in context of the state’s overall economy.
Mr. Bernstein said 85% of the budget goes to teacher contracts, so making cuts is a challenge.
Ms. Stowe said she was excited to roll up her sleeves during these difficult financial times and “go through every number and keep serving all the children well.”
“I think we have a fields problem,” Stowe added. “So obviously we need to focus on that.”
Mr. Sherr said it would be important to reinvest in Greenwich’s athletic facilities and re-imagine the “classroom” in order to take advantage of personalized learning.
Ms Olsson said she’d visited the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center (BANC), which houses New Lebanon School’s kindergartners due to overcrowding.
“I’ve never seen a school with the resources of Greenwich with such overcrowding,” Olsson said. “The kindergartners shouldn’t be learning at BANC, without windows. I believe there is a dire need there, and we have a responsibility as a community to fix that school.”
Mr. Auerbach said priorities should be reading, writing and arithmetic.
“We have to focus our priorities on educating our kids in the school system, he said, repeating an earlier comment that in Greenwich student performance has decreased. “English and math proficiency has gone from the mid 70s (% proficient) to the mid 60s….”
Auerbach said there is a valid need for a new New Lebanon School, but capital projects must be fiscally responsible considering the state’s fiscal situation.
“We’re not going to do the same tax and spend model here in Greenwich,” Auerbach said.
Again Auerbach said the achievement gap had widened in Greenwich in the past 10 year and that kids in the middle are getting lost.
“We’re not focusing on the 70% in the middle. We’re focusing on the 10% at the top and the 20% at the bottom, not the 70% in the middle.” He said he decided to run for BOE when graduation standards at GHS were lowered.
Auerbach said the district has thrown money at the achievement gap but seen it widen nonetheless.
Bernstein said this is not a dollar for dollar approach. “And it’s not about diverting funds from one school to another. It’s about addressing specific problems to individual students.”
On achievement gap, Mr. Sherr said that resources have been distributed based on the amount of free and reduced lunch students. “It has not moved the needle in terms of achievement.”
Ms. Olsson said expanding pre school was the ideal way to close the achievement ga’ and that 85% of kids on Greenwich attend some sort of pre school, but that there remains a significant number of students lacking that opportunity.
Asked about student stress, Mr. Sherr said that was part of his basis for supporting school start time change at Greenwich High School.
Ms. Ohlsson said at the school where she teaches the students have 3 minutes built into the beginning of the day and again after lunch for stretching and guided meditation.
Mr. Auerbach said food quality should be increased because it impacts thinking and how students feel throughout the day.
And, at GHS he recommended shaving 5 minutes off every class in order to add an extra period at the end of the day.
“You’re not allowed to leave school, except perhaps if you’re in a sport you can leave, but it would be a time to interact with teachers,” he said.
Mr. Bernstein said the food was healthy and popular at GHS and that the salad bar is second in popularity to Garden Catering, which was recently added in Cardinal Cafe.
Bernstein said the PTA has a healthy food committee, and their efforts have resulted in positive changes. Overall, he suggested parents be more engaged and noted much pressure and stress comes from parents.
He said the idea of shaving 5 minutes off each period at GHS would add up to to 15 days of teaching during the year. “There’s 180 days of teaching in the year, and if you take 15 days away, just see what happens.”
Long Term Plan Regarding Racial Imbalance
Candidates commented on the racial balance law, Connecticut State Statute (10-226e), in which schools are cited for racial imbalance when the percentage of the minorities in a school is 25% points more (or less) than the average across the District.
Candidates opined on the proposed new New Lebanon School to replace the outmoded, too small 1950s schoolhouse, and offer an attractive magnet school with capacity for additional students, and would address the school’s racial imbalance.
This question elicited strong words from the three Republican candidates.
“The state is no longer sending operational money. We have great plans in place, people will continue to go to their schools. It’s time for the town of Greenwich to move on,” Auerbach said.
“I don’t agree with the state law, and I am a fan of neighborhood schools,” Bernstein said, “Just Google Fairfield and racial balance and you’ll see they’re talking about redistricting, busing and forcing that on Fairfield.”
Mr. Sherr said the racial imbalance law, which categorizes children by by race, is highly offensive, and badly written. However, he said, “The magnets are not working. Maybe this is the time that we need to respectfully disagree and let them (the state) take action against us.”
Mr. Auerbach said he’s been urging a fiscally responsible fix for Hamilton Avenue School’s field and suggested adding top soil on top of the existing field.
“I suspect if you go anywhere in this town, you’re going to find contamination,” he said. “So when you look at these projects, and there are major capital projects, the way to address it is not necessarily to bring those contaminants up. We need to focus on building up our fields and putting top soil in.”
Bernstein said too many fields in Greenwich are out of commission and that for too long, the town’s approach has been reactive.
“We need a better plan for testing and remediation,” he said.
Mr. Sherr said remediation at Greenwich High School has taken years, and must be completed. “Some people don’t know it, but there is still soil out there that is contaminated,” he said. “We need to not be afraid of testing.”
He said he was disappointed that some board members were arguing against testing the soil back when Western Middle School was being considered as a location for temporary modular classrooms for New Lebanon students during construction.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Auerbach said he had worked collaboratively on the RTM.
“When you elect someone to the board, you need to choose the kind of person you want,” Auerbach said.
“I don’t believe that we need to have a combative nature on the board. I encourage you to look and see meetings where people who disagree become combative and difficult,” Auerbach said. “That’s not how we should be acting. I believe people can work together.”
Bernstein agreed, and said he was proud of his record during his four years on the board.
“This election is about who you want to representing you on the board. Who best represents our community values? Who will drive achievement for all our students. Who brings leadership that will support the new superintendent and enable her to succeed. We want her here for the long term.”