Board of Education Debate is Civil: 3 of 4 Candidates Participate

Thursday night’s League of Women Voters Board of Education candidate debate was shy one candidate.

Republican candidate Wendy Vizzo Walsh declined to participate.

Her statement* was shared by the LWV who received it on Tuesday:

“I have come to view that for me, a debate in an uncontested election is not the way to kick off a collaborative relationship with my future colleagues,” Walsh said. “I have notified the other candidates and expressed that I am looking forward to meeting with them where we can find common ground where we can improve our schools.”

The other Republican candidate is an incumbent, Karen Kowalski, and already familiar to many voters, but Ms Walsh, is unknown.

About 20 people attended in person. The session was cordial though there were differences between the two Democrats – Sophie Koven and Karen Hirsh and Republican Ms Kowalski.

The moderator was Laura Smits from Norwalk.

The questions were posed by GHS student Hanna Klingbeil.

The League of Women Voters worked hard to organize the debates that kicked off the previous night with candidates for the Board of Selectmen. All debates this year are organized by the League’s VP of Voter’s Services, Becky Gillan.

The 90-minute session was a cumulative format. Responses were not timed, but rather organizers kept track to make sure no one candidate took an outsize amount of time.

Candidates for BOE, left to right, Republican Karen Kowalski, Democrat Sophie Koven and Democrat Karen Hirsh. Oct 12, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

High Per Pupil Expenditure and Student Achievement

Kowalski: “We do have one of the highest spending per pupil rates in Connecticut, and sometimes academic achievement does slip….We need to focus on how we can better spend the money we do spend to focus on academic achievement…I was adamant against the ARPA funding of $500,000 that went to our student center as I thought that money should be better spent on additional teachers – particularly in the special education space where I think we are deficient on the number of teachers.”

“The one thing the board should be focused on over the next four years, along with our superintendent, is the year-over-year growth for each student….For $26,000 per year for each student we should be getting more for our return.”

Koven: “In looking what Greenwich spends versus other towns…we have a very different population than other towns that we might be compared to. Greenwich has a significant population of students living at and below the poverty line….We have a high need population and a significant proportion of students who are special needs that’s larger than other towns.”

“We should always be looking for opportunities to improve the educational achievement of all of our students – from the highest achieving students to the students with the greatest needs. The budget is going to reflect that we have that diverse student body….That does drive expense.”

Hirsh: “It’s really hard to talk about per pupil spending…Every one of our students has different needs…We have a very diverse student body and a higher per pupil spending because we pay our teachers slightly more because we’re at the bottom of Fairfield County and we want to attract the best educators we can.”

“The act that we were one of the only schools, and the first school district in Fairfield and Westchester Counties to have our students back in school fully during Covid. It really helped support some of our student scores….We’ve shown higher growth, if you compare the growth of our students and their scores to others in the state of Connecticut, we’re matching or higher than. We have high needs students here and we expect rigorous academic standards and we expect our students to meet those. But we also also need to be sure we have the budget in place to provide our students what they need to get those supports.”

Kowalski: “Having a diverse population does not mean we shouldn’t be spending appropriately and spending smarter.”

What plan of action would you take if the CT Dept of Education gave one year to correct racial imbalance?

Koven: “I don’t know that it would make sense for us to do that. I don’t know that that’s something the town should do. I don’t think it makes sense to bus children around town. It would diminish their academic experience and diminish their social experience. It would change the culture of our town in a way that wouldn’t be beneficial. I wouldn’t do it….and it would be very expensive. How do you bus people all over town. How to you pay for that? What’s going to happen with the traffic?”

Hirsh: “This is a topic that has come up at least twice in my time in Greenwich…It is very clear our community has spoken up loudly that they want neighborhood schools…We as a BOE have heard our community loud and clear – they want the neighborhood schools. They want the diversity within their schools that’s reflective of their neighborhoods.”

“In order to change the balance within our schools would mean putting students, especially kindergartners, on buses, for a very long time. And that is not tenable.”

Kowalski: “I have yet to figure out what teeth the state has in order to force us to redistrict. And no one has come to us to say what happens if we just say, ‘No.'”

“There would be strong pushback to re-district, and I have no desire to re-district and I would come up with a plan, as we continue to do in Greenwich, which is to kick the can….I would support fighting it, and I think if this town were faced with it, we would be opening a GoFundMe page for the litigation we would bring against the state because I would really like to test it.”

Comment on the pressure from BET to shrink Central Middle School from what is outlined in the Education Specifications?

Kowalski: “I think I’ve been quite clear on how I feel about CMS and the size of the project. I have voted it down, every vote for the past two years….CMS does need to be redone…The scope of the project is beyond what we need at this point in time. I think we can build a phenomenal school within the right scope, for the right amount and number of students we are seeing at this point in time.”

“As far as I am aware it’s the person at the front of the classroom that educates our students…Despite what that school is now, it is producing excellent students doing amazing things…”

Koven: “The other day I was looking at enrollment data for the past 6 years for GPS. It fluctuates up and down. In 1988, there were 2200 fewer students in our schools than there are today. Right now, at 8662 students , we are at just about 80 students below the average for the past six years. It goes up and down.”

“In my experience, my kids have gone through Riverside and Eastern Middle School, and they have been massively over-crowded the entire time my kids have been there, and that has real educational  impacts on them. At Riverside School we have to start lunch at 11:00am an the last lunch is at 2:00pm. Anyone with kids knows that when your kids is hungry, they’re not really paying attention, they’re not really learning.”

“I agree that teachers teach; buildings don’t teach, but buildings do make a big difference in terms of what your educational experience is. In terms of CMS, we’ve looked at enrollment numbers, but Greenwich is a very attractive town, and if we build a new Central Middle School, I think we would end up with more students because people would want come and be in that nice school.”

“I would err on something being slightly larger than having something be too small. Fred Camillo said we have never build a project in Greenwich that has ended up being too big.”

Hirsh: “If you build it they will come….We watched as Glenville fought to have their school built bigger and they were told at the time that they would never have more than a set number of sections at the school. Within a year-and-a-half of that new school’s doors opening, we outgrew that school.  I don’t want to see the same thing happen to CMS. There weren’t enough classrooms. People had to repurpose some of the other rooms that were thoughtfully built within Glenville to address student academic needs.”

“The current CMS we have now was built to meet a budgetary number years ago. Corners were cut. It’s why we really need to rebuild that from the ground up….There’s a lot of misconceptions out there in regards to the buildings, cost, size and design.”

“We’ve heard elected officials repeatedly state, even on the radio today, that there is no urgency needed for funding for CMS, but I assure you that it is needed urgently.”

Support the Renovation of Old Greenwich School at a cost of $42 million?

Koven: “I support the renovation. The building committee has been extraordinary and the school is in desperate need of renovation….For these children to be in this school that is not appropriate, it’s having an impact on them every day. I think the building committee has worked very hard, and the need is compelling. I believe the cost is appropriate.”

Hirsh: “I fully support the need and the funding…You can go back and look at the 15 year master facility plan – not a single one of these expenses were a surprise. They were all brought up five years ago. Improvements are expensive, but our public schools are economic drivers. They are worth it. People consistently move to areas like Old Greenwich because of the school and because it is walkable.”

Kowalski: “I do believe that the Old Greenwich School is the right size moving forward. My understanding with respect to the vote is that the BET approved the $1.5 million to move that school forward and continue to do the work to get to the next stage, and remove the three conditions on that funding. It does not slow that school down in order to get a shovel in the ground. My understanding is, get to the next phase, and when you come back and ask for the interim at that time.”

“With respect to the master facilities plan, I think it’s a little bit outdated. My understanding of that plan is it was built around the concept of individualized learning program which we’re not doing any more.”

Hirsh: “That master facilities plan was not based on learning need. It was a comprehensive assessment of all of our 15 of our school facilities, as well as Havemeyer. And to modernize aging structures and meet current educational needs and meet new state standards and requirements.”

See also:

Differences Emerge between Selectmen Candidates: Mill Rate, School Infrastructure, Witherell, PPPs