Tuesday night’s much anticipated Board of Education candidate debate started with a “speed round” of questions. Candidates held up signs indicating Yes, No or Unsure.
Some of the questions were:
Do you agree with the views of the group who calls themselves Greenwich Patriots?
All voted no except Ms Galletta, who hesitated. After the other candidates put down their signs, she held up the sign saying Unsure.
Do you support social and emotional learning in our schools?
Kostin, Stowe and Mercanti-Anthony said Yes, Kittle and Galletta said No.
Do you agree with Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project and think these theories should be taught as truth in Greenwich Schools?
Stowe and Kostin voted Unsure. Kittle, Galletta and Mercanti-Anthony voted No.
Should Greenwich Public School students wear school uniforms?
Mercanti-Anthony, Kostin and Stowe voted No. Kittle and Galletta voted Unsure.
The debate format was unique in that it gave each party an equal amount of time to respond, on a cumulative basis.
But, because the Democrats had two candidates for two openings, and the Republicans had three candidates for two openings, Republicans used up their allotted time faster and were cut off by the moderator several times.
Still, there were plenty of opportunities for the candidates to differentiate themselves.
Dysfunction on the Board of Education
“A lot of people talk about dysfunction on the board, but personally I haven’t felt it,” said Kathleen Stowe, who is running for a second four-year term. “The majority of us get along very well and I write all my letters with the Republican Peter Bernstein, and, she said (Republican) Joe Kelly had recently asked her to sub for him on a Cardinal stadium meeting.”
“We work really well as a board,” she said.
While Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said he appreciated the collegiality Ms Stowe described, he said, “We know there are board members who refuse to talk to one another.”
He likely referred to Peter Sherr (R), who is finishing his third four-year term, and board chair Peter Bernstein (R), who is finishing his second four-year term. Their disagreements landed them in court in August 2017. Then this past March the board voted to censure Mr. Sherr for a profane comment made on a hot mic.
Peter Bernstein, who is finishing his 8th and final year on the board, has been re-elected chair for the past four years, which was remarkable given that typically chairs serve no more than two years.
Further, Mercanti-Anthony said there was systemic dysfunction, and that the superintendent’s goals were not measurable and should be tied to student achievement.
Personalized Learning and Social-Emotional Learning
Asked about personalized learning, Democrat Laura Kostin segued to Social-Emotional Learning, which she described as a valuable tool. “I believe in starting children early with learning how to focus and maintain attention for long periods of time, and later on, managing anxiety and conflict resolution. All of these are important for students to achieve their best outcomes.”
Asked about personalized learning, Megan Galetta, a parent of four Greenwich Schools students, said she’d seen an evolution over the years and with different superintendents.
“For decades our schools have been known as a strong, high achieving district, including the needs of an extremely diverse community. Over the last four years however, we’ve seen a huge decline. Our academic achievement is down. Student enrollment is declining. Curriculum and teaching have become politicized.”
“The BOE unfortunately has become confrontational – with both the Greenwich community and the Town government,” Galetta continued, adding that there should be more focus on improving student achievement and increasing test scores versus social emotional learning.
Ms Kostin said that SEL was a “toolbox” embedded in a school day.
“It is not one at the expense of the other,” she said.
Ms Galletta rebutted by saying, “Parents are proficient at teaching values and social-emotional learning.”
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said the choice was not between SEL or academics.
“I think this is a false dichotomy. There is no question that parents are the first teachers of their students,” he said.
Citing a recent study, he said, “More than half of teenagers are reporting instances of depression, loneliness and anxiety. We also saw these are national trends, even before the pandemic.”
“No one is saying we’re not supposed to support academics,” he said. “SEL is a terrible name. It’s one of those edu-babble names where people don’t really know what it is. Ten years ago we called SEL life skills. Twenty years ago we called it character education,” he continued.
“What do we really want our kids to learn? Skills around self-regulation, skills on rational decision making, skills around organization and executive function. It’s a little un-serious to just say schools need to focus on academics and not social-emotional,” Mercanti-Anthony said.
Ms Stowe, who is finishing her first four year term on the board and serves as its vice chair, said the district does indeed comply with curriculum standards and there has been a renewed focus on transparency.
She said the superintendent had brought in a great team of program coordinators, “trying to push out new curriculum as a tool for teachers.”
“I don’t want my teacher to be a robot either. I want them to still have a personality,” Stowe said. “That’s how kids learn – they get excited.”
As for masks, Stowe said no one enjoyed wearing them.
“It’s not our call. We’re under an executive order given the health situation,” she said. “What they do enjoy is being back in school in person. Our board got that done last year when others did not.”
“I don’t believe parents are supposed to be the guideposts of our curriculum. We can all have opinions as parents and we can express them to our children,” Ms Kostin said. “This is not a system where all citizens get to make the laws.”
Mr. Kittle said the controversy in the past year had led to improved transparency.
He said the board had to be careful not to overstep, but at the same time be vigilant.
He said there needed to be a sound accountability framework. “A lot of it is just ensuring that you don’t have certain teachers going rogue.”
Ms Kostin said that especially since the “regrettable, isolated” incidents last year, as a parent she was pleased with transparency.
“I don’t know why this area has become so hot,” she said. “We’re getting regular updates about curriculum.”
When it was her turn to respond to the question about curriculum, Ms Galletta insead spoke for three minutes about mask wearing.
Holding a large index card in front of her lower face, she said, “Our children are suffering from an emotional, social perspective, experiencing a ton of depression and anxiety. I feel a major reason for that is we are asking our children to remain in masks many hours per day.”
Galletta said children learn a lot by seeing facial expressions.
“The most disastrous thing to do to our children is to keep them in masks all day, eight hours per day,” she said.
“I believe there should be choice and it should be up to parents to determine if their children should be wearing a mask or not.”
Ms Galletta said the district needed to be more transparent about curriculum, and that parents needed a chance to review curriculum in advance, ideally the summer before a school year. She said inconsistencies across schools were an issue.
The moderator interrupted Ms Galletta based on allotted time running out for Republicans.
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony mentioned he disagreed with Ms Galletta about mask wearing, and then answered the question about curriculum.
He attributed last year’s incidents in part to shortcomings in the teacher observation system and feedback.
“If you’re a tenured teacher you only need to be observed once. It’s one lesson out of 180 days. You don’t have the feedback that teachers need,” he said.
Moderator Ms Riemers prefaced a question by saying the district had a large percentage of students who qualified for subsidized lunch and underperformed on standardized tests compared to the general school population, and that the achievement gap widened during Covid.
She asked the candidates what they thought the district should do to address the achievement gap.
Mr. Kittle said that in 2021, Greenwich’s Title I schools fifth grade math proficiency was 29%.
“That’s a scary number,” he said, but added that it was irresponsible to blame the achievement gap on socio-economic status.
“Dunbar High School is the first Black high school in Washington DC, set up in 1890. They had better performance as an underfunded school, with a very high percentage of students (being) children of unskilled laborers facing Jim Crow south laws and segregation, and they had the best performance of any high school in the Washington, DC district. The idea that Greenwich, as wealthy a town as we are, would have a proficiency at that level is really shocking.”
He said SEL had a place in character building, and that “grit, work ethic and being able to delay gratification” go a long way to bridging the achievement gap.
Ms Kostin acknowledged test scores had suffered but that there millions of dollars of Covid funds were coming to Greenwich to combat learning loss. “Last year was the first time we had math interventionists in every school,” she added. “There are resources now at our disposal including funds for English teachers, tutors and social workers. There’s staff development funds. This year could be a game changer.”
Ms Stowe, who is chair of the budget committee, said there was about $9.6 million in funds coming from the American Rescue Plan.
She said Greenwich already gets additional funding as a district than for example New Canaan, in part because there are several Title I schools.
“But also because we were open when other schools were not. We didn’t even realize that. That wasn’t an incentive. But that shows a lot about what we accomplished and we’re being rewarded financially.”
She said 20% ($2 million) must be spent to address learning loss among students including low income students, children with disabilities, English language learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care. The remaining 80% ($7.7million) must be invested in transformative areas.
“Separately, the town is receiving $32 million. They can use it however they wish,” Stowe continued. “But I think we should be advocating for much of that to be used for capital (improvements).”
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said Covid funding shouldn’t be spent and then have the district return to “business as usual.”
He said the goal should be for all students to be proficient.
“Why isn’t every student at GHS taking Advanced Placement tests?” he asked. “They should.”
“This isn’t a matter of spending more money and adding to the tax levy. It’s a matter of taking the resources we have, and the new largess, and thinking about how we can leverage the real changes in learning science over the last 15 years that no one learned in teacher school because they didn’t exist then.”
Ms Kostin said pre-school for all would help narrow the achievement gap.
“We should be able to have preschool classrooms in our Title I Schools. Part of the ed specs for Julian Curtiss were preschool classrooms.” She said 202 families applied for 59 preschool spots last year.
“Those are paying families who took their money elsewhere – 143 of them (who didn’t get in). We could have filled nine classrooms with those students. What becomes an achievement gap often stems from a school readiness gap.”
Ms Stowe said pre-school was costly. “However,” she said. “I voted for the Julian Curtiss ed specs because there was room for preschool classrooms.”
Ms Galletta said before there can be “APs for all,” it was important to identify where gaps exist. She said there was a “deficit to fill.” She noted how during Covid, midterm exams and finals were canceled.
“Before we pat ourselves on the back that we had kids in school, the high school was only in seats two days a week,” she said.
She said Stamford School district was removing AP classes and ALP programs. “It could happen here in Greenwich as well,” she warned. “It would be catastrophic for our community.”
Mr. Kittle said more spending won’t solve Greenwich Schools’ problems.
“If spending is the answer, why is it that as the best funded school district in the state that we have the gaps that we have?” Kittle asked, adding that proficiency had dropped prior to Covid.
Ms Stowe said she saw no cause for alarm that APs would be removed in Greenwich where more and more students are encouraged to take AP classes, and 2,600 AP exams were administered during Covid.
“We’re at the point where we’re teaching BC Calculus and they’re running out of room,” she said.
“Money’s not always the answer, but it’s a problem when you don’t have it,” she continued, adding that 90% of costs were fixed and increasing higher than the budget. She said the board had worked very hard with administration to find efficiencies.
School Infrastructure and Capital Funding
“This is obviously a hot topic because we have crack monitors on the walls of our Central Middle School, and it’s not doing well,” Ms Kostin said. “The one blueprint we have is the facilities master plan. It was completed three years ago and we haven’t made any measurable progress.”
“We need to make our capital a priority. If we don’t start addressing it, …not just structurally. this is a huge liability for us. If we were to be sued, I don’t know what our liability would be. ADA (compliance) is just good safety. We should not be carrying students up the stairs when they’re on crutches.”
“We had ed specs for Julian Curtiss that were not funded by the BET, so now we’re set back another year,” she added.
Ms Stowe said a study was commissioned by the BET for a framework on preserving BOE assets. The study determined the average age of Greenwich school buildings was 1953. It identified Julian Curtiss, Old Greenwich and Riverside schools as top priorities based on ADA, air quality and safety & security.
“We keep using the word, ‘kick the can down the road,’ but I can’t see the can any more,” she said. “We’re three years behind. This does not go away. We have to stop under-funding our master facilities plan and maintenance.”
“Otherwise we’re going to have more North Mianus situations,” she said, referring the the school where ceilings collapsed and now students are relocated to rental space in a closed private school in Stamford.
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said the BOE needs to couch their ed specs in educational research and educational science.
“You have Board of Education members who don’t talk to BET members – even members of the same party,” he said, adding that Greenwich, despite its resources, has crumbling school infrastructure, lagging test scores and both special education and staff development failing keeping up with advancements in their fields.
Mr. Kittle said, “The BET has done a fantastic job making sure the schools are funded. We don’t really have a funding problem in the schools. We have a governance problem.”
He said the reason he voted No in the speed round about the facilities master plan was that Central Middle School was out 12 years and that was too long to wait.
The debate did not include write in candidate Kara Philbin. The League of Women Voters explained last week in a statement that their decision reflected longstanding practice, and that permitting one write-in candidate to participate would mean permitting every write-in candidate to participate.
Ms Philbin has become a familiar presence at Board of Education meetings where dozens of people have testified during public comment, and comments have been limited to three minutes per person.
On Sept 23 she told the BOE they were discriminating against community members who are choosing to wait for clinical trials to completed for better understanding of long term effects before having their children vaccinated.
On June 23, she demanded to have three minutes to speak for each agenda item. Mr. Bernstein said the policy is for three minutes per person.
Ms Philbin said SEL and technology were being taught at the expense of academics. “We are at a critical time where the district and BOE need to prioritize academics and rigor over all else,” she said.
“You are tearing apart the community with these mandates that do not follow the science,” she added.
After the chair cited board policy 93-25 limiting her to three minutes, Philbin continued to speak until her mic was cut. After several minutes, and the head of security standing nearby, she sat down.
After the elections, the BOE will elect new officers.
Comprised of eight members with staggered four-year terms, the board elects chair, vice chair and secretary for one year terms.
If there are tie votes for chair the Board of Selectmen will appoint one, which is what happened in 2016 when after several votes, the board failed to reach a consensus. The Selectmen, then led by Republican Peter Tesei voted to appoint Peter Sherr as chair.
For the past four years the board successfully voted Mr. Bernstein as the chair.
Last year the vote was 6-0-2 with Republicans Karen Kowalski and Peter Sherr declining to vote.