On Friday during the Greenwich High School “We the People” debate, students peppered candidates with questions via Zoom.
The event was not open to the public to view or record, but the media were invited.
In the past, the We the People debate was held in person. Several hundred students would file into the massive GHS performing arts center. Student reaction to candidates responses was palpable.
There were laughs. There were boos. There was occasional wild applause like the time candidates for State Rep and State Senate were asked whether they supported legalization of marijuana and Laura Kostin (then a candidate for State Rep) said, simply, “Yes.”
What was memorable about Friday’s debate, was that it ended 9 minutes early.
In an attempt to be equitable to all candidates, LWV Greenwich, We the People students and their team coach and LWV youth outreach coordinator Aaron Hull gave longer cumulative time to Republicans because they had three endorsed candidates and the Democrats had just two.
Candidates each had 90 seconds to respond to questions and had their mics cut off when they exceeded their time.
At the previous BOE debate, the three Republicans were given the same cumulative time to reply to questions without regard for there being more Republican candidates. As a result, Republicans kept getting cut off and Democrats took their time responding.
On Friday, the absence of one candidate, Megan Galletta, was not mentioned until the close of the debate when Mr. Hull explained why the debate was ending early.
He read aloud an email he had received from Ms Galletta at 1:40pm. The debate started at 1:54pm.
He said, “This is from Megan Galletta. ‘Hi Aaron. Unfortunately I must attend a meeting for work which I cannot decline. I am sorry I will not be able to participate in the debate this afternoon.'”
At the previous debate, in which candidates held up signs saying Yes, No or Unsure during a speed round of questions, one question was whether they supported the views of the Greenwich Patriots.
Not until the moderator started to read the next question did Galletta hold up the Unsure sign.
The We the People debate brought up questions that touched on the views of the Greenwich Patriots, including Critical Race Theory, teaching about race, masking in schools, Covid vaccines and teaching about gender and sexuality.
The format of Friday’s debate was also unique in that Republicans did not see or hear the Democrats’ replies, and vice versa.
Without using Critical Race Theory, how would you teach students the complexities of race race within American history in a constructive, non-confrontational way?
Ms Kostin said not everyone understood what Critical Race Theory was.
“It’s the notion that racism isn’t always person-to-person,” she said. “Sometimes it’s systemic and it’s embedded in our institutions. It can be embedded in our legal system. It can be embedded in our education system. I don’t believe that it’s a controversial notion. I am happy that Greenwich Public Schools is teaching inclusion and diversity, and I think it’s very important for our students to know that not everyone has the same experience they have.”
Ms Stowe agreed with Ms Kostin. “It is unfortunate to me that our curriculum is being dragged into national politics.”
“GHS is designated as ‘No Place for Hate.’ We have ‘Stand up Against Racism,'” she said.
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said he had taught AP US History for 10 years.
“Political opinions of faculty, opinions of adults is not appropriate. What is appropriate is to give you all the balance of information from all aspects and all perspectives, so you can make up your own mind. That certainly includes when it comes to English, reading authors from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints, and certainly includes in social studies, talking about slavery and civil rights, and by doing that, being able to understand what a great country we are, warts and all…”
Mr. Kittle said Critical Race Theory meant different things to different people.
“Different people would say if someone is against CRT they don’t want to talk about race at all, or if someone is for it that they’re Marxist…The key is to teach students to be able to say, here’s an idea. How would you think about empirically testing it? Are all disparities and performances of different groups due to prejudice? That is a question that can be tested. Students should be taught how to to think through issues so regardless of a teacher’s personal opinion, students can come to conclusions.”
What is the next step toward unmasking students, whether it be reporting tests weekly or requiring vaccinations. What should be considered morally acceptable?
Ms Stowe said she was proud that Greenwich Public Schools students were able to go back to school in person last year when other schools didn’t.
“I think we all want to get back to life with out masks,” she said. “As for vaccines, there’s been no decision on that, although your teachers are forced to get vaccinated under an Executive Order or weekly testing. I’m happy we have a highly vaccinated community.”
Ms Kostin said said while masks were depressing, it was not normal to exist in a global pandemic.
“This issue is thankfully not one that forces us to become health officials as a board. That’s not our lane.”
Mr. Kittle said the Governor sets mask policy.
But, he said, “It is not okay for leaders to say we’re doing this because somebody else told us to….They should be able to justify it. You have to look at the data at the time and see if it is an appropriate trade off.”
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said he thought masks were currently keeping students safe.
“When the decision is made, it’s going to be made by experts higher up the food chain than the BOE…It doesn’t make sense to get ahead of the CDC….The priority now is keeping everyone in school and keeping everyone safe.”
Does the board have any plans of changing the district’s health curriculum, specifically the gender and sexuality related topics?
Ms Kostin the board should not micromanage the sex ed curriculum. “If we’re going to review a new one, that’s a different story.”
Ms Stowe said the board reviews curriculum, especially when there is a change in curriculum.
“Our role as a board is not to micro-manage” she said.
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony described curriculum as a hot button issue – whether itbe CRT or gender and sexuality.
“The board’s responsibility is to vet curriculum, “he said. “Sometimes it comes from state mandates and sometimes if comes from the community, including students. I’d love to see more student involvement in these conversations.”
Mr. Kittle said thae board has to prioritize issues.
“This is the first time I’ve head of this being an issue. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably lower on the list of priorities,” he said.
How will the the Town of Greenwich ensure another North Mianus School (ceiling collapse) won’t happen in other Greenwich Schools?
“We have had a lot of issues on getting fund on on the capital side. …Everyone uses the term ‘Kick the can down the road.’ I can’t even see the can any more,” Ms Stowe said. “As for JC, OG, Riverside, CMS – like, it’s not happening yet. That’s the real problem.”
“We also have to focus on maintenance,” she added. “We have been under maintaining our schools.”
Ms Kostin said Old Greenwich School was in particular need of upgrades, and that at a recent meeting a parent had said ceiling tiles were falling on students and sewage was flooding into classrooms.
“Right now CMS is structurally deficient. We have crack monitors on the walls to monitor the building’s facade. I hope we can work with the finance board (BET) we can maybe address more than one project at once.”
Mr. Kittle said while CMS had been flagged as structurally unsound, North Mianus School had not. “The structural and safety of buildings probably doesn’t get a lot of attention unless it is being politicized.”
Mr. Mercanti-Ahtony said if North Mianus School’s ceiling collapse had happened when school was in session, there would be more talk about it.
“We haven’t gone back and said why wasn’t this flagged over the $500,000 review that the board commissioned five years ago of all buildings. What was the breakdown in the system that allowed that to happen? And what else could be there?…We can’t just move on and talk about other things. We have to go back and find out what happened. It’s the same thing with some of the curriculum incidents that happened last year like the inappropriate video was shown.”
Do the opinions of adults in the Town of Greenwich hold more value than the students in terms of education and well being?
Ms Kostin said she did not believe parents should be shaping curriculum.
“We hire professionals to do this. We have to let them do their jobs,” she added. “I don’t think there’s something inherently wrong with what we are teaching our students…I don’t know that citizens get to make laws.”
Ms Stowe said curriculum was mandated by the state.
“Teachers have to have their personalities in the classroom. They’re not robots,” she added.
Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said often times students know better than adults.
“You know what’s really going on here in the high school, where areas could improve… We really need to look for different ways for your voice to come out.”
Mr. Kittle said students are “on the ground and seeing things up close.”
However, he said, “Your parents have wisdom from living a longer life and often have the benefit of seeing things in a way a teenager might not fully appreciate. I wouldn’t dismiss the value of either opinions. They both should be important.”