Election Endorsements: Board of Education

by Christopher O'Brien

vote boxEditorial

By Publisher, Chris O’Brien

And here we are. Today’s the day when thirty-three out of fifty of our friends and neighbors who have stepped forward to serve our town will be elected to guide our community for the next two years.

I know many of those running and local politics can become very personal. Lt. Govenor Wyman visited town the other night and reminded one political rally that “we (in State government) rely on you to get things done.” She of course wants to elect more Democrats who are like minded by the state. But her point was very clear. Teachers who educate your children are hired here in town, not in Hartford or Washington. The curriculum is developed here as well – although the general guidelines come from somewhere else. When you dial 911, responders are also your neighbors. If the roads or dams are broken, then it is the Mayor’s responsibility to lay out plans to fix them. Parks, economic development and other services in our beautiful town are managed by groups of volunteers.

And if you look at the slate of names on the ballot today, remember that – most of them won’t receive a single dollar for their service.

Yet, they’ve put their heart and time into a willingness to serve the community in which they live. While they won’t receive money, they will help us all improve our quality of life and sense of community. Money can’t buy that.

I’ve personally spent over a decade in politics as well, but this year was different. With one brief exception, I haven’t been as involved with the campaigns this year as I have in the past. I’m thirty-four years old and for a change have stepped back to attend to my own personal life. I’ve been looking for ways to improve my income and would like to start a family soon. I really haven’t had the time to follow the detailed political squabbles until just a few days ago. Yet, I know how important the decisions we make today will be. So I’ve done my best with the little time I’ve had to get to know as many of the candidaets as I can and try to pass that on to you.

I’ve over-reached in my goals to do that – hoping to provide more insight than I’ve had the time to do. So here I am on 11:36 am on Election Day making my final decisions. Sometimes I wait until minutes before 8:00 pm just in case I meet a candidate I haven’t before who can persuade me to vote for them. Here are my picks.

 

How did I choose them? Everyone on the ballot is a good person. Yet, a good person doesn’t always have the insight or ability to do a specific task. No hard feelings if I don’t vote for them, I hope. Seventeen candidate will lose, but in the upcoming weeks the Mayor-elect will seek out residents who will be wiling to serve on other APPOINTED boards and commissions. Residents who haven’t sought office have an equal chance at this as well.

I choose my elected leaders if I think they can uphold the standards of a good democracy. To me, that includes willingess to try new ideas, ability to gather and communicate with groups, and of course, a record of achievement. Subjective, yes, but I believe a person who pays attention to the founding principles of our nation are the best ones who can protect them for the future. In the future, some of whom we pick today may go on to higher office.

Secondly, I should disclose that I am a Republican. Yet, again, there is that famous phrase “All Politics is Local”. There are good people in both … make that all three – groups of politicians in our ballot.

Board of Education:

Wolcott has had a consistent record of superior educational standards. The Board of Education – under both Democratic and Republican control – over the years has maintained low costs while achieving some of the highest test scores possible. I’ve noticed that the biggest contracts often come up during Republican administrations. Recently, Council members have rejected a couple of contracts, sending them into arbitration. The arbitors sided with the unions saying basically that the contract was the best the Town could expect. This says something about key negotiators on the Board of Education such as Kimberly Lumia. She is the CEO of Sharon Hospital. If she is partly responsible for these best-as-we can get contracts in this state, then she deserves re-election.

Yet at the same time, we’ve seen several cracks develop in our school system in the last few years. More and more, teachers have become nervous about speaking about virtually anything. Parents have grumbled quietly about the superintendnat’s management style. And in the past two years Wolcott Schools have become the focus of two national news stories.

In October 2010, someone at Wolcott High School got on the intercom to announce that there was an intruder in the building. Despite a number of students and teachers verifying what they heard during the lockdown that ensued, some administrators denied to state media that such an announcement was made. I’m going to tend to believe the students. There was no intruder. The lock-down forced students and teachers to believe a gunman aka. Columbine was walking the halls to cause them harm. The real reason was to allow a state police dog unfettered access to lockers to serach for drugs. While I support the school system’s no-tolerance drug policy, this was the wrong way to communicate key lessons to our students and community on so many levels.

Even worse, not a single Board of Education member spoke about the incident, leaving the Superintendant to speak on their behalf.

In March 2012, Wolcott became the focus of another media event- this one being talked about as far away as Las Vegas and Australia. In that instance, an anti-bullying day was held sponsored by several student organizations at the High School. It was part of a national initiative by gay rights groups to urge tolerance and acceptance by students. More and more we are seeing reports of students commiting suicide because they are taunted and harrassed around the country. I don’t know if we are just reporting on this more today than we did when I was in school, but I’m glad attention is finally being drawn to the problem.

That morning however, a student arrived at school with a shirt expressing his belief that political beliefs were being shoved down his throat. The shirt he wore expressed a political opinion and didn’t cause any harm. However, the ACLU got involved after the student was forced by administrators to change his shirt or face suspension because his religious and political beliefs conflicted with the message administrators would have preferred. School administrators of course say we have a tolerant environment, however their actions should have been handled differently. In fact, this case was very similar to one in Ohio where a federal court ruled that similar actions that Wolcott took would be unconstitutional.

Our students are still maturing and at the high school level are only being introduced to these volatile issues. We certainly don’t want them to scream at each other like they do on cable news. But we do want them to think for themselves and respectfully be open to opposing views while they learn about the world around them.

Balancing the constitutional rights of a student with the daily other challenges of running a school district is no small order. And I’m sure some didn’t expect a student would have challenged the day’s events. Yet again, the failure of any Board of Education member to be open to consider WHY this issue became so newsworthy is concerning. I attempted to get comment for School members for a Whisper article and none replied. I also tried to forward the relevant information about the federal case, but again none said if they would even read it.

Again, no word from anyone on the Board of Education. They wouldn’t speak to the media. They refused to listen when offered additional information.

As a result, I believe we need a change in the school board. A school board needs to be responsive to the people that elect them. They need to balance the rights of students and parents and teachers against that of their mission.

I fear that we are educating students to be good in math, science and other textbook skills, but not as solid in moral character. Over the last 50 years our nation’s divorce rate and number of single parent households has skyrocketted. If you ask folks in their 20s if they are happy, many will say they regret decisions they made just after high school. Its been my hope that perhaps someone can guide our students to have better communication skills and learn family values that will make them happier people when the time is right.  Our health curriculum needs to emphasize personal responsibility and that the role of sex in our society is leading to unhappy relationships with our families, children, and loved ones. We can do better.

While I don’t know if these candidates agree with me on these issues, they demonstrate that they can think outside the box and bring good ideas:

Art Lerz – I believe there should be some, but a limited involvement of school administrators or former staffers on the school board. Art Lerz recently retired as head custodian at Tyrrell School. But its clear that he didn’t just clean the floors and lavatories. He started a “garbage crew” -handpicked students he felt could use a little more help in coming out of their shell. Three of them were autistic students who initially didn’t talk much. Yet he worked with them. I recently sat down with Art to ask about his run, and he had some good advice. “Some people have brains in their heads, others in their hands.” In other words, there are people who are booksmart -and others who are not. We still need to make sure those folks succeed.

The timing for hearing him say this couldn’t be more perfect. As college tuition costs skyrocket, many students are trying to figure out how to succeed when our schools are primarily preparing to take on the debt of college. Lerz managed a successful Arturo’s Bakery in Waterbury. He has 70 years of life experience, is easy to talk to and very direct. We can use more of that.

John Testa – After reading that he his platform is to improve nutritional standards in our schools, he’s an unlikely choice for me. A practicing medical doctor focusing on diabetes research, Testa gets my vote after calling my attention to a program that Whole Foods and other distributors have to bring salad bars into schools. They would do this for free, and if it doesn’t work then there’s no commitment needed by Wolcott. He says that introducing children to healthier alternatives – which could also include expanding the week-long ‘local foods week’ will help us raise healthier children. “I’m concerned about the chemicals in our foods, whether or not chicken strips are really chicken, and that we’re showing our kids that this and frozen pizza are ok. You have to feed a students mind and body. They can’t learn without good food.” He admits to not having experience with contracts and the other tasks that will take up almost all of his time on the school board, but he’s a smart guy. Few others in the Board had that experience when they started either. Besides, with seven incumbents running, there will be plenty of experience he can learn from.

Finally, he agreed with me that the high divorce rates in our country are concerning. This is largely a factor of forces outside of Wolcott, knowing a candidate recognizes this problem leads me to hope he – especially seeing families in his medical process- understands the impact and can help find a solution to turn it around.

Gloria Clair – I’ve known Mrs Claire since middle school when her husband was my Scoutmaster. She has been involved with the Town’s handicapped commission and also has a solid background.

 

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