Residents turning up to demand the resignation of the superintendent, students protesting cuts to the high school English department, Scotland Elementary School parents calling for their school principal to be fired, petitions pushing for a vote to rescind later start times — the bi-weekly Board of Education meetings have been a raucous place the past 12 months.
Concerned about the rise of frustration and misinformation among its constituents, the board is reviving its outreach committee.
The board previously had an outreach committee under the superintendency of Deborah Low, who retired in 2015.
The four-member committee, which still needs to schedule its first meeting, will be chaired by Carina Borgia-Drake. Kathleen Holz, Sharon D’Orso, and Tracey O’Connor will also sit on the committee.
Board Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis said she thinks the outreach group enables a “two-way conversation” with members of the public.
That’s a change from the board’s typical process.
Most board meetings have a designated time, before the meeting gets underway, for anyone to comment. Speakers are limited to three minutes, but the board does not generally respond to specific issues or questions raised by the public.
Stamatis said that while the committee is not being brought back in response to any one issue, events over the past year “make it clear to us that there are rifts in the community and frustration and lots of misinformation.”
“Part of this about the rift is bigger than the Board of Ed,” she added.
The community is divided over other issues, as well, Stamatis pointed out — including whether or not the Planning and Zoning Commission should allow the construction of a private skating club on Peaceable Street.
“Social media, as we know, is difficult but we have to figure out how to live with it. We know people take little pieces of information and they spin their own narratives — fake news,” said Stamatis.
The hope is that the board will be able to improve the dialogue with residents so they don’t feel “like they have to make their own narrative because they can come to get the right information from the right sources” said Stamatis.
The problem of issues spreading like wildfire on social media has also vexed the selectmen.
The Board of Selectmen hired Emily Pambianchi of Social Graces Communications in August to oversee social media communications for the town — a role that includes “social listening,” to see if any particular issues have gathered negative sentiments from residents.
The news quickly drew the ire of several residents on Facebook, who said they were concerned that the town would be paying someone to monitor and correct people’s opinions online.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the town plans to keep Pambianchi in place.
In her acceptance speech as board chair, Stamatis said she also wants to bring “civility” back into discussions in the community.
She echoed the sentiments of other public officials.
During a recent interview with The Press, Marconi said he intends to bring “more awareness to the issue of compassion.”
Part of the committee’s task will also be improving communications with other boards and town agencies.
“We may not always agree, but we can be respectful of our differences,” Stamatis said.
She pointed to a recent decision to form a committee with representatives from three boards — the Board of Education, Board of Selectmen, and Board of Finance — to look at the infrastructure needs of the schools as one success.
‘It just gets bigger and bigger’
The incoming superintendent, Dr. William Collins, is also aware of the frustrations expressed by parents and residents over the past year.
In a recent interview, Collins said he is considering restarting a monthly TV program dubbed “After the Bell,” broadcast on local channels while he was superintendent of Newington public schools. The program, which was produced by students at the high school, had a number for residents to call in questions on-air.
“Absent anything else people will begin to believe what’s on Facebook,” said Collins. “You can ignore it — which, tried that, that doesn’t work — because it just gets bigger and bigger.”
“I’m certainly not going to get a Facebook account and go on Facebook and start talking to people. That’s something I can’t do, that’s dangerous,” he added. “What I have done in the past is I put out FAQs on some of the more ridiculous things that people may start to believe… straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”