Election 2019: School board candidates recognize need to ‘lead by example’

School board candidates at the League of Women's Voters' Oct. 1 debate were, from left: Rachel Ruggeri, Sean McEvoy, Jonathan Steckler, Kenneth Sjoberg and Robert Ceccarini.

School board candidates at the League of Women's Voters' Oct. 1 debate were, from left: Rachel Ruggeri, Sean McEvoy, Jonathan Steckler, Kenneth Sjoberg and Robert Ceccarini.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

Politely sharing views and values, five the seven candidates for Board of Education answered questions before an audience of about 170 in the Ridgefield Library at the League of Women Voters’ Oct. 1 debate.

Teaching kindness among students was the subject of one of the questions, which audience members were invited to submit on note cards.

“I have three children in elementary school,” said Rachel Ruggeri, a Republican. “... My husband and I always try to teach kindness through kindness.”

She noted that October is Bullying Prevention Month.

“I’m really impressed with the job the schools do, teaching kindness,” said Rob Ceccarini, another Republican candidate.

Jonathan Steckler, a Democratic incumbent, said that as a parent he has two questions he asks every evening: “What was something kind someone did for you today? And what was something kind you did for someone else?”

Sean McEvoy, a Republican, said he and his wife have long sought to instill kindness as a value in their two daughters.

“We’ve taught them kindness from the beginning,” he said.

Ken Sjoberg, a Democrat running for the board, said he is the father of Ridgefield High School graduate, as well as a Ridgefield second grader and a Ridgefield toddler.

“He’s still learning kindness,” he joked.

Sjoberg agreed kindness is something parents and other adults need to model for kids.

“The kindness starts with us,” he said. “You lead by example.”

Two other school board candidates were invited but couldn’t make the forum, according to League president Marilyn Carroll.

“Elizabeth Flogel was unable to attend due to a previous professional work commitment that was out of the country,” she said. “Bryan Ward was also unable to attend due to a prior work commitment.”

New superintendent

The candidates were also asked their priorities in and perspective on the school board’s superintendent search.

McEvoy said that Ridgefield is on its fourth superintendent in recent years.

“We need some stability at the top,” he said.

McEvoy also said he’d like to see a candidate with more technical literacy.

“What drives us here,” Steckler said, “is the mission and vision of the district.”

He called for a superintendent who would work at “building the inclusiveness” of the school district and advancing “wellness of body and mind” among students.

“The job of superintendent is 24-7,” Ruggeri said.

She shared a few of the qualities she’d like to see in the next superintendent.

“We need someone to look beyond the test results,” she said.

Ruggeri would look for someone who has “no biases” and “good relationships with people,” she said. “...Someone able to work well with board members,” she added.

“We need a former educator who empowers teachers,” said Sjoberg. “... We need a communicator.”

“I think we’ve got 5,000 priorities,” Sjoberg added, “each one of our students should be a priority.”

Ceccarini said he thought the most recent superintendent, Dr. William Collins, was doing a pretty good job before illness ended his tenure.

The previous superintendent, Dr. Karen Baldwin, left amid a controversy concerning unattributed text borrowings in her work.

“Looking back on Dr. Baldwin,” Ceccarini said, “one of the values we’re looking for is honesty and integrity.”

School spending

What did the candidates think of the schools’ budget and spending level?

“We’re closing in on a $100 million budget!” said Ceccarini.

“We’re spending enough on education when we see growth in each of our students,” said Steckler.

Sjoberg agreed “the success of each of the students” would tell whether the school system was spending effectively.

“There are efficiencies to be found in any budget,” he said. “I’m a CPA by trade. If there’s money there, I think I’ll be able to find it.”

“We have a $95 million budget,” said Ruggeri. With that much spending, she said, sound budgeting means the school board has to work closely with other town agencies.

“We need more meetings with the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance,” she said.

Compared to other schools in its “DRG” or demographic reference group — the eight affluent Fairfield County suburbs that the state groups Ridgefield with for comparison purposes — Ridgefield’s spending level tracks near the bottom, McEvoy said.

“That’s not a good metric to have,” he said.

In comparisons of student performance, he added, Ridgefield does better.

“We’re outperforming the spending we have,” McEvoy said.

Spending reflects how many kids are in school, he said, and Ridgefield’s enrollment is down 15% from its high point a few years back, and expected to go down another 5%.

“We’re going to be 20% below our peak,” McEvory said.

The middle schools are operating at “65% of capacity,” he added.

“We need to look at everything,” McEvoy said.