Republican primary: Race for school board kicks off

Aging school infrastructure, the search for a new superintendent, and better communication with parents were among the issues raised by Republican candidates running for the Board of Education in next week’s primary.

“We have nationally ranked schools. Some of the top schools in the state,” said candidate Sean McEvoy. “Yet, in recent years, we have increasingly underfunded our school buildings to a level that has become unacceptable.”

The six candidates — Liz Floegel, Robert Ceccarini, Darrin McGuire, Bryan Ward, Rachel Ruggeri and McEvoy — will primary for five available seats on the school board Tuesday, Sept. 10, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In the run-up to the primary, all six candidates — none of whom currently sit on the board — were sent questions by The Press to give a sense to Republican voters where they stood on the issues. Candidates were asked what issues they see as most pressing for the district, what changes they would make to how the board operates if elected, and how they would budget for the financial concerns of residents who no longer have children in the district while still meeting the needs of students.

“Connecticut’s economy is shrinking, which means the tax base funding our schools is shrinking,” said Floegel. “With looming pension debt, increasing burdens of unfunded mandates, it is imperative that our schools budgets are well managed, forward looking and realistic.”

Superintendent search

Nearly all the candidates pointed to the lack of a permanent superintendent as a top concern for the district.

Superintendent William Collins resigned at the end of August. Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote has been the lead administrator in charge of the schools since July 1.

“Unfortunately, we find ourselves once again without a superintendent,” said Ceccarini. “The first issue the Board of Education needs to address is finding the right person to lead our district. Someone with experience, yet has fresh ideas on how to best prepare our children to not only be great students and well-rounded individuals, but also independent thinkers with a global outlook.”

It is unclear whether the candidates elected to the school board in November will play a role in selecting the next superintendent. Margaret Stamatis, the current chair, said that will depend on the pool of candidates and their availability for interviews, and the timing of the search and the hire date of the new superintendent.

“The superintendent sets the tone and vision for the district, both now and in the future,” said McGuire.

A superintendent handles budget requests, curriculum decisions, and is responsible for the school staff and faculty, McGuire said.

“Without a strong and insightful leader, forward progress across many levels is essentially on pause.”

Ward, like McGuire, missed the July caucus and petitioned his way onto the ballot by gathering signatures from town Republicans.

“There has been too much turn-over (for a variety of reasons) in this role over the past few years,” Ward said. “We need to find an individual that will bring some consistency to the position.”

Ruggeri did not raise the issue of finding a superintendent directly, but advocated for a careful review of education policies that would affect students in the classroom, including program changes, professional development, and transition services for special education students.

“The teachers need to be asked what supports they need going forward,” said Ruggeri.

School infrastructure

Ceccarini, McEvoy, and Ward all pointed to aging school facilities as top concerns.

“Our schools are great vessels for learning but when some of the repairs needed have been neglected for months or years, they become bigger problems with expensive fixes,” said Ceccarini, a Barlow Mountain parent.

He was happy the district replaced the glass vestibule at the school’s entrance, but said “a small passing shower during a ‘Meet the Teacher’ event proved the repairs were insufficient.”

McEvoy said that Veterans Park was last renovated in 1957.

“We need to invest in our facilities so that we can have schools that actually match the level of achievement our educators are able to provide our children,” said McEvoy. “...I want schools that Realtors would be proud to walk prospective Ridgefield homebuyers into for a tour. I don’t think we currently have this.”

Ward called the schools “tired” and “in desperate need of improvements.”

He recognized that improvements require funding but also communication.

“I recommend additional tours of our schools that will include meetings with school officials to assess both short-term and long-term needs,” Ward said.

Floegel agreed.

“Our schools are our towns competitive advantage and should be treated as such,” she said. “If we do not allow our schools appropriate investment, homeowner property values and ability to sell in an already down market will be negatively impacted.”

Board transparency

Several candidates said they will improve communication and transparency between the board and the public if elected.

Ruggeri said she would want to “take a more visible role in our schools, to help better serve the community, students, teachers, and administrators.”

“Visiting departments by invitation and joining staff days when appropriate will absolutely create a lens into our education system,” said Ruggeri.

Floegel suggested board meetings should be more interactive.

“I would support Town and BOE charter changes to ensure we leverage web conferencing, live-streaming and other digital tools to allow for more participation from all those stakeholders,” said Floegel.

She said she would start an internship program to have students conduct data and analytics projects for the school board.

Other candidates suggested the public should have more informal ways to talk with the elected board members.

“I think informal listening sessions deserve a comeback,” said McGuire. “Not long ago, the Board of Education would promote meetings like the ‘lunch bunch’, which would give the public access to talk to a Board of Education member outside of formal settings.”

“Emails and public comment should not be the only avenues for correspondence between the public and the Board of Education, as both options are one-sided in their structure,” he added.

Ceccarini described the current system of communication between the board and the public “short, one sided and restricted.”

“Like many parents I’ve received the same standard email reply from the BoE with little or no information or dialogue,” he said.

“The informal meet ups and listening sessions sponsored by the board are handcuffed by ‘Robert's Rules’ and many times Board of Education members use this to evade tough questions and conceal transparency,” he added.

State mandates

McGuire and Ruggeri both pointed to education directives handed down by the state as concerns.

Ruggeri said two bills passed by the state in June could have implications for the district’s dyslexia training and transition services for students with autism.

In response to the first bill, she said she would “want to access our training methods in teaching students with dyslexia and offer support.”

As for the second bill, she said she would work with the board “to offer more educational experiences and meaningful employment in our town for students needing transition planning services.”

McGuire pointed to ideas floated by the state that would see towns bear some of the cost of funding teacher pension obligations, and plans that would force towns to regionalize their schools with other districts.

He noted that pushing teacher pension costs onto the towns was stalled recently. “This has the potential to cost Ridgefield millions of additional dollars that will need to come from somewhere,” McGuire said. “Responsible budgeting, and long-term planning, are the only way to combat the potential impact of this type of financial shockwave.”

Regionalizing schools would take away local controls, he argued.

“While this may have had an immediate positive effect on budget reduction, it would have taken away our autonomy as a town,” McGuire said. “I believe Ridgefield knows what is best for its students and schools. Removing local control from decision-making would be disastrous.”

Budget crunch

Asked about how they would manage the high cost of supporting the schools while balancing tax increases for older residents, none of the primary candidates said outright that school spending should be reduced; but several argued the board should be more transparent as to where every dollar goes.

“The board needs to be ‘sweating the details’ of the budget on an annual basis; optimizing the money we have and being upfront and forward looking in our long-range plan,” said Floegel. “We owe all our residents the duty of treating [school] money as if it were our own and ensuring all spending is aligned with ensuring students are well educated and safe.”

The relationship between good schools and high property values was voiced numerous times.

“A great school district is an important part of what attracts people to Ridgefield and helps with property values,” said Ruggeri. “Residents who have had students in the district, know what the benefits are of having a strong education system, and what it can do for their children.”

McGuire said many of the senior citizens he spoke with while gathering signatures said they understand that better schools mean higher property values.

“The concerns I heard were not that the budget was necessarily too high, but that there did not seem to be enough clarity and oversight as to how and where money was being spent,” he said. “... Our older residents are demanding to see exactly how their money is being spent, so they can determine for themselves if it is being spent wisely.”

Ceccarini said he would “look to trim any waste while keeping our student needs first.”

“Our student population is shrinking while our taxpayer base without students in the district grows larger,” he said.

Pointing to aging schools and infrastructure, McEvoy said the incoming board will have to have “some difficult conversations with the taxpayers” to bring the buildings up to the district’s level of achievement.

“This may mean asking taxpayers to spend a bit more to resolve the largest issues quickly,” said McEvoy. “Our schools is the largest factor underneath our home values. We need to do more to remain competitive to neighboring towns.”