For the first time since 1993, the race for the Board of Education is contested as four candidates are vying for three seats.
Incumbent Republicans Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross and Sarah Schneider-Zuro and newcomer Democrats Patty McCormick and Katie Stein gathered on Thursday, Oct. 18, in a packed Darien Library auditorium for a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Council of Darien School Parents.
Each candidate gave a two-minute opening statement before the floor was opened for questions, which were moderated by Charlotte Garrell.
The first question involved the role the board should play in setting district policies and determining educational ones.
Hagerty-Ross, who is the chairman, said the board plays an integral part in setting those policies, but that it also has to see what is coming down from the state.
"It's important for us to understand as board members, we need to listen to our community, our parents and our town in terms of what their expectations are," Hagerty-Ross said.
The other candidates agreed.
"Ultimately, our goal is always student achievement," said Schneider-Zuro, who has been involved in education since before she was married.
The next question was whether or not the candidate would support any state mandates regarding teacher evaluation. In 12 districts in Connecticut, a new program is being piloted to evaluate teachers differently. When that pilot test is done the state will send down a new mandate on the way and how many times a year teachers should be evaluated.
All of the candidates agreed on the importance of teacher evaluations as well as how necessary it is for Darien to look at the pilot program and mold it to the town.
"How do we effectively and fairly evaluate our teachers? I think Darien will have to figure out, when the guidelines come down, how we're going to implement them, and how different our current way of evaluating is," Stein, a Tokeneke School PTO co-chairman, said. "As a district, I think it's going to impact us, and we're going to have to weigh our options and make sure we talk to our legislature."
Hagerty-Ross added that the district already has a strong teacher evaluation and that it needed to maintain that level of quality or set the bar higher.
"The standards of our teachers are the most important thing we have in our arsenal, and we need to make sure who we put in front of our children are the best people we can put in front of our children," Hagerty-Ross said.
The next question asked whether the board was an advocate for the administration or a devil's advocate.
The responses on advocacy were split but not between party lines. Stein and Schneider-Zuro both believed that the board should collaborate and "bridge the gap between the community and the administration," according to Schneider-Zuro. Hagerty-Ross and McCormick believed the board should be both an advocate and a devil's advocate for the administration.
"My role, should I be put on the board, is to ask the tough questions and hold people accountable and decide what best curriculum is, what is best policy is, what is best practice is," McCormick said.
The next question involved expenses. "When the district is hit with unforeseen developments and enrollment is higher than expected, do you think it's right for the BOE to go to the Board of Finance to cover expenses?"
All of the candidates agreed that the board should "live within their budget," as Hagerty-Ross put it, but McCormick believed that question went into the bigger one of enrollment, and what could be done to better predict the number of kids coming into Darien's public schools.
"I think that enrollment projections and the metric that's used to measure that needs to be evaluated and maybe tweaked," McCormick said. "Because there's no question that enrollment numbers are going up. It was projected that they'd be going down, and that's clearly not the case."
Stein commended the board for staying within the budget for the first time in three years.
"I think this year was a way that the board handled its budget," Stein said. "We had a lot more kids than we expected and look at our budget.
"The board effectively and creatively found ways to make it work. The Board of Education will meet with other town boards to make sure they have a handle on expenses, and to the best of our ability predict those enrollment numbers."
The next question involved the newly introduced World Language Program in the elementary schools, and whether or not the candidate would support expansion of it.
Schneider-Zuro believes the program is an exciting initative.
"I very much support it," she said. "I think that the key here will be balance. Balancing world language instruction with the other elementary models like readers workshop and math blocks."
Hagerty-Ross said the implementation of the program took seven years because "when we put these programs in, we put them in right." She said the curriculum would be reassessed in each of the next five years, and if at that point the administration wanted to expand it, she would probably support it.
McCormick believes the program isn't perfect.
"I don't think it's a secret that I was a big supporter of getting elementary foreign language into our school systems," McCormick said. "I'm not entirely sure that the current program is perfect, but it's a start, and we can absolutely improve it and work towards my goal, my idea, that within all of our curriculum we build to proficiency."
The next question was "should you support a board decision you're not in favor of?"
Hagerty-Ross took the most firm stance by saying, "Once the vote is cast there is one opinion of the board, and every member of the board has to stand behind that decision. It is one voice and it is one opinion. You support and there is no other answer."
Ultimately, each candidate agreed with Hagerty-Ross.
The next question involved whether or not the candidates were "interested in bringing new ideas and change to the school system" and whether they felt Darien schools moved forward or just kept up with other schools.
Stein said innovation is key in keeping Darien's already high-performing district moving forward, and that changing the way the students are taught math is a great example.
Schneider-Zuro said the students were already doing many innovative things.
"Where we go in the future is that we look to be ahead of the curve," Schneider-Zuro said. "Connecticut's response to the common core standards will bring some things we have to look at, and I think we'll find ourselves ahead of the curve. But certainly we will, in any areas we need to, be looking to make sure our curriculum meets all of our goals."
The final question of the evening was "do you think teacher compensation and tenure should change to reward excellent teachers and remove low-performing teachers?"
Stein believed that got back to the issue of how the teachers are evaluated, but thought rewarding teachers for their excellence was a good idea.
Schneider-Zuro wants future teacher evaluations to continue to foster the relationship that teachers share, not turn it into a competitive one.
Hagerty-Ross said there was a need for flexibility.
"In the last negotiation it made it very hard for us to make sure we're compensating our teachers, but also meeting our budget," she said.
McCormick said that kind of measurement could be a slippery slope.
"I know that the best teachers don't ask to be rewarded for their work in monetary ways they do it because they love it and because it's joyful," she said. "Tenure could be looked at, pay scale could be looked at, but I think that needs to be examined and vetted and discussed by the board that going forward that's what we do."
Residents will vote for two of the four candidates, and the three top vote-getters will be elected. The term of office is three years.
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