Four candidates are vying for three available seats on the Board of Education in the Nov. 4 election.

Republican Michael Harman is the incumbent in the mix, while Republican David "Duke" Dineen was selected to complete the term of Morgan Whittier after he stepped down from his seat in early September.

In June, Heather Shea and Whittier announced that they would not seek re-election in the November.

Democratic candidates Tony Imbimbo and Michael Burke each served on the Representative Town Meeting education committees.


As the Board of Education continues to enter into the recovery stage in the wake of special education issues, how would you have handled the situation differently? Would you have handled it differently?

As a board made up of volunteers, I laud the time and effort our board members have put into this extraordinary challenge. Looking back, I don't see how our board could have addressed and moved this challenge forward without going down the same path. Under the leadership of our chairman, the board set out to obtain the best expertise to thoroughly investigate the situation; when and where shortcomings were identified, the board went out to recruit the best experts to help address issues in a structured manner.

The board has attempted to make the process transparent and public, and the effort made by outside experts working with parents, staff, and members of the community is impressive. As a board member, I see my responsibility to continue to monitor the progress and make sure our policies are aligned, and support and reinforce the changes the administration is implementing.

What challenges does the board face moving forward?

Even though there have been many changes, from personnel to organization to policies, during the past three years, I don't see the challenges that this board faces as any different from ongoing challenges. The board has the opportunity to hire a new superintendent and to help shape the direction of the district and the board is seeking to take a more formal approach to the facilities in the district. Similarly, the board and administration have spent considerable effort in reviewing and updating school policy. However critical all three are, none are extraordinary challenges, but rather elements of our ultimate challenge, how to best move the Darien schools forward to ensure we are continuing to provide excellent public education to all our students.

Do you believe there are any inefficiencies within the Board of Education? Give an example and how would you change it?

Every year, the board presents a proposed budget that is reviewed and must be approved by both the Board of Finance and the [Representative Town Meeting]. The board has made efforts to improve the transparency of the budget most recently through the addition of [Full-Time Educator] counts. Ultimately, this proposed budget is driven for the majority by our enrollment, our facilities, and required services, and includes relatively little discretionary spending.

I would be surprised not to find any local inefficiencies within the districts and believe there is always the opportunity for continuous improvement. The board's goal is to encourage the administration to pursue those improvements, whether in budgeting, curriculum or test results. An example would be that the district has made a concerted effort to pursue energy efficiency projects, including newer control systems, but these efforts entail a balancing between the required capital costs and projected payback period.

Why did you decide to run for a seat on the Board of Education again?

When I joined this board as the junior member in November 2011, I was warned that there would be a steep learning curve and members were expected to consider a second term, to leverage the experience gained. This was reinforced at my training session, where I met members from other districts that had two-year terms and frustration with a lack of institutional knowledge.

I am running again as I am concerned about a loss of institutional knowledge within our board. During the past three years, there has been a near complete turnover on the board. Come November, the only sitting member with at least a full term experience will be our chair. Considering that many of the board responsibilities include issues that could extend even past a three-year term, I am seeking to apply the experience gained and continue with the progress made.

The board was criticized for not being transparent with parents and the community. Do you think that's the case? How would you change that moving forward?

Our board is made up of volunteer members of the community, most of whom have children in the school system, and has always attempted to make its workings transparent. The state statue calls for a public meeting forum where all nine members are able to communicate and share their opinions with the community. At these meetings, the chair has instituted a public comment period at the beginning and end of each meeting. At the subcommittee level, there is regularly the opportunity to raise questions at the end. As a board member, we attend assigned school [Parent Teacher Organization] meetings and we have public e-mail addresses. The goal is to achieve educational excellence in our schools, and pursuing that requires engaging administrators, teachers, students, parents, and members of the community in creating the policies that enhance education, engage families, and broaden opportunities for students. I hope to continue that effort.

DAVID "DUKE" DINEEN (Republican)

What experience do you bring to the Board of Education?

I bring a combination of volunteer service, board experience and twenty-nine years of business experience in leadership roles across finance, sales/marketing and operations. Locally, I've served on the Darien Environmental Protection Commission, the Darien Fire Department and the Downtown Revitalization project. My role in business as a local market president enabled me to work with various communities and focus on financial literacy, affordable housing and job-training programs in under served communities. I have had the opportunity to work on change management and long-term strategy programs in my business and volunteer experience. As a banking professional, I bring strong financial skills to the budget process and ongoing monitoring of the business side of the Board's operations.

Do you believe there are any inefficiencies within the Board of Education? Give an example and how would you change it?

In any organization the size of the Board of Education, inefficiencies can be found and should be addressed. During the upcoming budget season, I plan to use my financial skills to take a hard look for ways to make our operations more efficient. With any board, business, volunteer organization or family challenges exist and change is required. When these challenges come, the key is to listen to all parties, gather the information, ask tough questions and solicit feedback from all involved. You need to recruit the right people and experts to develop the solutions and best practices that correct the problems so you can move forward.

The board has been criticized for not being transparent with parents. How would you change that?

A transparent communication strategy is important for any organization. Constant dialogue with everyone involved keeps the lines of communication open. The board understands this and has listened to the feedback and comments around communication. In my time on the board, the team is always looking for best practices and making sure they have the right dialog with the administration, students, parents and community. We have to look at all avenues of communication like the web site and other digital technologies. I like that each board member is assigned a "home" school and works with that school to build a dialogue between the Board, the PTO and the Council of Darien School Parents. We have incredible people volunteering a lot of time to be involved in our education system every day of the year, and the Board needs to support them with transparency and open communication.

The district and the board have said that they are working to move forward in the wake of what happened within the special education department. How do you think the district can effectively move forward?

I believe the community as a whole -- parents, administration, faculty, students and the board -- are already moving forward to address the special education challenges; the key is to continue that positive momentum. Involvement of everyone was crucial to uncovering the problems, and has led to tremendous work being done by a broad cross section of people. Feedback from parents, administration, faculty and the board is positive, and the state has likewise provided positive feedback on the progress and projects completed. Just look the Darien Schools web site and see the new policy and procedure manuals that have been completed. Meetings are taking place across all schools, the new special education and student services coordinators are a highly motivated team developing best practices and focusing on the best student experience. This is a work in progress and never truly finished, as education is always evolving along with state and federal policy.

Why do you want to be a member of the Board of Education?

I am honored to be on the Board of Education at this time and would welcome the opportunity to serve a three-year term. Darien has been our home for 17 years. My wife Ashley was raised here and graduated from Darien High School. My three daughters Hayley, Colby and Reagan have all benefited from their schools, special education, athletics and summer programs. I feel it is important to give back to the community that you call home, and I have a track record of doing so. It is easy to get into the spirit of giving back to a community that focuses on being the best and shows it in the passion of the people that are involved every day. I hope to be able to bring my unique skills and experience to leading and improving the educational experience of all Darien children.

What will be the greatest challenge for the board to overcome?

The most important job the board has is to make sure we employ the best people to lead our schools, so the top challenge for the board is to hire the right superintendent to lead our system. Concurrent with that, we need to drive continued progress of the special education program, develop and execute a strategic facilities and capital plan that will address current and future needs, and ensure a transparent communication culture is developed. As the Board of Education moves forward, challenges will always be on the horizon, a fact of life. How you tackle those challenges as a team, turning them into opportunities for improvement, is what will continue to make the board successful going forward.


What experience do you bring to the Board of Education?

I believe that I have educational, professional, and personal experience that will help me add value to the [Board of Education].

My educational experience is varied. Most recently, I've been a member of the [Representative Town Meeting] Education Committee. In that role, I've had the opportunity to examine BOE budgets and question school administrators and BOE members, where possible, on their priorities in order to make a recommendation to the full RTM on passage. Previously, I have served on the Board of Trustees for my alma mater, Skidmore College. That experience was invaluable in that it gave me the opportunity to work collaboratively with other board members and administrators to ensure that the college had a vision to meet the needs of its students and to be true to that vision. Of course, part of that work also involved conducting vigorous oversight. Professionally, I have been a litigation attorney for the past 25 years. While many lawyer jokes are funny and well-deserved, at its heart, litigation is all about zealously pursuing facts and performing critical analysis for the purpose of resolving problems. I hope the BOE would find some of those skills useful.

Personally, I have twin sons who were at Holmes School K-5 and are presently sixth-graders at [Middlesex Middle School] and as a result feel very invested in the school system and dedicated to its success. Over the past six years I have had a chance to closely observe their academic growth, school environment and also speak with many other parents and teachers about the schools and how they operate. Like all parents in Darien, I deeply care about and cherish our children's future.

Do you believe there are any inefficiencies within the Board of Education? Give an example and how would you change it?

I believe that overall, the BOE works extremely hard and accomplishes much important work in a given year. That said, I think sometimes their meetings are longer than necessary. I would do all I could to help the chair insist on sharper presentations and tighter questioning.

The board has been criticized for not being transparent with parents. How would you change that?

I think the more transparency the BOE provides, the easier it will be to earn the trust of all the citizens of Darien, be they parents, students or residents. If I were a member of the BOE, I would encourage that we err on the side of providing more information rapidly even if it's negative. A great deal of the damage that was caused by the special education crisis was that the problem was not discovered more quickly and disclosed to the community effectively.

The district and the board have said that they are working to move forward in the wake of what happened within the special education department. How do you think the district can effectively move forward?

I believe that the BOE and the district have been working very hard to remedy the problems arising from the special education crisis. The best way to move forward effectively is to make sure that the new policies put in place are followed. It will be especially important for the BOE to make sure that administrators and teachers are being candid and purposeful in all of their communications with the parents of the children who are receiving these critical services.

Why do you want to be a member of the Board of Education?

I think over the course of the next several years in general and the next three years in particular, the BOE will be challenged with making vital decisions related to selecting and supporting a new superintendent, ensuring that we do not have to endure another special education crisis or something similar, and providing a superior education for all of our students. While these challenges are great, they're also exciting and I'd like to be part of the collaborative process that solves them and bring our school system to even greater heights.

In terms of more specific ideas, I would work to help the board become a more responsive and transparent body. Responsiveness and transparency does not mean that everyone will always get what they seek. It does mean however that everyone in our community will have an opportunity to be heard and as a result feel more invested in the schools and the processes by which these important decisions are made.

What will be the greatest challenge for the board to overcome?

The greatest challenge is always the one that you don't see coming. Four years ago who would have predicted a special education crisis in Darien? Anyone could persuasively argue that class size, expanding budgets, attracting/retaining top flight teachers, improvement of facilities and continuing to repair the damage from the special education crisis are all superior challenges. But I think for the BOE, the greatest challenge will be to conduct its operations so that it may quickly discover problems as they arise and act intelligently in resolving them while also conveying to the community that they are concerned, competent, and aggressive.


What experience do you bring to the Board of Education?

First of all, I have experience on the [Representative Town Meeting], including on the Education Committee. As an RTM member, I have been through the budget process, participated in education policy discussions, and attended numerous Board of Education meetings. As a result, I understand the tough choices the district has to make each year.

I also bring professional experience. As a former journalist, I think I can help the Board improve communications. Through my work in children's publishing, I have researched child development and explored the multiple ways in which children learn.

I am also a parent-volunteer. As co-chair of the Father's Council of the Royle PTO, I saw first-hand the vital role that parents play in our schools. Having guided two children through Darien schools from kindergarten through high school, I'm aware of both the amazing opportunities and the challenges that parents and students face.

Do you believe there are any inefficiencies within the Board of Education? Give an example and how would you change it?

I think the board could improve the ways in which it communicates, including with each other, with the administration, and with the community. For instance, I think the board could allow individual board members to ask direct questions of the administration, rather than have questions go through the chairman. This could enhance the flow of information to board members.

To improve communications with the community, I think the board should establish a public communications committee or working group. This group could explore optimal ways to make information available to parents and the media, highlight our district's achievements, and respond to questions.

The board has been criticized for not being transparent with parents. How would you change that?

To improve transparency, I think it would help to improve access to public documents. We should look into creating a process for gathering and reviewing our public documents, redacting any private information, and making them available. This could also save us the expense of having to comply with Freedom of Information requests.

I think we should also try to be as open and responsive as we can be to parents and the media. The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education offers guidelines for working with the media, and we should consider adopting those best practices.

The district and the board have said that they are working to move forward in the wake of what happened within the special education department. How do you think the district can effectively move forward?

Both the administration and the board have made huge initial steps in resolving our special education issues. They established working groups to develop a new policies and procedures manual, which is available online, and a manual for special education parents, which is close to completion.

The next step is implementing the policies, and making sure they are delivering the desired results. This will take continued diligence. I think the recently hired SESS facilitators should help with implementation of the policies. The district also introduced new systems for tracking the work of special education staff. Let's monitor these things and see how they function, and let's keep communicating with educators and parents to get feedback. We need to provide services both efficiently and cost-effectively, so everyone's input will be helpful.

Why do you want to be a member of the Board of Education?

I am genuinely interested in public education, especially here in Darien, and I want our children to have every opportunity to succeed. When I received the phone call asking if I would be interested in serving on the Board of Ed, I was actually reading a book about education at that very moment. I had to put down the book to answer the phone, and I said yes.

Having an excellent public education system is extremely important to Darien. Our schools help prepare our children for college and for life, and they attract residents who care about education and who make important contributions to the community. Good schools also help make Darien a desirable place to live, which has a positive effect on our property values. We want to maintain this culture in Darien that says education matters. It creates an wonderful environment for our kids to learn and grow.

What will be the greatest challenge for the board to overcome?

One of the big challenges for the board will be to find a permanent superintendent. This person will be play an essential role in creating a vision for what we want to achieve as a district, and in leading the process of executing the plan. It's a tremendously important job.

Another big challenge is to rebuild trust. I think we can do that with by improving communication, transparency, responsiveness and oversight, and equally important, by celebrating our successes. Our schools rank among the best in the state, and although we're not perfect and should always be looking to improve, our students and teachers do amazing things every day. We should recognize and celebrate their achievements.