New London school board hopefuls meet at debate

New London - Nine of the 11 candidates vying for a seat on the Board of Education squared off Tuesday night in a debate that included discussions of the qualities necessary for the district's next superintendent, how to retain high-quality teachers and how to lower class sizes.

Five-term incumbent Jason Catala, the lone Republican at the forum, said the school board needs to be very involved in hiring the next superintendent, despite the district being under state supervision.

"The Board of Education needs to take a strong process in hiring (the next superintendent)," Catala said. "We need someone who is going to come in and keep the momentum that we do have moving forward."

First-time candidate Aracelis Vazquez Haye said the next superintendent needs to understand the needs of New London and should be "a team player and someone who would come in to bring a good type of change."

All the candidates who spoke to the issue agreed that the next superintendent must support and empower the city's teachers.

When discussing the exodus of teachers from the city's schools - about 70 have left the district in the last two years - most candidates agreed that teachers need to be given the tools to succeed and need to be paid at a rate similar to that of teachers in other cities and towns.

"To keep teachers in our district, we need to get our pay to be competitive. These teachers now are paid less than those in surrounding districts," said Jason Morris, a political newcomer and petitioning candidate who has two children in city schools. "We need to have a competitive pay structure and an evaluation process that is not tied to standardized test scores."

Incumbent Democrat Margaret Mary Curtin, who has served as board chairwoman for the past two years, said the board has been trying to get to the bottom of the departures, but has been stymied by the district's administration.

"Number one is respect the teacher, value what that teacher does and let them teach," she said, garnering cheers from the audience.

Second-time Green Party candidate Mirna Martinez said allowing teachers the latitude to "execute their art" was also a key part of retaining them.

The candidates also discussed a proposal by New London Parent Advocates to increase the schools' budget and reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

"We all agree that smaller class sizes would benefit our educational system, absolutely. But that costs money, and the reality is that we have to find that money," said candidate Robert Funk, who has served as a budget advisor to the Board of Education. "We have to find that money either by increasing our revenues or by decreasing our expenses, and this is done through better financial reporting, better evaluation of what our expenses are."

Other candidates agreed that the city's magnet schools will not attract students from other communities if the class sizes are too large.

"If I lived in Ledyard and their class size is 22, why would I send (my kids) to a school where it could be 28 kids in a classroom? That is unacceptable," Reona Dyess, a Democratic challenger, said.

Incumbents Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez and Sylvia Potter also participated in the forum. Two challengers, Democrat Scott Garbini and Republican Casey Giesing, did not attend the debate.

About 65 people, including some students and recent alumni of city schools, attended the debate at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut.

The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, the New London Neighborhood Alliance and New London Parent Advocates.

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