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New London - Eleven candidates are campaigning for a seat on the seven-member Board of Education, a body charged with the delicate task of setting policy and direction for the city's struggling school system while under the watchful eye of a state-appointed special master.
Incumbents Jason Catala, Margaret Mary Curtin, Elizabeth Garcia-Gonzalez and Sylvia Potter are seeking additional terms on the board. But the slate of candidates also includes a cadre of challengers who are already involved in other parts of the New London community.
Reona Dyess, a Democratic challenger, works as the executive director of the Drop-In Learning Center, which provides before- and after-school enrichment programs for children.
Former teacher Mirna Martinez, a Green Party candidate cross-endorsed by the Republicans, co-founded New London Parent Advocates and serves as youth program director of F.R.E.S.H. New London.
Jason Morris, a Navy veteran and member of New London Parent Advocates who has two children in the city's schools, is a petitioning candidate.
Aracelis Vasquez Haye, a political newcomer, is a pastor at the Church of the City and a chaplain at Connecticut College. She said a focus of hers would be to foster parental and community involvement in the school system.
"I want to be a face and a voice to those who may be voiceless or those who may feel that they don't have what it takes to speak up in this environment because maybe they may feel inadequate or intimidated walking into a Board of Education meeting which - and I've been to many - is not a welcoming space," Vasquez Haye said.
One of the first orders of business for the new board will be to attract and hire a new superintendent of schools. In April, the board voted 6-1 to not renew the contract of Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, whose contract will expire June 30, 2014.
Catala, a five-term Republican incumbent who was part of two previous superintendent search committees, said the entire board, as well as community members, should comprise a committee to find a superintendent through a national search.
"I think this time we really can't miss. We really have to hit on this on. We have to get someone good in here," he said. "We need someone who is really going to bring some change in here."
The next superintendent, along with the next Board of Education, will be responsible for implementing the early stages of the city's transition to an all-magnet school district as outlined in the strategic operating plan approved by the board in June.
"This, I believe, will have a major effect on helping us with the achievement gap," board Chairwoman Curtin, a Democrat and former mayor, said. "The magnet schools that prosper and get all the kids up to grade level will be autonomous, but if there are any that don't prosper we will have to intervene."
With the expectation that the city's magnet school system will receive millions of dollars in additional funding, Morris said it will be critical for the board to responsibly allocate that money.
"I will ensure that those funds are used transparently, and towards programs and initiatives that produce genuine improvements in our district by listening to our students, our parents, and our community on how best to improve our schools," he said.
Like Morris, Martinez said that listening to parent and community feedback during the magnet school implementation process will be an important role for all board members.
"What is important to keep in mind during these developments is authentic dialog with all parties, involving our teachers in the educational evolution of our schools, and ensuring that we are attending to the educational needs of our students," Martinez said.
Scott S. Garbini, a Democratic challenger who holds a master's degree in education and works at the Thames Academy at Mitchell College, said the magnet schools will give students hands-on experience that is invaluable when applying for jobs.
Robert Funk, a corporate accountant who has advised the Board of Education on budget matters, said the next board will have a large task in meeting the needs of the schools in such a financially strapped system.
"Taxpayers simply can not afford to contribute more of their money," Funk, a Democrat, said. "New London must meet the fiscal challenges by operating an extremely efficient system and seeking out additional creative funding sources through partnering and regionalization. However, efficiency does not need to come at the cost of quality, effective programs."
Republican Casey Giesing, who did not respond to requests for comment, is also on the ballot.