11 candidates compete for nine Norwich school board seats

Norwich — For Board of Education, 11 candidates are competing for nine seats on the board that likely will continue to deal with budget challenges and what to do about a sprawling district with 15 aging buildings.

But before making those choices, voters will find first-term incumbent Republican Michael Gualtieri facing Democrat Patrice David in the election for city treasurer at the center of the ballot.

Six school board candidates are incumbents, Democrats Joyce Werden, Yvette Jacaruso and Robert Aldi, and Republicans Aaron “Al” Daniels, Dennis Slopak and Rashid Haynes. Newcomers are Democrats Heather Romanski, James Maloney and Mark Kulos, and Republicans Patricia Staley and Rodney Bowie.

Republican Haynes, 48, was appointed in February to fill a board vacancy. He is a financial analyst at Electric Boat in Groton and has an 8-year-old son attending the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London.

Haynes was credited by Slopak for insisting the board avoid teacher layoffs and instead hit transportation, fuel and special education costs in making $1.5 million in cuts in June. Haynes said there are “always areas we can look at” to make future budget cuts, based on how specific areas of the budget "perform." Hayes said the city must prepare for recent census projection for a 28 percent population increase by 2040.

“The people in these seats need to start planning for that growth,” he said.

Democrat Aldi, in his fifth year on the board, is a retired Norwich police captain and now works in the state Judicial Branch division of child support enforcement. His three children, ages 4, 6 and 10, attend the Catholic Sacred Heart School in Taftville.

Aldi said his top priority is to revive a school renovation plan. The City Council rejected the $57 million plan to renovate four schools and close three. Aldi strongly opposes Slopak's push for a single school campus.

“I don’t know where you’re going to put it,” Aldi said. “You have a mixture of kids of all ages and you put them all in one school? You’d need a huge, huge, huge facility, and a big parcel of land. I don’t know where we’d find a piece of land big enough.”

Republican Slopak, 69, a real estate appraiser, is completing his third term on the board. Slopak is past chairman of the Norwich Board of Assessment Appeals and coaches the Uncas School Math Team. His two adult daughters went through city schools.

Slopak, who chaired the School Facilities Review Committee, said he would push again for the single school campus. He said the concept would cost no more than the four-school plan and would provide much more savings in shared common services.

Democrat Romanski, 45, manager of the information technology service desk at Connecticut College, has a daughter at the Moriarty Environmental Science Magnet School and another at Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London.

Romanski said any new school renovation effort needs better public and teacher input and a clear explanation of future savings by closing old buildings. She wants to improve board communication all around.

“It’s just not practical to think everyone is coming to the board meetings,” she said. “And I’m going to work to build that relationship with the mayor and City Council.”

Republican Staley, who declined to say her age, is a retired history teacher in state technical schools and served six years as assistant principal at Ellis Tech in Danielson. She has one grandchild in Norwich preschool.

“My top priority is going to be trying to balance what the school system needs with what the taxpayers can pay," she said. "The No. 1 issue everyone is asking us is to lower the taxes.”

She supports separating the NFA tuition cost from the school budget and presenting it to the City Council as a bill. Staley said she would like to revisit a school renovation project, as long as state reimbursement is assured. The previous $57 million plan totaled $144 million before state reimbursement.

Democrat Kulos, 58, is a retired patent attorney and current landlord in Norwich. He went through city schools. Kulos said he would consider a school renovation plan as long as it “makes economic sense,” including state reimbursement. He said continuing to defer maintenance on old buildings will end up costing more.

Kulos said he wants to address anti-bullying efforts in city schools. He wants to explore the new restorative practices program implemented this year, and the plan to educate parents on the program next year.

Republican Bowie, 76, is a retired electrician and production control supervisor and is a Norwich landlord. He has four grandchildren in city schools. Bowie served one year on the school board about 25 years ago.

Bowie said he would be looking at the budget with the goal of keeping classroom teachers, “but still, you realize we have to keep taxes down.” In any renovation plan, Bowie prefers smaller schools so students don’t “lose themselves in a great big school.” He also questioned the overall savings of such a big project.

“If you’re talking $70 million to build a new school, you can buy a lot of utilities for $70 million,” Bowie said.

Democrat Maloney, 34, is a private contractor who coordinates rides for patients on Husky D health insurance. A political newcomer, Maloney founded Taking Back our Community Ourselves, a nonprofit group that looks to “bring back life to the city of Norwich” with youth programs.

Maloney has three children in city schools and served on the Huntington School Governance Council. He wants to forge a better relationship between the school board, the community and businesses. Maloney said city officials shouldn’t be afraid to approach the region’s two casinos, local churches and nonprofit groups for partnerships to help provide after-school programs.

The current board chairman, Republican Daniels, 55, is a control room operator at Norwich Public Utilities. Daniels defended the practice of pursuing as many grants as possible to keep teachers and programs. Grants fund half the district's teachers. Norwich has received $4 million to create two magnet middle schools, one for global studies and one for STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

“It’s not about relying less on grants,” Daniels said. “We have to do what we can to make Norwich more attractive to businesses.”

Daniels said school renovation should be revisited, this time without losing sight that the effort is supposed to be part of a “city redesign project" to decide which buildings should be marketed for development.

The school board’s two senior members are Democrats Jacaruso, 79, in her 10th year, and Werden, 70, a 12-year veteran. Both are active on the Norwich Public Schools Education Foundation. Werden is a retired Norwich teacher and administrator and Jacaruso a retired University of New Haven administrator.

Werden said school officials have found what savings they could on everyday items, including $1,000 by reducing color on the school letterhead and $50,000 on pooled paper purchases. Some cuts are risky, she said, such as cutting the fuel budget and "hoping" for a mild winter.

Werden said the school system must pursue grants to keep schools running. With the middle school grants, the system now has four federally funded magnet schools.

Jacaruso said she is excited about the new magnet middle schools and the recent National Blue Ribbon Schools Program award received by the Thomas Mahan School. She, too, said she would try to balance school needs with the goal of keeping expenses down.

“In the name of student achievement,” she said, “students first.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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