Jason Catala rebounding after disappointing New London school board loss

New London - Jason Catala's face still reddens when he talks about the panicky feeling he experienced last November when he realized he hadn't been re-elected to the city's Board of Education.

The five-term incumbent Republican was at party headquarters with his young daughter and mother, keeping tabs as the numbers came in.

"I knew it wasn't good," said Catala, "and I kept thinking, this is really happening, it's true.

"But immediately after I started thinking about running again."

And about switching his party affiliation.

Two weeks later, after attending the final school board meeting of his last term, Catala sat in his car and completed a change-of-party form he had been carrying around with him. And he mailed it.

For Catala, a lifelong Republican, it wasn't so much about party affiliation as it was about serving the students and parents of the city again.

"I just felt I wasn't finished yet," he said, explaining he wanted to be involved in the school board's decision-making on Common Core State Standards, magnet schools and selection of a new superintendent.

Two years earlier, Election Day 2011, was an epiphany for Catala. He was barely re-elected for his fifth two-year term, garnering just two more votes than the last-place finisher. And when he saw post-Election Day photos, he was dismayed by his size and appearance.

"I was just a mess," said Catala, 39, acknowledging that he weighed close to 300 pounds and struggled to secure the button on his suit coat.

That 2009 to 2011 term on the school board had been tumultuous, and by his own admission today, Catala was part of the problem.

"I was nit-picking and taking things personally. I was very frustrated," he said. "And I had gotten a reputation as a rabble-rouser."

The city's schools were in trouble and rather than focus on meaningful ways to raise test scores and standards, board members were bickering.

At one meeting, Catala went off on a tirade about whether hot dogs prepared at the schools were served on bread or rolls and whether students got seconds and teachers had to pay for their food.

The state had already sent an observer to board meetings who warned members to "get your act together" or risk state intervention, and that ultimately did happen, when in June 2012 Steven Adamowski was appointed special master to help direct improvements in New London schools.

Catala, a teacher in the gifted and talented program in New Haven schools, was already on his own path to self-improvement.

A new board had been elected and with the change in faces, Catala said he tried a more conciliatory approach. Democrat Peg Curtin, the current board president who was elected in 2011, said the tone and temperament of school board meetings changed, and all voices were heard, which hadn't been the case in the recent past.

"(Catala) was insulted, he had not been treated with any sort of dignity," she said in his defense. "But with four new members, everyone was treated with respect. There was no more picking on anybody."

When the state mandated training for school board members, Catala attended every session.

At the same time, he was going through a personal transformation, drastically changing his eating habits. He cut his usual daily calories from about 3,500 to 1,000, kept a food journal and exercised. In 14 months, Catala lost about 130 pounds.

"People thought I had the surgery, but I didn't. And I never saw a specialist. I just counted calories and walked," he said.

Looking back, he said he realized he had been leaving board meetings so frustrated that his blood pressure was spiking.

A single father, he looked at his daughter, Elizabeth, now 7, and decided to focus on her.

"I didn't want to drop dead on her," he said.

He used to leave school board meetings infuriated and stop at a local eatery to pick up a late dinner, usually his favorite chicken Parmesan with ziti. He switched that to a salad and low-calorie entree.

By the fall of 2013, Catala was convinced voters would re-elect the new and improved Jason, and it stung when they didn't.

Maybe, he finally decided, it was time to switch parties.

Although everyone else in his family is a Democrat, Catala registered as a Republican when he turned 18, mostly, he explained, to be different.

He served five terms on the school board and one term on the City Council. He ran four times for state representative but never won.

He describes himself as a fiscal conservative, but said he's open-minded on almost every other issue.

His decision to become a Democrat, he admits, is about finding a path back to the school board.

Catala has been attending Democratic Town Committee meetings and talking to party members.

Bill Vogel, chairman of the city Republican Town Committee, said Catala has the right to choose a party, and added that "it is easier to win as a Democrat in New London."

Democrats and unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans 5 to 1 in the city.

"I think with Jason, no matter what party he's in, his heart is on his sleeve, and he's there, doing it, for the good of New London," said Rob Pero, a former city councilor and ceremonial mayor who is also a Republican.

"Jason wants to do what's right for the school system. He wants to serve again."

Democratic Town Chairman William Satti said when Catala called to tell him he was switching parties, he welcomed him.

It's still 20 months until the next municipal election, too soon to know whether Catala's name will be on the 2015 ballot.

"Maybe it's selfish of me (switching parties) because I want to run again," said Catala, who through all of his terms never missed a regular board meeting.

"But it seems just when I had everything going for me, then I didn't get re-elected again."



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