11 candidates running for nine seats on Norwich Board of Education

Norwich — The incoming Board of Education will face plenty of major issues, starting with a projected $2 million budget deficit and how a proposed school renovation/consolidation plan takes shape.

Two of the six incumbent Democrats are departing, ensuring at least minor change in the nine-member board’s makeup. The ballot has six Democrats and five Republicans. No more than six from one party can be elected.

Seven incumbents are up for re-election, led by 12-year Democratic member and current Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso, 10-year Republican member and past Chairman Aaron “Al” Daniels, and eight-year Republican member Dennis Slopak. Three are completing their first terms: Democrats Heather Romanski and Mark Kulos, and Republican Patricia Staley.

Democratic incumbent Kevin Saythany served on the board in 2015-17, then ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2017. In July, he was appointed by the City Council to fill a Democratic board vacancy.

Four are newcomer candidates, Democrats Carlene Charmelus and Swaranjit Singh and Republicans Larry Rice and Christine Distasio.

The school board and City Council have been embroiled in bitter budget fights the past two years. The school board in June 2018 refused to cut $4.5 million after the council rejected the board's proposed budget. Spending freezes, new grants and reductions in special education costs lowered the final deficit  to $1.4 million, covered by the city. The board this June again refused to absorb $2.26 million in cuts ordered by the council.

The Norwich school board has not been divided along party lines on any issues, and newcomer Republican Rice wants to keep it that way. Rice penned a letter to voters stating that goal.

“I also believe that it doesn’t matter what political party you belong to,” he wrote. “It does matter that you communicate, listen and most of all be respectful to people of the opposite political party, and hopefully, come to a bipartisan agreement on the issue at hand.”

Rice, 65, is a retired 25-year Norwich police officer and eight-year president of the police union. He said he would spend the first year on the board studying issues, including how the budget and the proposed school renovation plan were developed. He then would feel more comfortable and knowledgeable to delve deeper into issues during the second year.

Democrat Singh, 34, owner of the Norwichtown Shell and American Property Group LLC real estate and construction business, sits on the Commission on the City Plan, the Norwich Community Development Corp. board and is an alternate on the Inland Wetlands, Watercourses and Conservation Commission. A leader in the Connecticut Sikh religious community, Singh promotes ethnic and cultural awareness and acceptance, and is a certified sensitivity trainer.

Singh said the school system’s staff recruitment and curriculum should reflect the city’s growing diverse ethnic makeup. He also would push for the school system to be highlighted in the city’s economic development plan.

“We need to push (education) as part of economic development, and we need to see it that way," Singh said. "When we start to see education in that light, then we can start to pump money into education.”

Republican Distasio, 60, retired in July after 20 years working in the office at Norwich Technical High School, assisting teachers, administrators and staff. She had worked at Norwich Hospital until it closed. She said her expertise from inside a school office would bring a new perspective to the school board.

Distasio is very interested in the proposed renovation plan, which calls for renovating three schools for preschool through fifth grades and building a fourth new one, keeping the two middle schools and repurposing or selling excess buildings. Distasio said the city must address the obsolete and costly existing buildings but must consider the needs of neighborhoods. She hopes the proposed new school is placed in a neighborhood, rather than at a distant site.

Democrat Charmelus, 30, works for the policy and advocacy organization Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford, which works on the statewide campaign to end homelessness. She started the Norwich Diversity Committee after graduating from the University of Connecticut with a master’s degree in public administration/public policy.

Charmelus said the city has great schools and great teachers. The budget and the need to better collaborate with the mayor and City Council are among her top priorities — goals stated by candidates in both parties.

“I know that (the school system) is the first thing parents look at when moving into a city,” Charmelus said, stressing the importance of including the school system in the city’s economic development plan.

Democrat Jacaruso, 81, a retired teacher and public school administrator, said the budget is the most critical issue for the school board and the city. Schools have lost programs and extra-curricular activities over the years. Jacaruso sat on the School Facilities Review Committee that proposed the renovation plan and said that will be critical to long-term savings.

“We want to continue to balance that budget and get programs our kids need,” Jacaruso said. “And try to work cooperatively with the City Council and to make our district a district that people want to come and live in Norwich and educate their kids here.”

Republican Slopak, 71, a real estate appraiser, has a passion for math and helps coach the Uncas School Math Team. He stressed the need for strong curriculum to boost student achievement. He said he was the board’s loudest advocate for hiring new Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow.

“She sees the problems,” Slopak said. “Nothing is going to get fixed immediately. She can pinpoint ‘this is the way things have to be done.’ It’s going to be a wonderful relationship, whether I’m there or not.”

Slopak voted against the school renovation plan and has been a vocal critic of the cost and at times strained relationship with Norwich Free Academy. Slopak chaired a previous school facilities committee and advocated for a single school campus with multiple wings for different grades. He doubted the new proposal would save money.

“And it doesn’t solve the NFA problem,” Slopak said. “I want to build a high school.”

Democrat Saythany, 27, a casino table games dealer at Mohegan Sun Casino, said he initially planned to run for City Council this fall, but when the vacancy occurred, he felt his experience would be important for the board. During his 18 months off the board, Saythany remained active in the Norwich Public Schools Education Foundation, which raises money for classroom programs, and was elected foundation president in May.

“At the forefront of my mind is to work with the superintendent to close the school deficit we currently have,” Saythany said. “Also, to ensure that we keep the programs running for instrumental music and the arts. That’s very important to the students.” He also hopes to educate special needs students in city schools to keep them close to home and reduce costs.

Republican Staley, 71, a retired history teacher and assistant principal in the state technical school system, said with Stringfellow’s strong school financial expertise, she expects changes “and I want to see that through.” She said the board has to balance what teachers need — saying teachers have to spend “too much” of their own money to supply their classrooms — and what city taxpayers can afford.

“We need to work with the City Council to make sure (schools) have the appropriate facilities,” Staley said, “and talk about shared expenses with the city and work collaboratively with the region. And we need to get the state and the federal government to pay what they should be paying.”

Staley served on the School Facilities Review Committee. “We’re getting to a point where the buildings are old enough that we’re going to have to do some heavy repairs, roofs and two boilers in danger of failure," Staley said. "So we’re going to have to pay for that anyway. It’s getting to the point where we either have to do the renovations and get state reimbursement or do it on our own with taxpayer money.”

Kulos, 60, an attorney and rental property manager, who heads the Norwich Property Owners’ Association, called the school budget “the big overriding issue.” He said the board has been shorted funds for the past few years and can't continue with ongoing spending freezes. He credited school administrators for “an amazing job” cutting $3 million from last year’s deficit, but cautioned much of it was done with one-time savings.

“We had the budget freeze and a hiring freeze,” Kulos said. “We have to get away from the freezes, because they’re killing us.”

Republican Daniels, 57, a control room operator at Norwich Public Utilities, also has been vocal that the city school system needs adequate funding. Echoing another point in the party platform this fall, Daniels said the state and federal governments must be pushed to pay “their fair share,” especially with special education costs.

Daniels doesn’t see any opportunities to find major savings in the current budget and supports the board’s position to ask school administrators to “just keep our belt as tight as we can and go over as little as we can.”

Democrat Romanski, 47, director of computer support services at Connecticut College in New London, was a strong parent advocate of the new magnet environmental studies program at the John Moriarty School. Romanski said she is hopeful that with new leaders at Norwich public schools and soon at NFA — Head of School David Klein will depart in June — can help improve the relationship between the two systems.

Romanski hopes the new city and school system's uniform financial computer software will help improve that relationship, as well, and she hopes to find ways to help the average city taxpayer understand the school budget better.

“We still have some work to do in being more active and engaged with our families,” Romanski said. “We have to get out and about in our community more. Board of Ed meetings are important, but they’re at dinner time and baseball practice time. I’m looking for more opportunity to do more organic conversations with families.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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