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Preston school board race highlights on Nov. 2 ballot

Preston – Two Democrats and four Republicans vying for four available seats on the Board of Education in one of only three contested races in the Nov. 2 election.

Democratic First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier will enter her second term in office unopposed. Democratic Selectman Jerry Grabarek and Republican Selectman Kenneth Zachem also are unopposed. Allyn-Gauthier thanked residents for their confidence in the selectmen for the past two years. Her first term was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as she ordered Town Hall shuttered to the public for months and adjusted town government functions.

Allyn-Gauthier and Zachem speculated that the lingering pandemic could have affected people’s willingness to run for election, as it has dampened volunteerism nationwide. Allyn-Gauthier referred to “the great resignation," a term applied to ongoing labor shortages and lack of volunteers.

The race for Board of Education has four incumbents and two newcomers vying for the four available seats on the seven-member board.

This year’s race features incumbent Republicans Thomas Turner, Charles Raymond and George Carver, incumbent Democrat Cindy Luty and newcomers Democrat Megan Gallant and Republican Cindy Dupointe.

While Gallant, 41, a clinical nurse supervisor for the Ledyard Visiting Nurses Association, is new on the ballot, she sought appointment to the board last November to a vacant seat, but Republican Turner received the nod.

Gallant and her husband, Steven, have three children, seventh and eighth graders at Preston Plains Middle School and a senior at Norwich Free Academy.

“I just feel I have an interesting background to be able to support this role,” Gallant said, “and at this time, there’s no question that public health is at the forefront.”

Gallant said her family chose to move to Preston in 2019 because of its excellent school system, with small class sizes and a variety of high school choices. She supports in-person learning during the pandemic and praised teachers for their efforts “to provide the best education possible.”

Newcomer Republican candidate Dupointe, 38, said she and her husband also moved to Preston in 2020, because of the school system’s small class sizes, strong curriculum and high marks from other parents. Her son is in third grade.

She followed school board meetings and felt as a crisis clinician, she could help with the school’s plan for social and emotional well being of students and other issues outlined in the district’s strategic plan.

Dupointe said while the current mask mandate is a state order, if the governor’s executive orders are lifted in February, she would prefer to leave it up to parents “who know their child and their health the best.” She said school staffing challenges might not be as significant if the COVID-19 vaccine was not mandated, if personal choice was “respected,” and testing was required only when symptoms were present or there a confirmed direct contact.

“For any community leader, the last 18 months has been a new learning curve,” she said. “I feel with my background, education and as a parent of a child within the school, I needed to fulfill my civic duty and support an all hands on deck approach.” 

Turner, 65, a retired field technician for Comcast, has served two stints on the school board, both times appointed to vacant seats. He came close to winning the election in 2019 and could have forced a recount. But Turner declined, because he did not want to risk Democratic Chairman Sean Nugent possibly losing his seat.

"That was not in the best interest of the town," Turner said.

Turner has three children at NFA and two grandchildren in Preston schools.

“I just want to make sure what my kids were able to take advantage of, the next generation will get the chance to have as well,” Turner said.

He said the board has heard complaints from parents about masks and in-person learning. While not a fan of mandates, Turner said they are state mandates. He said children have accepted the habit, “and we have better things to discuss,” he said.

He wants to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent properly “and without political gimmicks.”

Democrat Luty, 75, is seeking her third term. A retired 36-year teacher in Connecticut, Rhode Island and a short time in Preston, she said serving on the school board allows her to remain passionate about education. She has a grandson in kindergarten in Preston and two grandchildren at NFA.

“I’m retired, but I still feel productive,” Luty said. “I am still engaged, and I feel like I have something to offer.”

Last spring, Luty was vocal about returning to in-person school as soon as possible. She remains concerned about staffing shortages, especially with the pandemic still in play. She said school officials must ensure that students’ lives are not disrupted more than necessary, especially because many have faced financial and family hardships. Taxpayers too have faced greater financial strains, she said.

“We have to respect greatly the financial burden placed on the taxpayers,” Luty said.

Republican Raymond has served since 2008. Raymond, 60, a farmer and former school bus driver, mechanic and bus route coordinator, said he has been involved with Preston schools for some 25 years.

Raymond serves on the board’s transportation committee and supported keeping the town’s own school buses and drivers when the board considered contracting out in 2016. That move proved beneficial, he said, as other districts struggle with driver shortages.

“I feel having our own buses has given us the flexibility to handle daily situations and not rely on a contractor to have enough drivers to cover our routes,” Raymond said. “The bus driver shortage is not anything that happened just recently. It’s been going on for years, and the COVID situation has just exacerbated the situation.”

Raymond said Preston schools have handed COVD-19 challenges well. He praised school staff as “exemplary,” and said the district has responded to the crisis “thoroughly, efficiently and professionally.”

Carver, 60, who works with Travelers Insurance Co., is completing his first term on the school board. Carver said he is "in alignment with" the vision of school administrators and the current Board of Education. He cited accomplishments including renovating the middle school's aging science laboratories and finally repaving the middle school parking lot and driveway.

"I believe in some fiscal restraint, and we meet those objectives of providing valuable education to the kids, supporting the teachers, improving the schools where we need to and maintaining some fiscal prudence," Carver said.

He said Preston "got lucky" in keeping its bus service and buying new buses, and the superintendent's plan to hire a permanent substitute teacher proved to be a good move.

Carver, who has one grandchild in Preston schools and one under age 3, favored the school board's push in spring to return to full in-person learning earlier than planned.

"We could have waited longer but it benefited the kids," he said. "You could see the strain that (remote learning) was putting on young families. They were trying to teach their children and stay in their own jobs working from home. That kind of influenced me to get them to come back."

In the Planning and Zoning race, five candidates are competing for three available seats. Incumbents, Democrat Anne Stockton Sabrowski and Republicans Doreen Rankin and Charles Raymond are seeking re-election. New candidates are Democrat Gail Smith and Republican Zachary Tarner. Any three can be elected.

The only other contest is to fill a two-year vacancy for Board of Assessment Appeals. Democrat Melissa Lennon and Republican Tyler Keith ar seeking the seat.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that any number of the four Republican Board of Education candidates could be elected and there are races for Plannig and Zoning Commission and Board of Assessment Appeals.

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