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Norwich Board of Education ballot features diverse set of candidates

Norwich — The Board of Education ballot features a diverse group of 11 candidates, with incumbents, newcomers, a husband and wife couple and former board member vying for the nine seats.

Incumbents are Democrats Mark Kulos, Kevin Saythany and Carline Charmelus and Republicans Aaron “Al” Daniels and Christine Distasio. Newcomers are Democrats Gregory Perry and Bennett Nocera and Republicans Yamir Flores, Heather Fowler and Joshua Chapman. Former board member Robert Aldi, a Democrat, seeks to return to the board.

Norwich had been spared the vitriol of some school board races across the country, but parents have criticized two-year Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow over student behavior, lack of communication on school safety and alleged lack of support for staff.

Republicans Chapman and Fowler, a married couple, signed an online petition on www.change.org seeking to oust Stringfellow. Fowler, 38, mother of four children ages 6 to 20, three in city schools, said parents are being shut out of COVID-19 decisions. She opposes student mask mandates and lack of access to schools.

“We haven’t been able to have a voice,” Fowler said. “That’s not the way (the system) is built. Everyone needs to work together.”

Chapman, 30, a table games supervisor at Mohegan Sun Casino, said he wanted to run to encourage more parents to get involved. “We have to make decisions for our children. I feel comfortable in decision-making. I think I would excel at it.”

Democrat Perry, 41, is a health and physical education teacher at the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich. He is married with two children at the charter school. He said he is running to become involved in the community and school system, and is “saddened” COVID-19 education recovery has become politicized.

Perry said school staff, with support from administrators, must stress what is expected of students in schools and on buses. Students need to face consequences, but with service or lost privileges, not punishment. Damaged property should be paid for, he said, and hurt feelings mended.

“They have to know the expectation is to go to school in a healthy, safe environment,” Perry said.

Democrat Saythany, 29, a life skills instructor for The Arc Eastern Connecticut, a group home for special-needs adults, has served on the school board since 2015. He also has served three years on the Norwich Education Foundation, which raises money to help support classroom learning.

Saythany said Stringfellow needs to establish honest communications with parents. He said along with addressing COVID-19 reopening behavioral problems, the school board must address the “learning loss gap” caused by the pandemic.

“I think it’s unfair for the students being at home and learning virtually,” Saythany said. “It’s not an easy task to get back into the groove of things and to increase math reading and science grades.”

Republican Daniels, 59, a control room operator at Norwich Public Utilities, is the longest-serving school board member, seeking his seventh term. He said when he first ran, he was determined to find budget savings, fix problems and improve schools. He found it’s not so easy.

Daniels expressed “full confidence” in Stringfellow as the right superintendent to address budget and staff issues. A new residency officer and transportation coordinator already are finding savings, he said.

Over the years, Daniels said he has voted to close schools, cut staff and make tough choices. “I’ve done everything but build a school,” he said. That could be years away, but a School Building Committee is designing an overhaul of city schools.

First-term Republican Distasio serves on the School Building Committee. Now 62 and retired, she worked for 20 years as office assistant at Norwich Regional Technical School, including during construction of that school. "We need new buildings," she said.

Distasio said the board should be trying to unite the community, not divide it by introducing anything as controversial as critical race theory. She said the city has a diverse population and that should be recognized in schools.

Republican Flores, 34, an exterminator now unemployed, served four years in the Army. He has three children, ages 1½, 7 and 9; two attend Norwich schools. Flores said he wants his children to have the same advantages he has had.

“I said, what better way to be involved than to be involved in something that’s about kids,” he said.

Flores said families should address some behavioral issues, such as bullying, at home. He said kids sometimes need someone to talk to, such as the guidance counselors he often turned to at NFA.

Nocera, 35, a social worker at the Integrated Day Charter School, said he is running “for the students and families” after seeing the "profound impact” COVID-19 has had on the education system.

“Families deserve to have phenomenal schools to go to,” Nocera said, “more teachers, proper ventilation systems, and quality education for all students. As someone who cares deeply about the students and families of Norwich, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and transparency will be a priority for the Board of Education.”

First-term Democrat Charmelus, 32, is the city’s first Haitian American elected to office. She works as a collective impact and equity manager for Strong Communities, which works to prevent homelessness in the state.

Charmelus sits on an ad hoc committee of school board and City Council members that works on budget issues and collaboration efforts. She said that is an important priority to find ways to adequately fund schools. “Those are things I am passionate about,” she said, “and identifying new models to support our students’ academic needs.”

Charmelus said parents need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions with school officials. “I want parents to really reach out to the teachers and school principals when they have issues and follow up on that.”

Democrat Kulos, 62, an attorney and president of the Norwich Property Owners Association, a landlords group, also sits on the ad hoc council-school board committee. He is seeking his third term on the school board.

Kulos said after 18 months of pandemic restrictions, it’s not surprising students are acting out and teachers are stressed. He said the school board must concentrate on overcoming the learning loss.

“I always concentrate on the students and student achievement,” Kulos said. “I want our schools to be safe and inviting places our kids want to attend.”

Aldi, 65, a retired Norwich police officer who now works for the state Judicial Branch Child Support and Enforcement Services, served on the board from 2012 to 2019. He has three children at Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet Elementary School and one at NFA.

“I will advocate strongly to bring back the school resource officers,” Aldi said. “I think it’s a necessary tool for the schools, for the kids and the faculty and staff; I’d like to see a meeting with Dr. Stringfellow and the police chief and try to get some open line of communication and try to get those officers back in there.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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