Voters to choose from nine candidates for Waterford school board
Editor's Note: This article includes Board of Education Chair Jody Nazarchyk who was mistakenly omitted from the story.
Members of the Waterford Board of Education vying for re-election say they’d like to stay for the new superintendent’s first year — but some candidates say they’d like to shake things up.
The new board is likely to keep at least a few familiar faces — of the eight candidates running for four open seats on the Waterford Board of Education this year, five are incumbents.
Kevin J. Brunelle, who has served three terms on the board as a Democrat and is seeking a fourth, said the district’s new superintendent would benefit from seeing some familiar faces on the board after Nov. 3.
Thomas Giard III began this school year as superintendent, arriving following the contentious departure of former superintendent Jerome Belair.
Belair announced in March that he would leave the district early, after the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut union and the town’s Board of Finance said the salary and retirement benefits package he had agreed on with the school board were excessive.
Brunelle said he thinks keeping the current board together would benefit Giard in his first year.
“He’s making an adjustment, and ... it’s important to have some kind of working foundation for him,” Brunelle said.
Four members of the current board are running again for the five open seats. Board member David Campo, whose term expires this year, is running for town clerk and is not on the ballot for another term on the school board.
“I wanted to make sure that the transition went well,” one-term board member David P. Kenney, a Republican, said. “That’s one of the main reasons that a lot of us wanted to come back.”
Kenney said he also wanted to continue his work on the board’s policy committee, monitoring state and federal regulations for the town’s schools.
The current nine-member board has a good rapport, Brunelle said.
“The board has always worked very well together, it’s always been a nonpartisan board,” he said. “There’s not a Republican agenda, there’s not a Democratic agenda, it’s what’s best for the students.”
But there are five new candidates running for spots on the board, and some say the body needs some new faces.
Miriam Furey-Wagner, a retired school principal and 30-year Waterford resident, said she was “astounded” by what she saw as indifference at a recent school board meeting she attended.
“Folks were talking — parents, teachers — and it didn’t look like the board was listening with their hearts,” she said. “There seemed to be an aloofness.”
Furey-Wagner, a Democrat, said she would encourage openness on the board and would focus on finding ways to reduce the district’s budget while keeping up with state and federal requirements.
“There’s a much greater workload that the state has put out, with curriculum changes and evaluation requirements, that has really burdened teachers and administrators,” she said.
Marcia A. Benvenuti, another new candidate who is running as a Democrat, said she would like to try to focus spending on decreasing class sizes and getting teachers more resources.
She would ask state legislators to help the district fund the various mandates it has imposed.
“The state doesn’t give us enough money to see everything through,” she said. “Every time we turn around the state is broke, and cutting funding.”
Benvenuti said she would like to see teachers focus on hands-on learning instead of spending most of their time preparing students for standardized tests.
“I’m not against standards at all — how we achieve those standards is a different issue,” she said. “We need to establish whether testing is doing what we think it needs to do.”
Several candidates said they were wary of standardized tests like those mandated by Common Core.
Kevin Kelly, the first Green Party candidate to run for the board, said he would like to see teachers creating “lifelong learners” rather than teaching to tests.
“The tests are needed for a gauge, and for some perspective, but it’s more interesting for me that we’re reaching the students,” he said.
He added that as a longtime administrator at Mitchell College, he can advise the board and the district’s employees on preparing students for college.
He said he is running with the Green Party — a fledgling local chapter in Waterford with a handful of candidates on the ballot — to promote the idea that local politicians don’t need to label themselves as Democrats or Republicans.
“There’s no reason to stick to a two-party system,” he said.
Kelly said the school board’s role is to get teachers the support and resources they need to balance testing requirements with their other teaching responsibilities.
“The classroom is where the rubber meets the road ... but from a distance, how can we as a board pull our collective efforts together to best support them?”
Democratic incumbent Sheri Cote agreed.
“(Teachers) are the front line, and we should be making sure their voices are heard,” she said.
Cote, who has served two terms on the board, stressed the importance of keeping costs down.
“All boards of education really have the challenge of trying to stay fiscally responsible when our costs keep going up,” she said.
Cote said the district’s participation in programs like the LEARN, the regional organization that helps local districts share resources, is one way of doing that.
Cote is the chairperson of the Board of Directors of LEARN.
Republican candidate Craig Merriman also said the board will face a challenge of supporting teachers as they work to administer the Common Core tests.
He said transparency is the solution to many of the problems the board faces.
“It comes down to communication both ways, through the board and the administrations,” he said.
As a two-term member of the town’s Representative Town Meeting, Merriman said he thinks the school board should be better at exchanging information with the other town boards.
Board chair Jody Nazarchyk, a 20-year veteran of the board who said she is an independent but has received endorsements from the town's Republican party, said she looks forward to working with Giard but is not afraid to support some new board members.
"There are some really good people running," she said.
Nazarchyk said she hopes to focus on strategic planning for the district and continuing to lobby state legislators for more financial support to fund testing mandates like Common Core.
Republican candidate Amanda Gates-Lamothe said she would work with people from any party.
“My platform is, it’s your town and it’s your say,” she said. “I really feel like its important to keep an open mind no matter what party you’re in.”
Gates-Lamothe, a special education teacher in New London, added that she would bring a educator’s perspective to the board, as well as that of a Waterford taxpayer and the mother of five kids who have grown up in the town’s schools.
Polls will open at 6 a.m. on Nov. 3 at Waterford's four polling places and close at 8 p.m.