School board candidates debate budget cuts and student growth

By Lisa Capobianco

Staff Writer

Democratic and Republican school board candidates tackled key issues on student growth, the new teacher evaluation system and budget cuts at a recent Board of Education debate.

The debate was hosted by the Southington Education Association.

With the implementation of the new teacher and administration evaluation systems in the state, candidates discussed how they would work to make the systems more effective.  Linking student achievement to how teachers perform on the assessments, the unfunded mandate from the state requires at least several evaluations per year. Candidates agreed that more evaluations per year are unrealistic, but explained how they would work through the challenge.

“I would support an evaluation system which measures growth through the year—as series of tests, which would measure a child’s growth as the year progressed,” said Democratic candidate William Lutz, who served on the executive board for the Southington Education Foundation for four years. “The evaluations of teachers and administrators must be based on real data, not just one time.”

Republican incumbent Colleen Clark, who serves on the school board’s Policy and Personnel Committee, said the unfunded mandate adds more stress on teachers and administrators, but provides them an opportunity to work together.

“The administrator who is doing the observation can collaborate more with the teachers, and perhaps be more of a resource than they presently are because they will have to sit down and have a conversation,” Clark said.

Candidates also discussed how they would change the schools to make them 21st century schools, despite the fact that the Southington school district has scored 144 out of 169 schools statewide for student spending.

Incumbent Republican candidates Brian Goralski and Jill Notar-Francesco said despite that number, the school district has done its best to achieve student success.

“We manage our dollars very wisely—we have offered more AP and Honors courses for students at Southington High School, and full-day kindergarten,” said Notar-Francesco, who serves as chairperson on the Finance Committee. “We communicate with the boards at a level that never happened before,” said Goralski, who is the current chair of the school board. “Our students end up where they want to be because our community works together.”

Democratic incumbent Zaya Oshana agreed, emphasizing that the district should focus on preparing students who plan to attend college and other students who plan to join the workforce after high school.

“We must focus on the entire student population,” said Oshana, who serves on the Finance Committee as well as the Policy and Personnel Committee. “We need to get students prepared for that global marketplace—it is not just for those students that are graduating at the top of their class.”

Lutz added that the district should use its money to integrate foreign languages into the curriculum at the elementary level in order to prepare students for the 21st century.

“We need languages in the elementary schools,” Lutz said. “We need to get Italian, German, French, Russian, Chinese—we need to start that process and we need to start it now.”

Besides discussing these challenges, candidates also tackled a question that emerges every year during budget time addressing which items board members should leave untouched, and which items they should cut. Candidates agreed that cutting items on the budget is challenging, but emphasized that school safety, small class sizes, technology, classroom resources like textbooks, music and art serve as essential items on the budget that should always be included.

Both Democratic incumbent Patricia Johnson and Clark said the budget should also include capital improvement projects.

“We need to maintain the buildings,” said Johnson, who has served on the board for 20 years. “As unglamorous as they may be, they are also important because if we do not have a building, where are you going to teach,” Clark said.

Republican incumbent Terry Lombardi said she would like to see additional funding, including grants with the Southington Education Foundation as well as from leveraging shared services with the town departments.

“I would like to look at alternate funding to implement and add to our budget,” Lombardi said.

Other candidates running for Board of Education include Republican incumbents Terri Carmody and Patricia Queen, along with Democratic incumbent David Derynoski, who could not attend the debate due to a death in the family, and Jerry Belanger, a former board member who served from 2003 to 2007. A new candidate running for the board is Democrat Gail Doerfler, who worked as a full-time teacher in the district.

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