Campaign 2015: Board of Education

The Observer asked the Board of Education candidates two questions:
A) What have been the major educational successes or failures of the past two years
B) If you are elected/ reelected, what do you see as the biggest priorities for the district
An * indicates an incumbent.
David Scott, Jr. (R) did not submit any reply to the questions.
Larry Amara (R)*
A) An easy answer would be to cite implementing all-day kindergarten as one of many tangible examples. I would like, instead, to take the opportunity to discuss some intangible successes that in many ways are just as significant.
There have been positive changes during the past four years in the Bristol school district. The school budget has never been more accurate and transparent. It took a concerted effort on the part of everyone related to the budget process to comb through, reduce, and correct past inefficiencies. Utilizing a new citywide fiscal computer program, the director of finance has adapted and refined the budget to reflect a clear picture of exactly how the dollars are spent. Additionally, we now have detailed analyses of year-to-year expenses and school-by-school operational comparisons.
Cooperation between the Board of Education leadership and City Hall has advanced to a very high level. Since becoming chairman, the budget process over the past two years has occurred with a new level of openness among all parties to the process. Credit should be given to those parties, which include the superintendent, the director of finance, chairman of the BOE, Chairman of BOE Finance Committee, the Mayor, the City Business Manager, and the Chairwoman of the Board of Finance of Bristol.
Now we are able to better see costs of our exact needs while the city side can see that the monies allotted us have been spent with purpose. Negotiating the budget allotment is less constrained when it can be seen where the dollars go and why.
In summary, there is a new direction due to new leadership that is creating a positive culture interested in getting good results for the citizens of Bristol.
Jeff Caggiano (R)
A) I believe adding all-day kindergarten, which was introduced in 2014, was not only the biggest educational success, but also should begin to pay dividends in our student experience and achievement scores in the near future. Not only does this put Bristol on par with our surrounding communities, but completed a mandate that had been contemplated and discussed for many years. This was accomplished along with adding middle school sports and music and arts programs in 2015. These additions both occurred without raising the minimum budget requirement, and overall spending by the board.  I think this is directly related to the hiring of Gary Franzi as finance director. He and the team have taken steps to get a closer look into finances begin to implement strong fiscal management.
B) Although we are doing well academically, there is always room for improvement, and I am hoping that a focus on academic standards allows our kids to continue to attend top colleges out of high school. We really need to work with our teachers and provide appropriate training and skill development for our kids so they are more prepared for the Smarter Balance Assessments. Additionally, I know not every child is ready for college right out of high school, and if elected I’d like to work to integrate more and better technical and career development opportunities directly in our high schools that allow our kids to compete in an ever changing workforce.
Genard Dolan (R)*
A) I am an advocate of out sourcing the food services to eliminate deficits.
B) Engage the PTA to enlist more fathers to become involved as well as mothers.
Change the focus to student education rather than social activities.
Improve graduation rates by mentoring every high school student beginning in the ninth grade by administrators and teaching staff. This demonstrates caring and concern for success in future endeavors.
Jennifer Dube (R)*
A) The implementation of all day kindergarten has been a major success. A vast improvement in writing skills, higher reading levels, and an increased stamina have been noted by first grade teachers throughout the district.
The return of middle school interscholastic sports and the revamping of the middle school music program also are achievements of which we are very excited.
An area that demands attention are the multiple classrooms that are at or near student capacity. This impacts, most heavily our students with special educational or behavioral needs. With limited paraprofessional access or availability, the classroom teacher must accommodate the needs of these students. Classroom disruptions can and do occur frequently, which in turn, has a negative effect on our average or above average learners.
B) The priorities that I see for the district include:
1) Ensuring skill and comfort for the teaching staff with the Common Core State Standards and SBAC testing, providing adequate training to teachers and resources to parents. Eliminating the teacher evaluation ties to these test results is imperative.
2) Tackling the issue of increased teacher to student ratios.  Board of Education commissioners utilizing their roles as liaisons to the teachers and brainstorming ways and means to combat this is a must.
3) On a personal note, adjusting the middle school schedule to allow sixth grade students the option of both an art and a music class is something I’d like to explore further.
Joe P. Grabowski (D)
A) Lower test scores and a lack of technology education are major educational failures in Bristol. Over the past few years our test scores have fallen. Contrary to what some of my opponents may believe, this slip is not due to teachers, but rather due to the lack of resources we provide them. As the number of impoverished students and students with special needs increases in our district, so too must the resources we provide faculty to deal with these challenges increase, so that each student has the support they need to reach their own maximum potential. Second, the economy of the 21st century demands that students have access to advanced technology while they’re still in school. Our technical educational programs need to be strong, and we need to find innovative ways to integrate new technology into the classrooms.
B) I believe our biggest priorities over the next two years are to ensure that our schools are funded properly and that our students are ready for post high school opportunities. Our schools have been flat funded seven out of the past 12 years. The nearby towns that we compete with are spending almost $2,000 more per pupil than we are. We are falling behind, and if our schools fall behind these other towns, our whole community will fall behind too. My friend Tom O’Brien is right: how a community funds education is a direct reflection of their priorities and social and moral values. My moral obligation is to the students of this city who deserve the best possible experience we can provide them while they’re in our schools. If we succeed, our children will have opportunities to live a successful middle class life and give back to our great city. If we fail our children, our whole community will feel that impact.
Karen C. Hintz (D)*
A) The Bristol Board of Education implemented full-day kindergarten for the 2014 – 2015 school year, and it has been a great success. Those students are now in first grade and their teachers have observed better writing skills, letter and sound identification, and the ability to work for longer stretches while following classroom rules.  Our Adult Education program began a program to train students pursuing their GED’s and Credit Diplomas in machining, which will enable them to pursue well-paying jobs and provide trained employees for our local manufacturers.
I think it would be dishonest to trumpet our success without honestly assessing and addressing our failure as well.  Budget constraints have limited our ability to provide necessary services, like math and literacy coaches, to our most at-risk students. The achievement gap is growing and we need to do more to ensure all our students have the tools to succeed.
B) My first priority would be to address the achievement gap. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all children will learn better if every student is given an opportunity to perform at grade level.  We need to focus on fully staffing essential support services.
Secondly, I would like to see our high school programs include more 21st century skills like coding and technology. I believe every child should feel he has the opportunity to go to college, but we need to do more for those who choose to enter the workforce. Our students should have the opportunity to learn about a variety of career paths and gain appropriate skills.
Jeffrey Morgan (R)*
A) After years of trying to implement full-day kindergarten, it was accomplished due to the great working and trusting relationship between the superintendent of schools, the mayor, and the Board of Finance. This was accomplished without raising the MBR, (minimum budget requirement). We just had a presentation from first grade teachers throughout the district. The level of improvement in their reading skills, writing skills and overall stamina was astounding. Also, the bringing back of middle school sports is a major factor in the lives of our students. When cuts need to be made, we cannot take programs away from our students.
B) If I am reelected to the Board of Education, my top priority would be to hire more teachers to reduce class size, hire more paraprofessionals to assist the teachers in the district. Another priority of mine is to eliminate the politics that are consuming the board. Our duties as commissioners are to make decisions that will provide our students, of this great city of Bristol the best education.
Thomas P. O’Brien (D)*
A) The major success has been the introduction and implementation of all day kindergarten. The major failure is the expanded class sizes and the reduction in support personnel at the elementary level due to flat funding from the City of Bristol.
B) Our priority has to be higher expectations for all students primarily at the elementary level.
Tina Marie Taylor (D)
A) One major educational success in the past two years has been the implementation of full-day kindergarten. I was honored to be a parent member of this committee alongside many knowledgeable and passionate administrators and teachers. At a recent board meeting, first grade teachers submitted testimony delivering praise about the first cohort to complete full-day kindergarten. An increase in stamina, improved writing skills and superior social skills were mentioned as positives identified in this cohort. Not only are we improving the education of our youngest children, we are also providing a desirable service to potential residents who look to the education system as a factor in moving to our city. In order to attract families to Bristol, we must continue to invest in programs that will help every child to succeed to the best of their ability. As the free and reduced lunch rate increases in our city, it is our charge to create opportunities to close the achievement gap. Full-day kindergarten was a great first step, however, we cannot stop there. Innovation is going to be the key to creating a system that is known for student success and high expectations.
B) Bristol schools need to increase the opportunities to provide a well-rounded education for every child. We need to expand our fine arts opportunities, particularly in the middle school curriculum. Our high schools should begin adding technological and manufacturing training that is not currently available to ensure that every child is college or career ready upon graduation. We need to continue creating partnerships with the community to provide increased mental health, behavioral and special education services to our students. Gifted services are to be expanded and properly funded. Finally, we should fine-tune our focus on creating a rigorous, creative and safe environment for all of our students.
Karen Vibert (D)*
A) The major educational success over this past term is the successful implementation of full-day kindergarten. I asked for a feasibility report to be done several years ago and served on the full-day kindergarten committee. Having spoken with parents and teachers of kindergarten students, I am convinced it was the right move. Our youngest students are showing stronger achievement in basic skills. Teachers are reporting that the students exhibit significant improvement in writing and math concepts, as well as number sense, higher reading levels, better socialization and collaboration skills, and more stamina, just to name a few.
The administrators deserve credit for making this happen. The Board of Education commissioners certainly voted in favor and we all advocated for full-day kindergarten, however, the actual implementation was done by district administrators and teachers.
B) Bristol schools have been flat funded for seven out of the last 12 years, and we have been forced to eliminate many programs as a result. We need to bring back things we’ve cut due to that lack of funding. For example, we need the appropriate number of math and literacy coaches, especially with the increased rigor in curriculum due to Common Core. We need more opportunities for talented and gifted students, who are too often overlooked. We need to commit to a high school reform program which includes life-skills classes, career paths for non-college-bound students, and offer more electives and on-line credit courses. We need to increase our investment in the arts.
The quality of our schools is a critical component to the success of Bristol. Young couples choose where to buy homes based on the schools. We want those young couples moving into Bristol, not out. Simply put, we need to demand excellence in education for Bristol’s children, and for Bristol in general.
Christopher C. Wilson (D)*
A) As a commissioner I will endeavor to make sure all the students and families have a world class education. But before we can even attempt to explore innovative and entrepreneurial ideas, we must adopt and implement a governance model that works. The current governance model whereby the majority on the board leaves out the minority from access to information and decision making does not provide for a working governing body. In a governance model where the superintendent only discusses important information with the majority does not work. Strategic planning for the district and the board should be done in a collaborative process. That has not been done during the last two years. Decision making has not been open and transparent. All board members need to receive all the same information and have input to the goals of the board and the superintendent. If elected, I will urge the board to have a board retreat/orientation facilitated by Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and to embark on a journey to be a more inclusive, respectful and collaborative board. Further, I will recommend the board begin a process called the Connecticut Lighthouse Project. This project will expose board members to data driven best practices for the boards of education on distributed leadership, making a strong community connections, professional development for boards and knowing what it takes to change student achievement. The culture and the values of the board must return to being apolitical. Partisan decision making is divisive for the board and the community.