Bullying was among the issues addressed by Board of Education candidates during a Tuesday candidate forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westport.
The forum, which included questions from the audience to contenders in the Nov. 5 election, took place in Town Hall auditorium. Candidates for the Board of Finance and probate judge also appeared at the event.
"This isn't just a school issue, but a community issue," said Republican board member Jeannie Smith. She said the school system does "everything possible to prevent bullying." There's a slogan, she said: "When it's mean -- intervene."
"There is absolutely no tolerance for it," said Democrat Brett Aronow, another board member seeking to return. She said there are policies already in place but she would also like to survey students to gauge their ideas about the issue. This, she said, would have to be anonymous because there is fear about "calling out this behavior."
"Bullying represents the broader topic of school security" which is there to protect the health and well-being of students, said Republican Michael McGovern, the board vice chairman.
Republican Karen Kleine said parental involvement is a key to combatting bullying because of the amount of social-media technology available to students today.
Asked about projected fluctuations in enrollment in the town's public schools, McGovern said that could become an issue when seniors sell their homes to younger families. "There is the potential for more crowded conditions" in classrooms, he said. But, he added, the school system is "in good shape for any population shift."
Democrat Elaine Whitney, the current board chairwoman, agreed, but added that officials need to look at long-term planning" and closely monitor any changes.
"I agree we are in good shape, however the enrollment at Staples (High School) is pushing boundaries," added Kleine.
The candidates were also asked to explain the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum.
Smith said it prepares students to become creative thinkers. "At first I didn't think students would be interested in it but they were," she said. Now, she said, it's being offered as an elective for all eighth-grade classes.
McGovern said it's a hands-on program. "That's what's so exciting about it," he said. "It's about making things," adding that the program could provide a workforce that can bring "good-paying jobs back to America."
Whitney said that a key benefit of the STEM program is that students can try something out, test it and see if it works. "It's part of the scientific discovery process," she said.
Also at the forum were candidates for the Board of Finance: Democrats Brian Stern, Ben Benke and Lee Caney, and Republican Jennifer Tooker.
Asked how they would reduce the town's pension liability, Benke said the town has to move from "defined benefits to defined contributions." Stern said it will take a lot of work to do that, adding it "won't have a quick fix."
Caney said the town's police and fire personnel "have to be taken care of," but they also "have to look at the efficiencies in government."
Stern said one way to do this is to consolidate services. Caney said there is currently "no joint purchasing between the Board of Education and the town, and with technology today we can combine all departments."
Tooker, currently a school board member, said she could bring her understanding of the school system to the finance board to help achieve that goal.
Republican Lisa Wexler and Democrat Kieran Costello, candidates for probate judge, spoke about what that job entails: from dealing with wills and conservatorships to approving adoptions.
"It's a safety net," said Costello, a lawyer for 21 years. "The function is critical because no one anticipates death or mental health issues."
On the subject of wills, Wexler, a lawyer since 1984, said they are the "best way to plan for the fact that we won't exit this place alive."
She said a will is "a favor for everyone left behind."
Several dozen people attended Tuesday's forum, the second of two sponsored this campaign season by the LWV.