School board candidates talk issues at PTA forum
Less than three weeks before the Nov. 8 municipal election, Westport's Board of Education candidates voiced a more critical view of the town's school system during a forum Wednesday at the Westport Public Library.
Sponsored by the Westport Parent-Teacher Association Council, the candidates' discussion focused on recent policies on the school board agenda.
Democrats now have a 4-3 majority on the board. Four candidates -- two from each political party -- are competing for three seats on the panel in the election.
The school district's delay in implementing changes in the gifted student program, in particular, emerged as a prominent issue at the forum.
"I think that maybe one of the issues that's on the table at the minute is the school board has not fulfilled their commitment to make changes to that curriculum within the time frame that they agreed," said Republican Jennifer Tooker. "That is something that is an undercurrent here."
Democrat Mark Mathias, the sole board incumbent running for re-election this year, acknowledged the prolonged timeline for revising the program.
"As with many items presented on the agenda, it was not completed when we expected it would," he said. "It is still in process, and we'll be getting some more information about that soon."
Republican Jeannie Smith, a former public school teacher in Westchester County, N.Y., also advocated for considering changes to the program.
"I think we have to rethink about the gifted program," she said. "We don't want to be taking kids out of the classroom that much during the day. We really want to find ways to have a balance where some of the gifted educators are inside the classroom alongside the regular educator."
"We want to have better professional development for our gifted teachers and also our regular education teachers," he said.
Moderated by former NBC News correspondent Dianne Wildman Burns, the forum moved at a faster pace than an election forum for school board candidates sponsored two weeks ago by the League of Women Voters. Frequently, she posed pointed questions to the candidates, asking Gordon, "Do you really have a sense of the zeitgeist of this town's education story?"
"Our job, if we're going to be effective, is to listen to all the parent cohorts, not just the ones we know," Gordon replied.
Wildman Burns also quizzed the candidates about a social networking policy approved earlier this year that prohibits contact between students and faculty on social networking websites. While the candidates generally backed the Education Board's position, Tooker also noted benefits that social media could offer Westport schools.
"Pro-actively position them as ways to pursue academic endeavors," she said. "There are ways to do that on social media platforms."
The candidates also highlighted bullying as a top concern for Westport educators.
"There's a problem because there is bullying going on," Mathias said. "I think what we can do as a board is try to make sure there are abilities for not only the administration and teachers to know how to deal with it, but also have the education in place for students to know how to deal with it."
As the forum progressed, the moderator sought to engage the candidates in framing Westport's school system within a regional and national context.
"We are a fortunate and just plain old lucky place in many ways," Wildman Burns said. "How aware do you think, say, the high school kids are of Bridgeport being 10 miles away and a very unfortunate place in many ways?"
Each of the candidates expressed support for Westport education programs that reach out to students in other school districts.
"It really breaks my heart when I read about what's happening in Bridgeport in their school system," Smith said. "I would love to see ways that we can really educate our children as well as help support neighboring towns."