Westport school board contenders find common ground in cordial 'debate'
Westport's Board of Education candidates gave high marks Monday night to the town's school system, as they discussed their approaches toward public education during a Town Hall debate.
"The students are an incredible asset that we have to offer to people who want to work here in the school system," said Democrat Mark Mathias, the sole incumbent running for re-election this year to the school board. "When the teachers interact with the students, they're consistently impressed with the quality of the students that we have."
The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westport, the Westport Woman's Club and the Y's Women, featured four candidates: Democrats Mathias and Michael Gordon and Republicans Jeannie Smith and Jennifer Tooker.
From the four nominees, the three highest vote-getters in the Nov. 8 municipal election will win a seat on the Board of Education. Incumbents Sandy DeFelice, a Republican, and Faith Taylor, a Democrat, are not seeking re-election. Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority on the panel.
A collegial tone characterized the debate, with no pronounced differences on education policies emerging along party lines.
Education spending, which generally commands more than half of the annual town budget, dominated the discussion. All of the candidates backed continuing a cost-saving initiative launched earlier this year by town and school officials that aims to consolidate municipal and school services in areas such as information technology.
"Are there things that we can do in collaboration with the town that we can work on to find some various ways to save money or be tighter on what we're spending?" asked Tooker, a global manager at the reinsurance company, Gen Re.
In addition to pursuing further cost-cutting measures in municipal and education departments, Mathias suggested the town could generate savings by exploring collective purchasing agreements with other towns for commodities such as energy.
Other issues such as the school district's anti-bullying strategy played a prominent role during the forum.
"Our schools should have a zero tolerance policy for bullying of any kind," Gordon said. "It takes the entire community to handle bullying. Teachers, administrators, staff, parents -- everyone has to have a zero tolerance policy."
Gordon, who heads a strategic communications firm, suggested additional assertiveness training for students as well as anonymous surveys of pupils as measures that could bolster the district's existing anti-bullying policy.
Maintaining the current schedule for Westport kindergartners -- which consists of three full days and two abbreviated days -- also garnered the candidates' support.
"As a mother, I love my child, and I miss him when he's at school," said Smith, a former public school teacher in Westchester County, N.Y. "I'm actually really happy with the way things are now because I get to have him early on Mondays and Fridays, and he's at school for long days on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Right now, I feel my needs are being met."
A question that enquired about the possibility of expanding the district's sex education curriculum elicited the most lukewarm reaction, as each of the candidates offered noncommittal responses.
In general, the candidates offered praise for a school district that is widely regarded as one of the best in Connecticut. The New Haven-based educational advocacy group, ConnCAN, for example, ranked Staples High School last year as the fifth best in the state for overall student performance.
The candidates attributed much of that success to the district's teachers. They added that factors such as productive relations between the education board and the Westport teachers union and the continued recruitment of top instructors would contribute to continued academic accomplishment.
"Make sure the best teachers are in front of our students," Mathias said. "If we do that, I don't think we're going to have any problems with any of our students."