Glancing around the historic Edmond Town Hall lobby where voices echoed during a brief meet-and-greet on Tuesday, October 22, incumbent Board of Education Secretary Kathryn Hamilton considered other prospective and incumbent candidates. “We’re all good; any combination of us would be good,” she observed.
Before answering questions about fiscal responsibility, personal skills, managing a budget, or selecting the right school superintendent at a candidates’ forum hosted by The Newtown Bee, candidates spent about 30 minutes in the lobby talking with other town officials, family members and supporters, and constituents eager to hear their thoughts.
Running unchallenged for an open two-year post on the school board is David Freedman, who was accompanied by his wife, Christene. Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia Halstead and several others liked his tie decorated in cartoon images of children.
Incumbent school board member Keith Alexander spent some time talking with Ann LoBosco Benore, who is campaigning for town clerk. She and guest Doug Kissack met attendees as they entered the town hall theater.
Also participating in the forum was incumbent board chair Debbie Leidlein, and running in their first election, Democrats Laura Main and Michelle Embree Ku.
First Selectman Pat Llodra also attended, along with a number of Legislative Council and Board of Finance officials, and a handful of others who took their seats in the audience as moderator and Newtown Bee Editor Curtiss Clark soon got the evening’s discussion started.
The first item of business was introductions, and in turn, each candidate ticked off a list of his or her qualifications. Then it was on to specific questions.
Noting that the Board of Education spends more than two of every three dollars in the town budget, Mr Clark asked each candidate to reveal how they believe they can best serve the board’s mission, the school community, and the town.
Ms Leidlein explained that the school board is a policy-making body. “It’s our responsibility to set policy that guides the superintendent and administrators as they move forward,” Ms Leidlein said. “We also have a tremendous responsibility allocating tax dollars to the necessary areas…to provide the best education we can for our children in our district. It’s important that we advocate for those dollars, and that we have a realistic expectation as to how many dollars are needed to educate our students.”
Spending Tax Dollars
Ms Hamilton said she has advocated for years as both a member of the school board and the Education Committee Chair on the Legislative Council for accountability to taxpayers. She said she examines every line item in each proposed budget, and served as a conduit bringing council members’ questions to members of the district staff and leadership.
She also said the school board has to be mindful of local taxpayers and their contribution to the school budget.
“One of the challenges we are facing now is declining enrollment and what to do about that,” Ms Hamilton said. “I think it’s time we addressed that and right-size our classrooms to what our guidelines talk about. That will help save tax dollars but it doesn’t hurt the classroom.”
Mr Alexander said setting policy is the core of the school board members’ job. But he also said the board has to figure out every year how to best spend tax dollars.
“Throughout the year we learn a lot about what the newest ideas are in education; which ideas we are using that are working; which ideas we need to work on,” Mr Alexander said. He added that understanding how new programs can benefit Newtown students helps when vetting budgetary spending proposals.
Mr Freedman, who earlier pledged to bring in the next school budget at a zero increase, said that he has worked with many nonprofit boards and can bring that experience to guiding the local district.
“As a member of the Board of Ed, I feel it is the utmost responsibility to be the fiduciary decision-makers…while at the same time building trust and transparency with our community,” he said.
Ms Embree Ku said she has reviewed the responsibilities of a Board of Education both locally and in state statutes.
“I think the one common theme I’ve seen is our responsibility to bring the best education we can to the children of Newtown. Obviously we have to do that in a fiscally responsible way,” she said. “I think I bring to the table my cooperative spirit.”
Ms Embree Ku said as a member of a recent Charter Revision Commission she worked well with colleagues, some who had significantly different viewpoints than her own.
Ms Main, who previously noted her work as an educator and school principal, as well as books and papers she has authored on education issues, said as a member of the school board she would be a reflection of the community.
“One saying in education is, you have to make sure you’re on the balcony and on the dance floor,” she said. “I’m uniquely qualified because I do this work every day. The role of a Board of Education member is to ask really good questions, and solicit information, seek out, research and ultimately make good decisions for our community and our schools.”
Responding to a question regarding a superintendent’s search, Ms Main said she thought there were many quality candidates in the pool of prospects, and many who would consider working as Newtown’s district leader.
Ms Embree Ku said a new superintendent has to support every student’s dream to excel no matter what the pursuit.
“One who builds trust and open communication, and one who can engage the entire community and make us proud of the schools we have. One who can work collaboratively with other boards,” she said. Ms Embree Ku said as she did research for the charter commission on splitting the budget, she learned that towns whose school leaders worked cooperatively and openly with residents and other town officials were most successful in consistently passing school budgets.
Mr Freedman said he also wants to see a superintendent who is collaborative and visible in the community. He also stressed a need for good communication skills, and a person who can facilitate during the kind of emotional exchanges that often come with handling district business.
Mr Alexander, who is involved in the current search, said that search will be as thorough as possible to ensure the finalists exhibit the “best fit for the community.”
“I think any candidate we consider will be highly educated,” he said. “What we need to do is go through the candidates to see who is the best community fit, because they have a need to not only bring the Newtown community together as a whole, but the community of employees of the Board of Education.”
Ms Hamilton said she finds ideas about the current search criteria and expectations among fellow school board members to be consistent.
“We’re looking for somebody we can trust, who can openly and consistently communicate both outside and within the school system, and have the same message,” Ms Hamilton said. “We need somebody who’s going to roll up their sleeves, and who can walk the walk and talk the talk, to engage the parents, students, and staff members and inspire them to raise the level of learning in the community.”
Over the course of the remaining hour, the candidates also discussed their ideas on whether or not to close a school to accommodate down-trending enrollment; how to further improve the district’s budget review process; and the delivery and equitability of special education services.
The forum concluded with two Newtown Bee reader-submitted questions. The first from Jacqui Kaplan, whose concern was about teacher and district staff morale, and how the candidates would reconcile the need for fiscal responsibility against the need to bring teacher contracts in line with similar communities in the state.
Reader Mary Burnham wondered how the candidates felt about recent efforts by state and federal agencies to collect more specific data on student performance, and how they would support parents’ wishes for privacy and confidentiality in the face of increasing requests for specific student data.
The forum will be broadcast via Charter Community Vision 21 October 27 at 4:30 pm, on November 3 at 10 am and 4:30 pm and on November 4 at 2 pm.