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The Newtown Public School PTAs and PTSA hosted candidates for the Board of Education at an informational forum in the Newtown High School Lecture Hall on October 23 that had the candidates answer questions submitted by attendees before the event began.
Daniel Cruson, Jr (R), Daniel Delia (R), Michelle Embree Ku (D), Debbie Leidlein (D), and write-in candidate Deb Zukowski (R) are all running for the school board this year. Mr Cruson, Ms Ku, and Ms Leidlein are also current members of the board. Ms Leidlein did not attend the Candidates Informational Forum.
NHS teacher Jason Edwards moderated the event, and Interim Superintendent of Schools Lorrie Rodrigue greeted attendees at the beginning of the evening. She shared that each candidate would answer questions in turn and none of the candidates knew what the questions would be in advance.
“Tonight it is democracy in action at the local level,” said Mr Edwards. “We have a great opportunity to hear from candidates as they discuss their vision for Newtown Public Schools moving forward, their perspective on the role of the Board of Education, and how they will handle some of the challenges our district and community will face in the future.”
Mr Edwards also reminded those present that the forum was a nonpartisan event, and the PTAs and PTSA do not endorse candidates.
After the candidates introduced themselves, Mr Edwards asked the candidates to each state why they want to be on the school board.
“To be honest with you, I want to do what is best for the kids,” said Mr Delia. He added that he wants to be a voice for students.
Ms Ku said she feels her primary goal is to make sure students have opportunities that allow them to excel in the best ways possible, like furthering personalized learning efforts, having Newtown represented at the state and regional levels, and monitoring budget concerns.
Sharing that she is the product of a “good public education,” Ms Zukowski said she is a community member and wants to “see your children flourish.”
“I look at the details and I see the big picture; that [was] part of my training as an engineer,” said Ms Zukowski, “so I feel with my analytical skills that we can make sure that as much as possible in these very, very challenging times that we can maintain the quality education that we have, but even more important, to grow it.”
Mr Cruson said he was inspired through working with the district’s central office when he was younger, to be on the Board of Education.
“I want to be part of the solution. I want to give back,” said Mr Cruson, adding that he wanted to lend his experience and ability to find solutions.
After being asked which Board of Education Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) project they think should be implemented “ASAP,” Ms Ku said the school board’s Capital Improvement Committee, which Ms Leidlein is on, puts the plan forward for approval by the board.
“I don’t know that I would pick out any one project to be fast-tracked through the process,” said Ms Ku.
Ms Zukowski said she would determine the importance of projects by looking at health and safety, looking at which projects would be more expensive if postponed, and education.
The order the CIP is in, Mr Cruson said, was considered by the board’s committee.
“Personally for me… the one that I remember being sort of top of the list for me is the boiler/HVAC [work] that needs to be done at Hawley,” said Mr Cruson, adding that he would not want to see any projects “fast-tracked” and not done properly.
Mr Delia said he has been “paying attention” to the NHS auditorium renovation project.
“I know how construction accounting works. I know how to read the contracts and know that we are getting the best deal,” said Mr Delia. “I know how to hold people accountable for what they are doing.”
The $3.6 million NHS auditorium renovation was approved by voters at referendum, and the $750,000 second phase was approved separately as part of the district’s CIP, as previously reported by The Newtown Bee.
When asked what Newtown can do differently to retain teachers, Ms Zukowski said the first step would be to understand why teachers leave the district. Some of Ms Zukowski’s family members are teachers, and she said they put in a lot of time “and sometimes they just don’t feel valued.”
Ms Zukowski said energizing teachers about teaching is important for school climate.
Historically, Mr Cruson said the town has done a “good job at retaining teachers.”
“So we are doing something right in at least some areas, because there are teachers that want to stay,” said Mr Cruson, adding that he agrees it would be good to look at the reasons behind teachers leaving when they do.
School climate and offering promotions from within, Mr Delia said, are critical.
“You should always offer teachers an opportunity to grow and learn, because then they can pass that on to their children,” said Mr Delia, who also suggested offering incentives to teachers to live in town.
Ms Ku said there have been “a lot of things” implemented in recent years to improve staff morale, and, “I am proud of where the district is at this point.”
Curriculum, Enrollment, And Space
The candidates were also asked what topic they would like to see added to the district’s curriculum or what area they would like to see strengthened.
Mr Cruson said he supports a number of programs that have been added to the district recently, like the Spanish program in the lower levels, and he would like to see programs in the high school’s business program continue to be supported, such as the technology classes.
Computer science jobs, Mr Delia said, will be needed when students enter the work force, and, “I think there should be a concerted effort to help our children be ready for 21st Century jobs.”
Ms Ku said personalized learning impacts every aspect of the school system.
“I think that offers the opportunities to students to figure out what it is they are interested in,” said Ms Ku, “and where they want to go.”
Public speaking, Ms Zukowski said, is an important skill to instill in learners, and she offered examples of ways she would add it to the curriculum.
Enrollment and space usage was also brought up as a question.
Mr Delia said space usage “is critical for keeping expenditures down,” and the district needs to be careful to make sure space is being used adequately while keeping in mind what is best for the students.
As a community, Ms Ku said she suspects a discussion will have to be had about enrollment possibly increasing at the lower levels, but over the next ten years she said projected declining enrollment at the high school means “empty space is going to open up.” The school board, she said, should look at ways to use the space to complement the curriculum.
Ms Zukowski said it is important to look at cost, savings, length of impact, and whether a decision would be educational when discussing space usage. How space may be used, she said, would be a conversation the school board would have to have, and she would like to be part of that discussion.
While Mr Cruson said he is cautiously optimistic that enrollment may be higher than projected in coming years, he also said he would like to find ways to utilize the high school space, including programs or other creative solutions to supplement administrative programs.