By LISA CAPOBIANCO
From government spending and unfunded mandates to mental health to outsourcing cafeteria services, Republican and Democratic Board of Education candidates running in this year’s election addressed a variety of issues affecting children and families in Bristol Public Schools.
Sponsored by the Bristol Federation of Teachers last Tuesday, the forum included nine questions for the 12 candidates, who each had two minutes to answer. Both BFT and the PTA collaborated on forming the questions. Two candidates from each party responded to each question.
One question asked candidates about their thoughts on the minimum budget requirement and where the budget is headed, as Bristol spends less per pupil in the district than most of the other districts in its District Reference Group and other surrounding towns.
The Board of Education budget has been flat-funded for seven out of the past 12 years.
“The reality is that we are all asked to do more with less these days, and we are currently doing better than our DRG in terms of flat funding,” said Republican incumbent Jennifer Dube, noting the success in adding all-day kindergarten and the reintroduction of middle school sports. “We need to continue to add educational value in programs and opportunities for our children while we eliminate wasteful spending.”
Democratic incumbent candidate Chris Wilson said he supports MBR, which he called a safety net for cities like Bristol.
“We’re in a marketplace, and the marketplace says we need to negotiate contracts with teachers and paraprofessionals, custodians,” said Wilson, who has served on the Board of Education for the past 12 years. “We’re compelled to give increases based on that market rate.”
Candidates also shared their ideas on how they would help fund initiatives and extracurricular activities despite the burden that unfunded mandates from the state place on the budget.
Democratic incumbent Karen Vibert said she has communicated with state legislators often about unfunded mandates, adding the city should properly fund the Board of Education budget.
“We spent the lowest per student in our DRG,” said Vibert. “Education is critical to the viability of the city.”
Republican incumbent Genard Dolan said state legislators have been struggling with unfunded mandates for years, and suggested seeking other sources of funding.
“Some we can overcome by being more diligent in seeking grants from both private and government sources,” said Dolan, who is the current vice-chairman of the Board of Education. “Some require us to simply tighten our belts.”
During the forum, candidates shared their thoughts on the biggest improvement that should be made in the district. Democratic incumbent Tom O’Brien said there needs to be a focus on excellence, adding that doing more for less is not an option.
“With increased class sizes and reduced staff, I’ve seen a subtle reduction in expectations,” said O’Brien. “We need the funds… to reintroduce literacy teachers… [and] math coaches, particularly at the elementary level.”
“We’ve proven that we haven’t been able to take care of the money we have with the programs we’ve got,” replied new-time Republican candidate David Scott, who was born and raised in Bristol. “When we move past that…then I say we identify the things we need to do.”
Democratic incumbent Karen Hintz said the Board of Education has been “great stewards” of the funds from the city, which is facing not only a large achievement gap but also a population of students who receive free or reduced lunch who score lower than their peers on testing.
“We’ve cut staff, we’ve cut administration, we’ve cut buses…we have consolidated…but we have a huge achievement gap in our city,” said Hintz. “We need to give the supports to students who need them the most.”
Newcomer Republican candidate Jeff Caggiano said the district has seen many positive changes, including full-day kindergarten and middle school interscholastic sports with flat funding. But he suggested adjusting the sixth grade curriculum by allowing those students to have access to both music and art.
“Currently, our sixth graders are allowed to choose music or art class,” said Caggiano, who currently serves as the vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee.
Meanwhile, candidates also were asked whether they support the privatization of cafeteria services, and how they would work with the cafeteria staff to provide a better service to students while closing the deficit.
In May 2014, all Republican school board members voted to approve a contract to hire Whitsons to handle the cafeteria program in order to eliminate its deficit. In July, the board’s finance committee reported that food services had a projected operating deficit of $63,993 for Fiscal Year 2015.
First-time Democratic candidate, 18-year-old Joe Grabowski, disagreed with outsourcing, noting that the cafeteria workers are moms who live and raise families in the Bristol community.
“This is not a business—this is a service,” said Grabowski, who attended Bristol Eastern High School. “It would be foolish to have these people lose their jobs.”
But Republican incumbent and current Board of Education Chairman Larry Amara said the deficit for the last 10 years was $250,000 on average. He added that despite the privatization, cafeteria workers were offered the option of joining a union as well as $1,500 in unemployment compensation.
“This is a compassionate way for a win-win, for our kids in Bristol,” said Amara, who has 35 years of experience working in the education system.
Other issues the forum addressed included the entrance age requirement for kindergarten, open communication between board members and staff in the district, as well as improving relationships among board commissioners and the high stakes of standardized testing.
Candidates also addressed the issue of early intervention for behavioral health services in schools, especially after the series of bomb threats that occurred in the district last year.
Newcomer Democratic candidate Tina Taylor, an art teacher with a master’s degree in emotional behavioral disorders and special education, said it is vital to form partnerships in the community. She added the importance of identifying behavioral health issues in students as early as age four before those problems magnify.
“It’s not just a parent problem, it’s not just a school problem—it’s a community problem, and we need to work together,” said Taylor, who served on the full-day kindergarten committee in Bristol. “We need to form a partnership that is culturally and linguistically competent. We need to keep in mind that children are not all exactly the same when we go about forming these plans for our children.”
Republican incumbent Jeff Morgan said the district has addressed this issue by hiring behavioral specialists, the establishment of a working relationship with the Bristol Police Department, and a developed program with Wheeler Clinic and Bristol Hospital.
“We may have to establish a program to educate the parents of our children,” said Morgan. “That may be where the real problem is.”
Comments? Email lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.
PHOTOS by TAMMI NAUDUS