Southington BOE race wide open as political slates shift

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SOUTHINGTON — Despite a few political hot button issues, the candidates for Board of Education are largely pushing for the focus to remain on giving students and teachers what they need to continue adjusting to the return to in-person learning.

The Republican Party is vying to keep control of the Board of Education with a lineup of three incumbents, Colleen Clark, Joseph Baczewski and James Chrzanowski, as well as three newcomers, Dawn Anastasio, Jasper Williams and Sean Carson.

Three Democrats are running for re-election, Zaya Oshana, David Derynoski and Robert Brown, joined by two new candidates, Lisa Cammuso and Katherine Wade.

Terri Carmody, who served a decade on the board as a Republican and is the current board chair, switched parties and is also now running as a Democrat in this race.

Angelica Espada is making a run to serve on the board as a Libertarian.

“What I'm hearing (from voters) is they want the Board of Education to focus on educating the students. Get out of politics and stay in the education of our students,” Oshana said. “ … We don't have party line votes. If we had party line votes I'd be very disappointed.”

Derynoski said arguments over mask requirements for students have been getting in the way of issues the board does have discretion over, as is controversy over a belief that critical race theory is being taught in local schools. As the chair of the curriculum committee, he said CRT is not being taught in the schools and the board has no legal ability to disregard Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders requiring masks.

“It's time taken away from other things we do have important decisions to make about,” he said. “The board should be occupied with taking lessons away from technology use during the pandemic and finding a balance between keeping taxes low and meeting students’ needs for resources, such as tutors, coming out of the pandemic.”

Fellow Democrat Cammuso agreed, stating that students should be at the forefront of the board’s decisions and mission.

Clark, the Republican incumbent, agreed that the hot button issues of masks and CRT have been distractions from what voters really care about: student safety and school renovations.

“This year we throw in the mask mandate, throw in the fact that some people think we are teaching CRT in our schools and that just adds into the interest of the race. From my personal perspective the mask mandate is not a political issue, it’s a public health issue and I rely on the public health experts to tell us what to do,” she said.

Baczewski, who previously clashed with other board members on wearing masks at meetings, said the board should push for more local control over how schools are run.

“I'd like to start seeing the Board of Education trying to get back more of the, I guess, provide more real time guidance for our school system... rather than being told what to do by Hartford,” the Republican said.

Williams said he believes the core of the issues of CRT and masks lies in transparency and accountability. In talking to voters, the Republican newcomer said many don’t feel they're being heard and don’t see the BOE bringing their concerns to the Capitol on their behalf.

“It sounds like they don't feel like they're being heard so how do we communicate that we’re letting voters know … that we’re hearing them and also that we’re elevating their voice,” Williams said.

His primary concern in running, however, is based in containing the impacts of rising inflation rates in the school budget to maintain the education students are receiving while keeping taxpayers in mind. Through his work as an operations manager, he said he has experience managing budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees.

“Where can we be more efficient and how can we make sure that we’re getting the best return for the money we’re investing in the schools,” he said.

For Brown, the issues coming out of the pandemic that the board should be focused on are centered on the social and emotional well-being of students. As a teacher for 41 years, he said this is the first time teachers have reported having major behavorial issues among elementary school students, who are now coming into classrooms sometimes for the first time after learning from home, often in isolation. For older students, the isolation has caused suicide rates to rise among middle and high schoolers.

“It is the pandemic, it’s because they have been home instead of being at a daycare palace or a preschool  where there's other kids … they've been home alone, so they don't know how to deal with another kindergartener,” he said.

Rather than coming into the situation with an aim to solve the problems, he said the board’s role should be to continue hiring experts who can help students on the ground and advise the board on the best courses of action. That could take the form of additional school counselors, psychologists and teachers.

“I don't think most people in the public know our role, we hire education experts … instead of us imposing a solution here I think the best thing we can do is listen to the administrators, the teachers, the central office,” he said.

Job training, STEM

Both Baczewski and fellow Republican Chrzanowski — who described himself as a technology evangelist — said that providing job training and S.T.E.M education should play a central role in the curriculum. The board’s challenge over the coming term will be creating a responsible budget that provides tax dollars in a modest, but effective way.

Anastasio said that it’s important that the district continues to provide the level of excellence it’s known for while staying within a budget that’s fair to taxpayers. She also believes that central to that is focusing on job training.

“I want to give the students of the Southington Public Schools a curriculum that makes them successful for whatever future goals they may have, whether that’s a four year college, a trade school, the military, or the work force,” the Republican said.

A lifelong Southington resident, Anastasio said she grew up immersed in the politics of Southington’s school board as the daughter of Derynoski.

“I grew up in Southington. I’m a hometown girl. I went to these very schools I hope to someday represent.  I want what’s best for our community, the kids, parents, teachers and taxpayers and I feel politics shouldn’t play a role in education,” she said.

Oshana said the district should be looking forward to the jobs of the future by educating students in emerging technologies. Investing in a high quality education system will pay off as families move to town to prepare their children for the world.

“The education system in the town is a huge driver of the growth … people want to have their children in a school system that will prepare them,” he said.

Wade, who is running for the first time, said her family is among those who moved to town for the school system.

The Democrat is running to bring the perspective of a parent who has two children in the school system and another who will be enrolling. She was also motivated by a concern about school funding this year and a desire to ensure that they have appropriate funding, which could include additional counselors for students.

“I absolutely believe in a student first approach. I think Southington does an amazing job with the resources we have available, I think there's room ... to see if we need additional school counselors,” she said.

Carmody joins Dems

Carmody is running as a Democrat on her years of experience as a board member after the Republican Town Committee declined to re-nominate her as a candidate.

“After 14 years … (Republicans) decided not to run me and support me this year. Because I knew this year was going to be a transition year, I felt my experience was going to be extremely helpful getting us through what I think is going to be a difficult year. We have a new superintendent, a new assistant superintendent and I believe that the board needs to have people with past experience on it,” she said.

Given the changes the district is undergoing, she said it’s experience that’s important for a board candidate, not their political party. She said the Democratic Party saw the value of her leadership skills and welcomed her onto their slate.

“They were very welcoming, they knew that I felt that I had a job that I needed to finish,” Carmody said.

Carmody attributes the friction between her and Republican party leaders to her insistence that board members wear masks during meetings and her style of keeping meetings on track.

“They got complaints from fellow Republican board members that I would cut off their comments if I felt they were inappropriate — that's my job as a leader,” Carmody said. “I requested and demanded during the pandemic that all members wear masks. One member wouldn’t, so then we went to remote meetings. They just weren't happy with me and the head of the Republican party said it was time for new fresh ideas, which I believe was referring to the fact that I'm older.”

Fellow Democrats Brown and Derynoski also pointed to their decades of experience — Brown as a retired teacher and four term board member and Derynoski as a board member for 30 years — as assets to the board.

“My perspective is that we as a board should function in unison as a team, you know with no political barriers such as council and maybe some of the other boards. The prime focus I have providing the best possible education for the children of Southington,” Derynoski said.

dleithyessian@record-journal.com203-317-2317Twitter: @leith_yessian


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