From school tax relief and smart fiscal management, to overcrowding and eco-friendly energy in classrooms, members of the community put tough questions to three prospective school board candidates last week.
Current school board member Anne Capeci seeks another term on the board, joining candidates Bob Johnson and Dominic Bencivenga on Monday night at a forum sponsored by the local League of Women Voters.
Not surprisingly, money was a big issue: as school taxes rise and property values shrink amid a still-sputtering economy, many homeowners say they feel squeezed. At the forum, taxpayers quizzed the candidates on their ideas to trim the district's nearly-$80 million budget.
“What changes in operations would you propose would have a positive impact on budget?” asked the moderator.
Bencivenga, a former Board of Education member who served for 12 years, responded by accusing current officials of negligence, saying they failed to keep costs down despite demands for tax relief.
School board members “should’ve rolled up their sleeves this year and looked at additional areas to cut. There are areas we could save and cut in—there are grants out there this district could receive that would help in cutting the budget down,” he said.
And how exactly does he plan to do that?
Eco-friendly energy, said the candidate.
“I believe we should step into the solar energy world and look into areas we can put solar panels to reduce costs," he said. "I’d also look into the water systems and see how we could save water with every flush."
Johnson, who previously worked as operations manager at Fairfield’s Handy and Harman’s Chemical Products Center for 15 years, said he agrees with plans to consider energy cost-saving measures.
Among the more difficult questions posed to candidates: How would they convince school unions to make concessions? While many teachers earn salaries that would be enviable in the private sector, along with benefits and pensions, taxpayers are calling for educators to tighten their belts as well.
“It has to be an issue of fairness all through our system,” said Johnson, a parent of a fourth-grader at Park Avenue Elementary School.
“And that includes folks at the top making the highest amount of money—if you slow down those raises or even make them zero. If union members see other sacrifices in services, they’ll come to the table,” he added.
What about overcrowding, and the fact that there are more than 25 kids in many classrooms?
In five years, 500 more children have enrolled in the district. Taxpayers asked the candidates whether they favored building more classrooms or managing the bloat in other ways.
Capeci, who has served on the school board for 18 years, defended current efforts to keep class sizes down, while Johnson made a pitch for college-style digital classrooms.
"[We] have undocumented children in the village but the law says we have to educate all of them," Capeci said. "Three years ago we created Early Learning Center for kindergarten through first grade and if we didn’t do that, we would have had 750 kids at John F. Kennedy Magnet School."
Johnson said the easiest way to reduce class size is to make classrooms virtual.
“We already have Smartboards and a strong foundation; we need to look forward into the 21st century and find non-instructional ways to save money,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most hotly debated issues of the school year was the appointment of Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Elliott. It was no surprise when board member Jim Dreves -- who along with Capeci voted against Elliott's appointment this year -- asked the panelists how they felt about the $120,00, six-month hire.
Capeci said she voted against Elliott's hiring for financial reasons, but praised the interim superintendent's professionalism and the work he's done so far.
“I was against the initial hire because of the economy, but I have to say it’s worked out very well for the six month period—he’s an exceptional educator,” she said.
For more from the forum, including on-demand streaming video, visit the League of Women Voters' website.
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