May 22, 2013
Written by Macklin Reid, Press Staff
Saturday, 29 October 2011 06:59
A school closing? Merit pay? Drugs, alcohol, stress and bullying — seven school board candidates faced a wide variety of questions at the League of Women Voters debate before an audience of about 50 in The Playhouse Oct. 17.
A multi-faceted question addressed a school closing, which Superintendent Deborah Low has proposed when the elementary schools get down to about 2,000 students.If a school closing can save $1 million or $1.5 million a year, candidates were asked, should the savings be used by the schools, or returned to taxpayers? And what about choosing which school to close?
“I’ve seen the town go through closings,” said Lyn Merrill. “It’s a long, arduous and painful process.”
Choosing a school to close should done by the school board in collaboration with selectmen, finance board and townspeople, she said.
She’d asked if savings from a closed school could go to education, Ms. Merrill said, “The response I got was, it goes back to the town.”
Linda Lavelle agreed choosing a school close should be a joint decision.
“It is a matter for the administration and the Board of Education and all the other boards,” she said.
If a closing did save $1 million, she said, “I’d take a good portion of that savings” and use it for concerns such as “the computer virus that cost $123,000.”
Richard Steinhart said it’s a decision the board must face so resources aren’t drained away from education to keep an un-needed building open. “I support education over walls,” Mr. Steinhart said.
Chris Murray hoped enrollment wouldn’t fall to the point where a closing was called for. “I don’t think we will. I hope we don’t. I’ll work to implement policies that will make Ridgefield so attractive it won’t happen,” he said. “We’ll kind of be a beacon to young families.”
Michael Raduazzo wanted the closing decision “based on fact, and have as many facts as possible.”
He praised Mr. Steinhart for seeing past the 2,000-student figure and seeking “a rolling five-year plan” based on demographic trends. “We don’t want to close a school we’re only going to have to open in five years,” he said.
Karen Sulzinsky agreed a closing decision should be based on a five-year perspective, and “communication and collaboration” with voters.
She doubted the projected savings: “We should be careful: $1 million to $1.5 million on the savings — that is not a researched number.”
Chairman Austin Drukker agreed. “I’m not sure we’d save $1-to-$1.5 million on an on-going basis,” he said.
But he said the board was facing up to a tough decision in the belief substantial savings could be transferred from infrastructure to education.
‘Merit pay’ for teachers?
“We’ve tried to negotiate with the union to put some kind of merit pay in place, and they’ve resisted,” said Mr. Steinhart, who has chaired the board’s negotiating committee several years.
“Merit pay is interesting. It opens up the issue of accountability in a much broader way,” said Mr. Murray. “I’m for what I’ll call more market-forces impacting how people in the school system are paid.”
“I’d agree with a merit pay system,” Mr. Raduazzo said. “I think it’s going to be tough to get rid of the antiquated tenure system ... It’s not something unions are very open to.”
“I believe very strongly in merit pay,” said Ms. Lavelle. “If you want across-the-board raises for everybody, you get mediocrity.”
She spoke of a school in Harlem, which was divided in half so demographically identical students were schooled under two philosophies. One group had a traditional public school, the other half went to a charter school with no union rules. The public school side scored in 29th and 33rd percentile on state reading and math tests, she said, and the charter school kids scored in 88th and 94th percentile.
Ms. Sulzinsky had doubts on merit pay, saying it might sound good, but schools couldn’t make it work. “Merit pay systems have been tried and faded out,” she said.
“Education is a ‘people business.’ We’re not stamping out a product,” she added.
Ms. Sulzinsky worried about the work atmosphere merit pay might create.
“I don’t feel teachers should be competing with each other when they could be collaborating for the good of our children,” she said.
Mr. Drukker was open to merit pay, but had concerns about reliably measuring teachers’ performance.
“Based on a child’s test scores? Classwork? Homework? How do you quantify what’s a good teacher?,” he said.
Ms. Merrill, a former school administrator, said testing was undergoing major changes. “We have a whole new measuring system coming in,” she said.
She also spoke of what Finland had achieved with a system that trusted teachers’ professionalism and engaged in minimal testing. “There is no domestic testing of any kind in Finland,” she said.
What should the schools do about youth problems of drug and alcohol use, depression, stress, bullying?
“I think it’s a partnership between families and the schools,” Ms. Sulzinsky said.
She applauded the recent survey done at RHS by the Search Institute, and its promotion of 40 developmental assets that help kids avoid risky choices. That approach supports the “responsive classroom” and “character counts” programs the schools already use to build kids’ respect one another, and ability to get along, deal with stress, and make good decisions.
“I do think schools are a major player,” she said.
“Having three children in the high school, I have a pretty good idea what goes on,” Mr. Drukker said.
The board is trying a new approach at the high school. “We implemented this year an advisory panel,” he said.
Students meet in groups led by a faculty advisor for discussions of mostly non-academic topics. It’s an attempt to help students have a strong connection an adult at the school, and could help to identify kids with struggles.
“It’s an age-old problem,” Mr. Drukker said.
The schools try, Ms. Merrill said, but the problems reflect a larger reality. “What can you do?” she said. “This is a long, long slog for the entire community.”
She felt one question in the Search Institute’s survey spotlighted the gap between high school kids and town adults.
“Sixteen percent,” she said, “only 16% of high school students feel the community values them.”
Ms. Lavelle was struck by a different figure in the survey, one that said only 38% of students thought there were “clear rules and consequences” at the high school.
“The school should have a zero tolerance policy,” she said. “If students show up stoned or drunk, they need to kept in the office until parents are pulled from work and come to pick them up.”
Mr. Steinhart said concern about stress on students had led him to work with Ms. Low to show the film Race To Nowhere around the district last year.
Drug and alcohol use relates to the lives students lead.
“This is something that’s going on across the nation. Why is this happening?” he said. “Some of it has to do with the stress we put on kids, the pressure we put on kids.”
Mr. Murray thought it was important to value each child “for who they are” and not how they compare: “It’s not all about your test scores.”
Mr. Murray said an issue he’d like to “revisit” was “sleep deprivation” among RHS students.
“My daughter gets five hours of sleep a night,” Mr. Murray said.
Mr. Raduazzo emphasized the importance of families.
“Parents need to be aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives,” he said.
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