May 20, 2013
Written by The Ridgefield Press
Monday, 07 November 2011 16:13
From academic achievement and pressure on kids to budgets and a school closing, school board candidates took stands on issues in response to questions by The Press.
Seven candidates are vying for five open school board seats. Three are incumbents.The two Democrats in the race are Adeline ‘Lyn’ Merrill, an incumbent who heads of WestConn’s education department and worked many years as teacher and administrator in the Ridgefield schools; and Karen Sulzinsky, a former TV news writer and owner of a local TV production company who is a Ridgefield PTA officer with two children in the schools.
There are five Republicans running: Austin Drukker, the current board chairman, is a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch and has been active in youth sports; Richard Steinhart, chief financial officer of a biotechnology firm, MELA Sciences, is an incumbent and chairman of the board’s negotiating committee; Michael Raduazzo is a director of financial controls with Pfizer who has two children in the schools; Christopher Murray is real estate investment professional who has two children in the schools and has been active in coaching, scouts and St. Mary’s; Linda Lavelle is a former Norwalk social studies teacher who also worked as a kitchen designer, founded The Ridgefield Food Co-op, volunteered at the high school and had three children go through the Ridgefield schools.
Here are The Press’s questions and written answers the candidates provided, within word limits.
What’s your stand on closing an elementary school?
Steinhart: Closing an elementary school is a very difficult decision. Altering years of patterns and traditions is not easy. In an era of steady and declining budgets I would rather use our scarce resources on programs and teachers. To me, educating students takes precedent over real estate. Walls cannot talk.
Merrill: It would not be possible to close an elementary school until the elementary population drops to approximately 2,000 students.
According to Dr. Chung’s and BOE’s projections, the K-5 population could reach 2,000 in 2014 or 2015. We still need to determine how much money would be saved before any decision is made to close a school.
Lavelle: The BOE has already determined, based on Dr. Chung’s report, that a school can be closed when the elementary population reaches 2000. That seems reasonable. When shared services can be spread among five schools instead of six, all the students will benefit. Dollars saved should be used for educational improvements.
Raduazzo: The decision to close a school needs to be fact-based and not emotionally driven. A five-year rolling budget and enrollment forecast will provide some of the facts needed to make an informed decision. The entire process should be transparent, include public input and be well planned.
Sulzinsky: To maintain class sizes and protect programs district-wide, an elementary school closure should only be considered when enrollment reaches 2000, projected for 2014. Total savings must factor in both town costs to maintain the empty building and future re-opening costs. On the BOE, I will include Ridgefielders in all discussions and decisions.
Drukker: My stand is that when the elementary school population is at a size that closing does not affect our children’s education via larger class sizes, closing a school needs to be pursued. Currently the majority of the board and my position is that number is around 2000 students.
Murray: Focus on the students, not the politics. We have spent three years speculating on a school closing. What matters is to enhance the performance of our students. Improve teacher accountability, performance improves, and families will move to Ridgefield. Creating a better result for students solves the “school closing” issue enduringly.
The current $79.2-million school budget went up 1.81% from the previous $77.8-million budget for 2010-2011. What’s a reasonable target for next year’s school budget and in what specific areas do you think the schools could spend less or need to spend more?
Steinhart: It’s impossible to put a specific figure on next year’s budget. There are too many variables in a school year to predict a figure in October. During my term I have worked to reduce the cost of infrastructure and non-classroom related expenses. We need to continue to look for savings in energy, transportation and employee benefits. These savings should be directed to programs that have been scaled back and investments in the classroom and technology.
Merrill: The superintendent is working to develop a budget now that addresses our school district’s priorities. It would be inappropriate to identify a ‘target’ budget increase before the superintendent has had the opportunity to ascertain the needs of the district. However, I do believe that our technology budget is severely underfunded.
Lavelle: Last spring we watched as the 1.81% increase went to pay for across-the-board raises for highly paid administrators while middle school academic courses were cut. Ever-increasing school budgets don’t seem to benefit the kids. While the taxpayers are suffering down-sizing, layoffs, and salary cuts, it’s time we set different priorities. If we eliminated automatic raises and used the money saved to reward outstanding teachers/administrators, we would improve education quality without increasing our taxes.
Raduazzo: Any potential budget increase should be based on fulfilling our contractual commitments without negatively impacting the quality of education to our children. We should continue to explore opportunities to pool our administrative resources with other town boards and additionally look toward pooling resources with other towns in our DRG. Furthermore, we should explore the feasibility of outsourcing administrative functions which could be managed externally in a more fiscally responsible way.
Sulzinsky: Because of the BOF’s $850,000 cut in April, this year’s BOE budget is starting from a deficit. We must meet contractual obligations, which increase by 3% this year. Increasing teacher HSA enrollment above the current 42% helps us to climb back toward last year’s austerity level. Going forward, the BOE and BOF must work together as partners, to repair the damage that’s been done, restore programs, and invest in Ridgefield’s strongest economic asset.
Drukker: A reasonable target is one that we need to assess yearly. Once we have some guidance from the administration, combined with input from the BOF, we can then work toward meeting the needs of our students within the ability of the town to support an exceptional education in Ridgefield. Putting a number to that after doing this for 8 years is difficult since each year is unique. Technology and teacher training.
Murray: The spending focus is misguided. We have increased spending every year. Are we getting better results? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Gates Foundation are focusing on teacher evaluation, training, and accountability. This is the key. Obsessing with budgeting 1% more or less while ignoring classroom performance just doesn’t help our students. I will focus on the essential jobs of preparing students for their next academic step and improving the student/teacher classroom experience.
How do you view the priority of raising academic achievement against concern that there’s too much pressure on the kids?
Steinhart: In a word; balance. During my term I was the driving force behind the screening of Race to Nowhere in Ridgefield. Academic achievement is a must, but in my view, the entire student needs to be considered. We need to teach our students to find their own level without criticism, but with encouragement. Finally, we must teach our students to think critically not just react to questions on a computer screen.
Merrill: There has been too much emphasis on test scores in America. Our children are the most “tested” generation of Americans in history! I am pleased to see that more people question the myopic focus on test scores driven by the No Child Left Behind legislation and which has narrowed the curricula in classrooms. Connecticut, along with many other states, requested a waiver from the 100% proficiency requirement of NCLB, and I endorse that request.
Lavelle: We must raise academic achievement if our graduates are to compete successfully in this world. American 15-year-olds rank 17th in science and 25th in math among students from 34 industrialized nations. We need to do better. Students feel pressure from school workloads and from social media. If schools monitor homework loads and parents monitor Facebook/Twitter usage, students should have no greater pressure than past generations of students. If we fail, they’ll suffer stress.
Raduazzo: As a parent of a teenager, I have seen the pressure that high school children face every day. Parents and administrators need to work collaboratively to find the correct balance to ensure academic achievement and social-emotional well being of our children. I would work to ensure that programs such as Responsive Classroom, DARE and the high school advisory program are all working to help our children effectively deal with the pressures in their lives.
Sulzinsky: The whole community, including our schools, plays a part in raising children who achieve their potential academically while also feeling valued. As a parent of two in Ridgefield schools, I share concerns about pressure to achieve. Our priority should be creating a whole person who is ready for the challenges of life, equipped with the skills to overcome hurdles along the way. On the BOE, I will focus on academic, social, emotional, and character development in our schools.
Drukker: I am personally not a big believer in counting a child’s success solely based on tests. I believe we need to continue to strive to help our students be critical thinking, well rounded individuals and prepare them to the best of our ability to be happy, successful adults where each of them have the confidence to pursue their dreams, whatever that may be.
Murray: Students know they are accountable. The pressure is real. Teachers need to feel the same accountability. Most of our teachers are great, but a brave high school senior publicly complained one of her teachers was “mailing it in.” If you have the right teachers, raising academic achievement comes naturally, reducing the stress of students and parents. Teachers in Fairfield County, CT, are the highest paid in the country; shouldn’t we insist on the best teachers?
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