The Southington Education Association sponsored a discussion forum for Board of Education candidates Oct. 22 to talk about issues affecting the school system.
Three questions were asked, and all 12 candidates were given a chance to answer.
One question asked which items candidates considered to be “untouchable” in the budget process, i.e. what should never be cut. And, also, what items were more likely to get cut if the need arose.
Democrat Jerry Belanger said about 80 percent of the budget is locked and the board can’t touch it, which usually leaves art, music, sports, and gifted and talented programs on the chopping block.
“It’s a dance every board of education has every year, to find out what stays and what goes,” Belanger said.
Republicans Brian Goralski and Jill Notar-Francesco, and Democrat Zaya Oshana said they believe teachers are the most important, and should never be cut to keep class sizes smaller.
“For this particular board, that’s always been sacred,” Notar-Francesco said.
Oshana said things like technology are important, but without a teacher, it’s useless.
“A child’s mind still needs to be stimulated,” Oshana said. “Without being able to have those critical thinking skills and teach those skills, we’re not heading in the right direction.”
“That’s what we need to focus on as a board to make education great,” Goralski said.
Democrat Gail Doerfler and Republicans Patricia Queen, Colleen Clark and Terri Carmody all said safety should be the No. 1 priority for the BOE.
“The one thing I always wanted was for my child to come home as safe and sound as when they left the house,” Doerfler said.
“A teacher cant’ teach and a student can’t learn if they’re not comfortable in their environment,” Clark said.
In addition to safety, Queen said she also thinks things like professional development and technology should be increased.
“We’re in the 21st century and we need equity amongst our schools,” Queen said.
Republican Terry Lombardi said technology is most important to her, and making sure students have the ability to compete in the global economy with 21st century skills. Also, to bring technology to administrative offices to streamline processes.
Democrat William Lutz said the primary objective of the BOE is to create a budget where teachers and administrators are given proper resources to educate students. He said the schools need to have better funding.
“The connection between having a great school system and a great town has been lost,” Lutz said.
Democrat Patricia Johnson said capital improvements tend to be overlooked, and should be addressed. Making sure buildings are maintained properly, she said, is a key element to making sure students are ready to learn.
“We need to maintain these buildings,” Johnson said. “And it’s not as desirable as putting dollars in teachers or school maintenance, but it’s something that has to be done as well.”
The next question pointed out that Southington is ranked 144 out of 169 in the state when it comes to per pupil spending, and asked how can the schools be brought up to 21st century technological standards when that fact remains.
Notar-Francesco said she looked into that ranking, and further discovered that Southington is also ranked 29 out of 35 in the Hartford region, but those numbers don’t reflect what’s really being accomplished in the district.
“Even given all of the conversation around where we are with dollars,” Notar-Francesco said, “I think we have a very strong team in place that helps us achieve what we need to achieve for our students.”
Several candidates agreed with that sentiment, saying they weren’t particularly concerned with the spending since the results have been very desirable in spite of those numbers.
Oshana said it’s not always about how much money you get, but what you do with it.
“You get what you get and you need to do your magic,” he said.
“We truly do get the biggest bang for the buck,” Belanger said.
Clark said the time commitment made to the students makes up for the lack of money spent on them.
“We spend an awful lot of time supporting those students that we may not be spending a lot of money on,” Clark said, “but an incredible amount of time in pursuit of educating them.”
Lombardi said it’s other things like great teachers that make the difference, not money spent.
“We don’t want to compare ourselves,” she said.
Lutz said there shouldn’t be a reason why the district can’t spend more money. He said the town’s tax rate is just about the same as other communities, yet other communities are spending more on students.
“If other communities can do it, why can’t we?” Lutz said.
Goralski said he disagreed with Lutz, saying he doesn’t care what they spend, but rather what they get. He said education doesn’t occur in only the classroom, and Southington as a community is a large reason that kids have been able to be successful.
“Our kids get to where they want to be because we work as a community to get them there,” Goralski said.
Johnson said the schools receive a lot of outside support from PTOs and organizations like the Southington Education Foundation that raise money for programs, and also that the board is diligent about how every dollar is spent.
“This is a very cost-conscious system and that’s why we are great despite our funding levels,” Johnson said.
Elections will be held Tuesday, Nov. 5.