Mia Bomback reports:
Four candidates for the Board of Education weighed in on a variety of issues involving students, teachers and parents last night.
There were no raised voices. But differences between the sitting board members, and those who hope to unseat them, were clear.
On books, bullying and the budget, the incumbent Democrats defended their service, while their Republican challengers called for changes. Westport’s League of Women Voters sponsored the event, at Town Hall.
Lee Goldstein, the Board’s current chair, and her running mate, Neil Phillips, Board of Ed secretary, are facing Camilo Riano and Jamie Fitzgerald.
Goldstein and Phillips cited their combined 25 years of public service. Fitzgerald and Riano — running for their first elected positions — noted their experience as consultants, educators and entrepreneurs. All 4 candidates have children currently enrolled in, or who have gone through, Westport Public Schools.
From left: Board of Education candidates Lee Goldstein, Jamie Fitzgerald, Camilo Riano and Neil Phillips, at last night’s League of Women Voters debate. (Photo/Mia Bomback)
Perhaps the most divisive issue was the role of mental health in schools. Asked about the most critical issues in the district, Fitzgerald described a departure from a focus on “academic rigor.” She called diversity, equity and inclusion, and social and and emotional learning, “soft skills” that take away from classroom time.
Goldstein argued that the mental well-being of students is of the utmost priority. Social and emotional awareness are not “soft skills,” she argued, “but rather people skills, that teach children to effectively regulate their own emotions and situations. We can’t avert our eyes, and pretend that kids are alright.”
On the issue of the removal of books from school libraries, Phillips defended the Board’s adherence to previously established procedures when a complaint was lodged against a collection of books at Staples last year.
Riano and Fitzgerald, meanwhile, emphasized the need for restricting content that is not “age appropriate” for school-age students.
“Frankly, it’s a perverted debate,” Fitzgerald said. “The school librarians decide to stock sexually explicit books, which are frequently far more obscene than is necessary. I don’t want my children seeing that, especially not in a public school.”
Goldstein responded, “every parent has the right to decide what’s appropriate for their children, but not what’s appropriate for everyone else’s.”
Riano and Fitzgerald also called for reform in the structure of the board itself. Referring to the budget and recently contested equity study, Riano described the board as operating under “a galactic black hole.”
“Transparency is missing from the Board of Ed,” he said. “As a parent, I’ve experienced the Board of Ed implementing plans in a very secretive way. It makes it difficult for us, parents, the stockholders of this enterprise, to have representation, to know what’s going on with our schools.”
Phillips and Goldstein countered Riano’s claims. They said that all information regarding Board of Education meetings and decision are made public on the Town’s official website, including the personal cell phone numbers of Board members.
In their closing statements, Riano and Fitzgerald called for an emphasis on academic rigor, intellectual development, parental participation and “taking politics out of schools.”
“We want to change the direction of the district. The emphasis on academics is being lost, and we’re beginning to see it in the rankings,” Riano said.
“Across the nation and here in Westport, many Americans are outraged by the attempt to take what should be a neutral place, our classrooms, and turn it into a political football. It’s not just a question of what ‘team’ you are on, because, while maybe some parents think they might be ‘winners’ in this ‘political game,’ we know who the losers are: the children, because the more we allow political beliefs to cloud our judgement, the less concerned we are with what actually works.”
In his closing statement, Phillips vowed to continue to dedicate time and care to “listen to the parent community, to the teachers and most importantly, to the students.”
“We lead from a basic foundation of mutual respect between ourselves and the administration, where integrity matters, process matters and trust matters,” he said. “This has been a hallmark of our public schools, but there is still more important work that needs to be done.”
“Neil and I, in all our years, have approached this work from the standpoint of making things better,” Goldstein said, in her closing statement. “We see problems, and we try to fix them. We see things that are going really well, and we try to build on them. Our academics are rigorous and exceptional, and we want our students to be profound thinkers who can manage difficult material in the humanities, math and sciences.
“But what I also know is true is that academics are not enough. We need to support our students emotionally and encourage such as perseverance, empathy and leadership. It’s never been more important to ensure our kids learn to navigate such a fraught and complex world.”
Other questions included the use of artificial intelligence in schools, the best way to teach slavery, bullying, and the most effective means of communication with the public. Absent from the conversation was any question about the controversial reconstruction of Long Lots Elementary School.
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