Board Of Ed Candidates Debate Academic Rigor, “Soft Skills,” Library Books And More

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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49 responses to “Board Of Ed Candidates Debate Academic Rigor, “Soft Skills,” Library Books And More

  1. Stephanie Frankel

    What we learned tonight is that Jamie Fitzgerald is more Moms for Libertyish than Camilo Raino. Her attacks on Westport Public schools as declining and not being rigorous enough were absurd at best, but laughable in all reality. She basically parroted all of M4L- Ron DeSantis political culture war and bigotry garbage.
    As a Jew, I was disgusted that she said that she is sorry for what is going on with the “ Israelites” then proceeded that she wants to dismantle social emotional learning in schools. Why? Why would you want to dismantle social emotional learning in schools if you just said you feel sorry for a group of people hurting and being attacked? Teaches can not provide social- emotional supoort for kids who have anxiety and are scared? THAT is scary!
    Jamie also pointed out that her own daughter was once bullied ( not sure if this occurred while in Westport) then proceeded to say bullying is wrong, yet continued to attack Diversity, Equity, and Incluusion amd social- emotional learning! How does she expect schools to deal with bullying without addressing the CAUSE of it? I truly am baffled by her disconnects.
    This rheroric fed to people by far right extremists will harm our kids and schools!
    Our schools our highly ranked!
    Our schools are very acedemically rigorous as the colleges know!
    Social- emotional learning helps with classroom management , empathy, and to prevent bullying in order to foster a better learning environment to be able to focus!
    Finally, neither DEI nor SEl take away from academics! That is a misnomer fed to people by Moms for Liberty and Ron DeSantis!
    Keep politics and Florida OUT of Westport!
    There is a write in option!!!!!! JILL!!!!!

    • on a statistical basis does anyone know what percentage of the highest rated school districts are ? Democratic or Republican?

    • does anyone know what the lowest state school districts are? democrats or republicans??

    • Erica Holmberger

      I served on 2 exec pta boards with Jill and she is so passionate about supporting children in their education. She would be an amazing addition to the BOE! Westport would be lucky to have her!

  2. Stephanie Frankel

    Sorry for my typos. There are many. I typed fast. Point is made.

  3. Stephanie Frankel

    Last comment:
    Jamie did not mention how she thinks Westport Public schools are not rigorous enough. She did not give one example.

  4. Stephanie Frankel, how do we contact Jill’s campaign? If you could provide her information including her last name and campaign information I think it could help those of us willing and wanting to help. Thanks in advance.

  5. Stephanie Frankel

    Lisa,
    Her name is Jill Dillon. She is an independent. I will get more info on how to contact and get signs!

  6. Caroline Hendley

    I am so excited that Jill Dillion will be running as an Independent candidate. I served on the Coleytown Middle School PTA board with Jill when she was Co-President and can vouch for her commitment to advocate for the best interests of all Westport children and school staff. Jill also served as the PTA Co-President of Kings Highway. Please write in JILL DILLION on Election Day!!!

  7. Thank you Stephanie!

  8. EVERYONE needs to vote in this election. Make sure your college age kids have registered for their absentee ballots. https://oabr-sots.ct.gov/OABR/absenteeBallotReqPortalHome.do

  9. Barbara Greenspan

    Please educate me. Children and young adults can access any information available on the internet. Why do people think that banning books will keep their children safe from information? If a child wants to read anything, they use the device in their hands. I’m open to learn.

    • all the children have to do is listen to the Republican leading candidate pornography escapes on the news tv. newspaper. the children can easily look up his wife Melania nude photos. I wonder how that plays in out library and in clergy service ?!

      • Barbara Greenspan

        Children and young adults do not watch the news or read newspapers. They learn everything on their devices. I am still confused on why there is a focus on banning books. Someone please explain so I can understand. Thank you.

        • Because they’re easy targets being physical objects doing no harm on a library shelf. Filled with “information” about the world (gasp! Horror!). The books on the shelves have already been vetted as being age appropriate by experts, unlike these three clowns who are clearly conducting the GOP censorship campaign, Westport style. Did anyone ask them who won the 2020 election?

  10. Many of us would have liked the question which I, by E Mail, asked the BoE candidates, namely, do you support the destruction of the Community Gardens and its replacement by a high school size baseball diamond. The only BoE person who has expressed a view is not running for office, Robert Harrington.

  11. I was very confused by Riano’s comments. He’s against bullying (no one would ever take the opposite view on this), but also against supporting students mental health. We know that young people feel isolated, rate of suicide is on the rise and that in many instances kids participating in bullying are doing so from a place of being hurt themselves. How do we stop prevent bullying if we don’t care for the whole child?

  12. I watched last night’s debate and remain unclear on Jamie Fitzgerald’s local qualifications. The Westport Journal reports this quote: “I have been active in the community, in the classrooms, teachers, PTA, as well as the sports within Westport,” Fitzgerald said.

    Fitzgerald said she has lived in Westport for “over 8 years.” She said last night she has one “child who is 30”. She also reportedly has a child who graduated Staples “a few years ago.” Then how has she been active “in the classrooms, teachers”? I have never heard of parent opportunities to volunteer inside Staples classrooms. I have never heard of parent opportunities to volunteer inside CMS or BMS classrooms. I have never heard of PTA opportunities to volunteer inside Staples, CMS or BMS classrooms. Which Westport classrooms did Jamie Fitzgerald volunteer in, since the math doesn’t put her in Westport when her kids were in elementary school, where volunteer opportunities present themselves?

    Jamie Fitzgerald said she’s been active “in the PTA.” Which ones? Did she sit on any Westport school executive boards? Was she chairman of any PTA committees? If so, which ones? Which years? A search for “Jamie Fitzgerald, Westport PTA” doesn’t yield any results listing her as a PTA officer, volunteers or committee leader.

    Jamie Fitzgerald said she’s been active in “sports” in Westport. Which sports? Was she a coach? Based on the timeline it seems that maybe she put one child through Staples. Was she a Staples coach? Assistant coach? A search for “Jamie Fitzgerald, Westport” doesn’t yield any results listing her as a Staples coach.

    No one I speak with has ever heard of Jamie Fitzgerald. No one I speak with has ever served on a board with Jamie Fitzgerald. No one I speak with can attest to any experience Jamie Fitzgerald has inside Westport schools. No one I speak with has ever served as a coach with Jamie Fitzgerald on a Westport team. Does Jamie Fitzgerald have any experience at all working on behalf of Westport schools or Westport’s kids?

  13. Caroline Hendley

    Patra – I had the same questions! So I attended the BOE debate last night to learn. She said so many things that didn’t make sense or add up… I actually have the same questions about her running mate, outside of voicing very strong opinions at Board meetings against everything the BOE is doing. What has he done for the kids, schools, and the town?

  14. I would also like to know what PTA or school involvement Jamie has had. To my knowledge she has attended no BoE meetings and taken no position on anything until now. It’s not just about her lack of qualifications, its about her motive. Why would you run for BoE in a town where you didn’t raise your kids, don’t have kids in the school system and most importantly have shown NO interest in the schools. A sitting Republican BoE member has said he’s seen NO letters or anything from her. It’s so clear what her motive is – its this right wing agenda – going hand in hand with her running mate. Laughable that they would claim politics should stay out of schools since they are the only ones injecting it. As a former independent voter for many years I think the RTC in Westport has done a major disservice to the “real” Republicans in town. You’ve nominated the extremists and in so doing you may lose the seat you had as a Republican. Because Republican or Democrat – if you’re really putting politics aside – you would be negligent to vote for either Camilo or Jamie over Jill Dillon. Two people driving political agendas who don’t care about the schools vs someone who has dedicated her time to improving our schools. Stay out of the politics and focus on whats important.

    • The GOP candidates are scary and I will not vote for them.

      But I do have to take issue with something you said: Not having kids in the school system now or then does not preclude very good and bonafide candidates from doing a good job as a member of the BOE. That said, we need another candidate on THIS ballot so that one of these two Bozo’s don’t get elected by default.

      • Lauren MacNeill

        Toni, I was careful not to say that if you don’t have kids in the school system you can’t be a very good and qualified candidate. My point was that she neither has kids in the school system nor has shown any interest in our schools until her MOL buttons were pushed and someone told her we were showing pornography in our schools and sitting around hugging each other.

  15. Camilo Riano said last night that his own four kids were very happy—the only mental-health barometer he needed. Cool. As she struggled to answer basic questions, Jamie Fitzgerald desperately filled her time with platitudes and generalities (did you know she worked doing business with businesses that do business with other businesses?). Cringe. I guess the bench of right-wing culture warriors isn’t very deep in Westport and the Republican Town Committee has to field SOME sort of team. Batter up.

  16. Now that more has been revealed about Ms Fitzgerald’s views/qualifications, I’ve rethought my BOE vote. I still feel that, given that only 2 Democrats can be on the ballot, voting for a third candidate is an option, but Ms Fitzgerald will not be my third. Jill Dillon, as an Independent, sounds like the person who could keep the Republican candidates, who clearly do not represent my values, off the BOE. Hopefully more information about her will be supplied soon, before voting starts, so that as a third, write in option, she has a chance of winning.

  17. There’s nothing wrong with running for office without an impressive resumè. I might even prefer a common sense candidate to one full of preconceptions and attitudes born of a long career. However a resume full of bs does not indicate a candidate who could work for, let alone recognize, rigor in education.

  18. Wow- how great Jill is running! Jill Dillon has had front row contribution with the board of ed and our schools through her participation in PTA and beyond for over a decade now. (Plus, she’s a brilliant UVA alum and just incredibly talented at bringing different voices together around one table.) I think I read some comments about appreciating a common sense candidate- Jill’s that answer.
    So for continued excellence at keeping Westport schools as the best:
    For BOE it’s Neil and Lee and write in “Jill Dillon” for the best 3!

  19. So it turns out that the invisible candidate that no one knew anything about makes her public debut and is more of a confused extremist than Riano, as if that were ever thought possible. Where does the RTC find this people? Maybe they find the RTC I don’t know.

    I intend to vote for Lee and Neil but if a third, independent candidate were to reveal themselves as sensible and even handed I’m sure the many reasonable GOP voters in town would coalesce around them and also garner third votes from Dems.

    I don’t know Jill Dillon at all but I’d be happy to consider her candidacy if I could convince myself she would be a valuable and not extreme member of the BOE – Maybe an opinion piece here addressing qualifications and manifesto issues would help?

    A Robert Harrington endorsement would also go a long way towards convincing me too.

    • Having worked with Jill Dillon in her time as CMS PTA President, I know she has nothing but the best in mind for every one of our kids and can think with neutrality. She is very bright and has a long history of involvement in our public schools. She knows the town’s educational concerns and the challenges of recent years inside and out. She has children currently in the school system and is overall an excellent candidate regardless of anyone else in the race! We would be very fortunate to have her on the BOE looking out for kids and our town from a place of intelligence, understanding, and genuine care. I certainly will be writing in for Jill Dillon!

  20. Michael Petrino

    School rankings by state. CT is not number one.

    https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education

  21. I am beyond thrilled that Jill Dillon has decided to run! So kind and extremely smart. Always puts the kids first. Absolutely lovely to work with. Jill has been completely dedicated to Westport schools for many, many years.

    Please, please, please EVERYONE MUST VOTE and most definitely write Jill Dillon in on your ballot.

    Talk about a dream BOE! Lee Goldstein, Neil Phillips AND Jill Dillon! Oh, be still my heart.

  22. Robert Harrington

    As a sitting Republican Board of Education member it was very difficult listening to last night’s debate.

  23. If Westport voters seat that intellectually, emotionally and socially challenged team of Fitzgerald and Riano, we will surely both deserve and bemoan what we get.
    What an ignorant and repellant duo!

  24. Why doesn’t someone ask Jill Dillon why she pulled her daughter from WPS?

    • Stephanie Frankel

      Jill Dillon for write in!
      Keep extremists hell bent on destroying our great schools, out!
      As you can see by Tom’s letter to parents, social – emotional learning is KEY to education in these circumstances!

    • Hi, Lexi. Looks like you just did ask so let me answer. We all make personal decisions that we feel are in the best interests of our kids. My daughter started her Freshman year this year at an all-girl school. My husband and I liked that particular environment for our child. That’s it. Nothing scary or secretive there. Our other daughter is at CMS. I love our schools and continue to support them. Speaking of CMS and supporting schools, let me use this opportunity to plug Coleytown Company’s upcoming show, Pure Imagination!! Our kids are working hard to put on two great performances for the community: November 16 @ 6pm and Nov 17 @ 7pm. Staples Players are presenting the PROM in November and Bedford Acting Group debuts their production of Beauty and the Beast in December. Get out and support those kids!

      Thank you for your question, Lexi.

    • Lexi, see below. I replied to your question under the wrong comment.

    • Kinda creepy to be so invasive? I taught in the Westport schools for more than 40 years starting in 1968. I pulled both of my kids from Westport schools at different times for various reasons for different periods of time. Why? Because I thought it was the right decision at the right time. Why is that anybody’s business besides our family? I’d prefer a candidate who is sensitive to their child’s needs than one who sacrifices their child on some abstract rigid principle.

  25. Hi all! Thank you for your patience as I get my thoughts on paper to introduce myself and tell everyone why I decided to throw my hat in the ring as a write-in candidate for Board of Ed. In the meantime, thank you for the heartening words of encouragement.

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