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The five candidates vying for three seats on the Board of Education squared off Tuesday night, answering questions about the school budget and future growth in the district.
Each candidate had two minutes to answer a question at the forum sponsored by the Cheshire Townwide PTA. Three Democrat incumbents are seeking re-election, while two Republicans are trying to shift the majority control of the Board of Education. Questions touched on a variety of topics, including core subjects, budgetary concerns, and what the future holds for the Cheshire school district.
When asked if the district has been heading in the right direction over the past two years, Republican candidate Anthony Perugini said that test scores would indicate the answer was yes, but they do not tell the entire story.
“We can plateau if we look only at test scores,” Perugini said. “We need to take an in-depth look at what’s going on and have an open dialogue between the Board of Education and the public.”
Responding to the same question, Democratic incumbent Bob Behrer said the district needs to continue work towards improvement. He said he was “not pleased” with what the Board had to do with the budget and cuts this past year, but emphasized the district was still in the top 15 percent in the state, while spending in the lower 15 percent.
Another question asked of the candidates was where they would cut in the budget and if they considered certain areas off limits. Incumbent Cathy Hellreich, a Democrat, said teachers have to be retained to keep class sizes small, especially in the K-2 grades. Also, maintenance cannot be put off for too long despite economic challenges.
Republican challenger Sandra Pavano said that, if budget cuts were needed, she would re-evaluate courses in the district that have low enrollment numbers to see if they could be eliminated. She said it is always vital to look at what the district needs compared to what it wants
Stephen Mrowka, a Democrat who chairs the Board of Education, was asked about changes he would make in the district’s curriculum. Mrowka said he would like to bring back 10th grade hands-on experiments. He explained that CAPT scores were low in hands-on science experiments so he wanted to better prepare the high school sophomores. He said technology is key to helping students learn, and suggested SMART Boards are needed in each classroom. Also, having good teachers was perhaps the most important part of any district, he stated.
“We need knowledgeable teachers that grow while they teach here,” Mrowka said. “They will help our students succeed and reach their goals.”
Perugini said it all starts with math, and he hoped to see the district focus more on math courses at each grade level. He said as great as advances in technology have been, the district still needs to hire “great teachers.”
When asked what the role of a Board of Education member is and what the role of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Greg Florio is, Hellreich explained that the Board sets policy, while Florio handles the day-to-day operations of the district.
Pavano said the Board would “give guidelines” to the superintendent, but would ask the “hard questions” of Florio.
“I will not rubberstamp policy just because the superintendent brings it before us,” Pavano said.
Candidates were also asked how to balance the investment in teachers, facilities, supplies, and technology across the district. Mrowka said all of those areas are of “equal foundation.” He explained that there was “tremendous financial strain on the taxpayers” because of unfunded state and federal mandates, but he hoped that burden would not influence hiring good teachers.
“The morale of teachers is the backbone for a student’s success,” said Mrowka. “If they are happy, it will affect our students very visibly.”
Candidates were also asked how they would gather information and relay that to the public. Perugini said the Board of Education cannot “operate in a bubble” and needs to speak with the public to help keep them informed. He hoped to update the Board of Education Web site more often and allow feedback to come to the Board through the Internet.
Hellreich said she makes herself available via phone or e-mail, but often times most of her discussions occur in the supermarkets in town. She said she is always happy to speak with anyone who has an issue, question, or concern.
When asked about the candidate’s vision for the Cheshire schools, Mrowka said he wanted to provide students with up-to-date technology that would help them succeed. Behrer said the budget crunch has slowed down the advancement of the district. He added that the Town could not focus on the lower 10 percent of students or the top 10 percent of students and “forget about the middle” 80 percent.
Perugini said it was an “unprecedented economy” and he wanted to make sure the budget reflected only the “needs and priorities” of the district.