Candidates present ways to improve ‘dysfunctional’ Stamford school board at UConn forum

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STAMFORD – The Stamford School Board faces a number of challenges, including finding ways to get along.

Some of the candidates vying for one of the three vacant board positions in the upcoming November 2 election said they would help restore professionalism and order to the organization, which has often been disrupted by the arguments of the members of the board of directors.

The behavior of board members has been criticized this year; a 60-page report by an outside law firm dealt with allegations of intimidation and harassment by board members against members of Superintendent Tamu Lucero’s office.

Democratic candidate Michael Hyman, a staff member of the nonprofit Domus in Stamford and a former president of the NAACP in Stamford, said one of the main reasons he chose to run was to help improve relations with the board of directors.

He called some board members, without naming names, for coming to meetings unprepared, not reading board materials, and asking uninformed questions.

“I am really disappointed as a resident, as a taxpayer of this city, and everyone should be, with the behavior that the current council has shown us,” he said at a forum of Candidates hosted by the University of Connecticut-Stamford Politics Club Tuesday night at the Ferguson Library. “It’s not a proud moment in Stamford when our elected officials are yelling at each other and yelling at each other.”

Republican candidate Josh Esses, a lawyer, said he would help restore professionalism, productivity and meeting readiness if elected.

“I will read the board brief before Education Council meetings and ask questions at meetings that are relevant to the topics being discussed,” he said.

The event was an opportunity for the school’s students to ask the candidates questions. Many of them focused on diversity and inclusion and on ways to make schools more equitable.

Almost all of the applicants said the district needs to do a better job of retaining teachers of color.

Outgoing board member Jackie Pioli, a community and parenting activist running as an unaffiliated candidate, said the district has programs that deal with hiring a variety of teachers, but that she is more concerned with retention.

“We can continue to hire a variety of teachers, administrators and other support staff, but why are they leaving our district? ” she asked.

Candidate Versha Munshi-South, a former teacher and director of the Public Preparatory Network in Manhattan who runs as a Democrat, said she would like to see the district conduct exit interviews for teachers leaving the district to learn more about what can be done to keep them from going.

On the issue of promoting diversity and inclusion, Republican candidate Joe Gonzalez, a former Stamford police officer, said the district did not have to promote either, touting the large number of languages ​​spoken in the district and its current diversity.

He said the job could be done, however, by increasing the diversity of the teaching staff, who remain predominantly white, even though Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the district.

Esses suggested providing a hiring aid to teachers in Stamford to attract candidates and keep them in the system once hired. He also proposed adjusting the pay structure for educators to provide higher pay for the “best” teachers and lower pay for the “worst” teachers.

Some candidates mentioned district communications as something they would work to improve.

Incumbent Republican candidate Becky Hamman said the district had not allowed parental voice in decision-making.

“We need involved parents,” she said.

Parents said they felt blinded by a number of recent policy changes, such as the decision to eliminate college follow-up, the elimination of some advanced placement classes at Stamford High School, and the implementation of a new grading policy at Westhill High School.

“The way they were communicated and the lack of engagement from families resulted in a lot of backsliding from families or just misunderstandings,” Munshi-South said.

Gonzalez and Hamman both said the board needs to be more transparent.

“It seems the Board of Education with the superintendent is not very welcoming to parents,” Gonzalez said.

Hamman said she would continue to fight for transparency and “keep the board honest.” She said a group of council members were operating behind closed doors.

Hamman also pleaded for a return to in-person board meetings, which has not happened since early 2020.

Munshi-South, a former class teacher, said Stamford’s program is “embarrassingly outdated” and supported the district’s ongoing program audit.

“We need board members who understand the different curricula, what is most effective, what doesn’t and what would work with our unique population of students,” she said. declared.

Democratic candidate Ben Lee, a current member of Stamford’s Council of Representatives, said the district should adopt its recently approved diversity and inclusion policy.

During the forum, he brought up Critical Race Theory, making him the first candidate to reference the concept in any of the three forums.

A handful of parents have spoken at Education Council meetings this year, claiming that Stamford schools teach CRT, although no evidence has emerged that the theory is actually taught in classrooms. class. CRT is an academic concept that originated in the 1970s as a way for students to examine history through a racial lens and its opponents have claimed that the frame is anti-American political ideology.

Lee called the criticism “nonsense.”

“We must boldly defend our values,” he said. “We cannot be intimidated by the loudest people in the room who want to deny the inequalities that have developed in our country, some of the inequalities in our history and the inequalities in outcomes that exist.”

Hyman also spoke to CRT.

“I would ask anyone to talk to any graduate teacher and find anywhere on their college transcript that they have indeed taken a course in Critical Race Theory Pedagogy in order to be able to teach it to his students at school, ”he said. . ” This does not happen. There is no such course.

The Stamford Board of Education operates under a minority representation rule, which states that no more than six of the nine members can be from the same party. Five Democrats are not running for reelection this year, which means that only one Democrat can join the board in the next election if he places in the top three candidates overall.

The rule does not say that minority representation on the board of directors is entirely Republican. A candidate posing as unaffiliated, or any minority party, would also qualify.

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