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Fairfield BOE Candidates Debate Hot Topics: Part I

The first part in a two-part series of coverage from Thursday's Board of Education debate, hosted by the Fairfield chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Voters will decide on Nov. 8 who should fill the five open seats on the .

Members Sue Dow, Catherine Albin, and are retiring from the board this year; both Stacey Zahn’s and Paul Fattibene’s terms are up and both are running for re-election.

Seven of the nine candidates for the board’s vacancies engaged in a debate Thursday hosted by the at . Amanda Parks and Hugh Joseph Donnelly, the two Independent candidates vying for seats on the board, did not take part in the debate.

Here’s what the participating candidates had to say regarding the following educational topics and issues:

Candidates’ Qualifications

  • Stacey Zahn, Incumbent, Democrat: Zahn has served on the board for 10 years, served on the for four years before that, and is the mother to a son who graduated from the public schools and another son who is a high school senior.  
  • John Convertito, Republican: Convertito is an attorney; has been a member of the PTA (and the group’s Board of Education representative); his two children are Fairfield public school students.
  • , Democrat: Gerber has served as a Board of Education Representative for since 2007; serves on the Osborn Hill School PTA and is also a PTA member. Gerber said she will bring her background in public relations and communications to improve the communication between the board and the public.
  • Neal Fink, Democrat: Fink toured his technological and entrepreneurial background; currently serves on the Building Committee, served on the Fairfield PTA Council, and has two children in the schools.
  • Paul Fattibene, Incumbent, Republican: Fattibene currently serves the Board of Education; he has served on the RTM; he graduated from the Fairfield public school system and so did two of his daughters – one is still a student in the schools.
  • , Democrat: Kennelly has worked as a professional educator for 21 years and is currently an English teacher in Greenwich; and is the mother to three children in the schools system.
  • Philip Dwyer, Democrat: Dwyer served on the school board in Rye, NY; recently retired as the CEO of the Central Connecticut Coast YMCA (the is one of its 12 branches); and his two sons graduated from the public school system.

Current and Future Issues to Face the Board of Education

  • Stacey Zahn: “The current biggest issue is space in the schools – that’s always been an issue in the 10 years I’ve been on the Board.” Zahn added she’s heard the arguments, listened to the constituents, and looked to the superintendents regarding this issue since she became a board member.
  • John Convertito: Convertito believes the budget is the biggest issue facing the board. “We know going forward it’s going to be tight…if citizens don’t want to pay for things, we won’t be able to educate our children.”
  • Jessica Gerber: Gerber agreed, adding, “Facilities tie into the budget.” There are projects for the schools coming up that are going to require budgeted money, she said.
  • Neal Fink: “We’re under tremendous pressure from the budget, facilities are in disrepair,” he said, but those things have taken focus away from what he views is the most critical issue: “achieving academic excellence in our town.” Budget and facilities decisions need to be made with that goal in mind, he said.
  • Paul Fattibene: “Increasing enrollment is a unique problem in Fairfield,” he said, as some surrounding districts have seen a downward trend. But he thinks the direst issue is the budget. “As long as the economy isn’t doing well, we’re going to have a problem with the budget.” If wages and benefits for teachers continue to rise – which account for 81 percent of the budget, he said, then spending for the students is cut.
  • Jennifer Maxon Kennelly: Kennelly agreed the budget is the most critical issue facing the board right now, and the next issue is space in the schools. “We need to be proactive in planning for this,” she said. A future issue is working with and implementing state-mandated curriculum changes.
  • Philip Dwyer: Dwyer agreed with the others who spoke before him, and said his priority is to maintain and improve the quality of the schools while keeping the town affordable.

Methods to Measure Academic Success Other Than Standardized Testing

  • Stacey Zahn: “You have to acknowledge the teachers,” Zahn said. They are the ones who master and teach the curriculum. “If teachers are happy, the students will learn.”
  • John Convertito: “I’m not a fan of standardized testing – never did well on them,” Convertito joked. He said you could look at the combined graduation rate of the two high schools – 96 percent – and use that to measure success. Another indicator is longevity of the staff.
  • Jessica Gerber: “Standardized testing tends to pigeonhole students,” she said. She believes maintaining good relationships with the teachers is key in measuring success, as well as taking a look at how many students who go on to college actually graduate from college.
  • Neal Fink: Fink wants to see better horizontal integration among all the schools – as students move up grade to grade, have they learned the right material? He wants to make sure all the elementary schools students are prepared and on par with each other when they enter middle school. Fink also believes that finding out whether high school students got into the colleges of their dreams or are attending top tier schools are other indicators of achievement.
  • Paul Fattibene: Fattibene said looking at Advanced Placement (AP) class enrollment in high schools is a good indicator of success – having an independent evaluator assess the success level isn’t a bad idea either, he said.
  • Jennifer Maxon Kennelly: “Standardized testing is not the devil,” Kennelly said, “but the scores are limited; they don’t cover it all.” She said all the schools need better communication with each other, and better communication between all faculty, staff, and central offices. Gauging teacher instruction and how students do when they go to college are other factors to consider, as well as benchmarks of academic achievement – “to a degree.”
  • Philip Dwyer: “Quality is measured by the atmosphere of the school, and the morale of teachers and the morale of students,” he said. He believes it’s also important to look at how schools support the portion of students who choose to enter the workforce upon graduating high school.

[Editor's Note: for the remaining topics discussed in Thursday's debate.]

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