BOE Candidates Forum: A Glance at Our Options

There was a good showing of Board of Education candidates  Tuesday night, with only two no shows: Nyesha McCauley (Republican), whose absence was noted as related to her having recently given birth, and Richard Barton (Republican). On the panel: Milly Arciniegas (Parents’ Choice), Albert L. Barrueco (Democrat), Robert Cotto, Jr. (Working Families), Michael J. Fryer (Republican), Lori Hudson (Democrat), Elizabeth Brad Noel (Working Families), Sharon Patterson-Stallings (Working Families), Ines Duke Pegeas (Petitioning Candidate), Cherylann Perry (Parents’ Choice), Luis Rodriguez-Davila (Democrat), and Mary R. Storey (Parents’ Choice).

As always, in Hartford politics, some people had to bring their posse to fill the audience and testify. The annoying theatrics were kept to a minimum, thanks to the moderation of John Motley, who also provided well-timed comic relief. Still, what gathered the most applause did not tend to be the most intelligent comments, but those who shouted the loudest. From a rhetorical standpoint, Hartford voters tend to respond directly to emotional tactics. One hopes that reason will rule when they enter the voting booths.

Robert Cotto, Jr. of the Working Families Party was the most prepared, as he provided facts and statistics nearly every time he responded to a question. The teacher and Harvard graduate argued that while magnet schools help students, charter schools do not. An example he gave was Achievement First, where a parent reported that her autistic child was not being sufficiently helped. When asked about the reduced transportation budget that has forced more children to walk to school, he suggested that other parts of the budget should have been cut first, citing page 234 of the budget, which shows that three people have a salary of $100,000 $300,000 each. To show the poor choice in budget cuts, he referenced the recent accident in which a school crossing guard was hit by a car, explaining that it is not safe for children to be walking such distances to school. To address the gang problem that has created controversy this past week, he said that the first thing we need to do is admit there is a problem. He then referred to the need for community centers. A highlight of the evening was when a Hartford High student asked candidates questions. Responding to her inquiry about the slashing of arts and other important programs, Cotto pointed out that Classical Magnet and Bulkeley High both have the same number of teachers for “specials,” but that Classical Magnet has about half the student population as Bulkeley. He also apologized directly to the student for her inability to benefit from any of these programs.

The remaining candidates were not as fast with the facts, but most seemed to be at least moderately qualified to sit on the Board of Education.

Michael J. Fryar, a high school dropout, seems promising. He explained how despite dropping out, he managed to rise through the higher education system, eventually earning a JD. The perspective of someone who felt pushed out of high school seems useful to have on the Board of Education. Understanding first hand the factors that contribute to dropping out can be helpful in prevention of it. Addressing the question of how it is possible for so many high school graduates to be functionally illiterate, he suggested that teachers must not be paying attention; afterall, he said, one need only read a paragraph writing sample to determine if someone is literate or not. As an educator, I can attest to the truth in that. When asked about the success of magnet and charter schools, he said that variation is good and that these schools help students who might not succeed in neighborhood schools, but that there are not enough different types of schools– there is not enough variation to reach special ed, non-traditional, and drop-out students. He seemed concerned with student retention, an issue that some candidates breezed over in favor of complaining about how parents are allegedly not listened to by the current Board of Ed. Finally, Fryar said that the BOE should be active in fighting the problem of gangs entering schools. He gave an example of a situation when he was teaching in Bridgeport. A student had come in one day “out of it,” clearly traumatized from an experience the night before when gang members busted into her home. While they ransacked the house she was terrified that she would be raped. He explained how students who suffer this kind of terrorism can not possibly focus on school.

Lori Hudson also seemed to show a good mix of passion and intellect. She said that there is currently a disconnect between the policy makers and who the policies affect. Hudson said of the relationship between the Board of Education and parents that if elected, she would do her part, knowing that “while not [every parent is] going to participate […] they all have a right to know” about what is going on. Sharing a viewpoint with Elizabeth Brad Noel, Hudson asserted that “we continue to build schools we cannot staff,” and explained that the priorities should be (1) safety (2) qualified teachers (3) programs provided. She said that health clinics are a necessity in the schools, as some children come from families who lack insurance. Furthermore, she noted that the issue of teenage pregnancy must be addressed somewhere. Hudson’s shining moment was when she explained how numbers can be manipulated. This was in response to a question from the audience asking “if we’re doing so well, why do 60% of our students fail?” She explained that the suburban children who are attending Hartford’s schools throw off the statistics. If elected to the Board of Education, she said she would demand accountability across the board– not just from teachers, administrators, and the BOE, but from the parents as well.

She seemed to be the only candidate with the nerve to suggest parents be held accountable. This sentiment was certainly not coming from any of the Parents’ Choice candidates, who (two out of three) were among the weaker of the candidates. Cherylann Perry, for one, could not string words together to form anything recognizable as a sentence all evening. At first, I wanted to assume this was just nervousness, but her complete inability to express a single idea well was maintained for hours. She certainly had passion, but passion alone does not make one qualified. Nor does being a parent. Certainly parents should strive to be involved in their children’s education, but the mere act of giving birth does not entitle one to have a place on the Board of Education. The most straightforward answer Perry provided was related to whether or not school buildings should be used by the community after hours. Her answer was “yes, but it depends on the circumstance,” which was not totally clarified. She did favor schools being used for tutoring services. Her response to the Hartford High student’s question about the disappearance of physical education was rambling at best, with the statement that “physical education is part of your brain.” Most of the questions the candidates were asked were fairly predictable, so being totally unprepared to speak coherently to anyone of them is a bit unforgivable, nervous or not. Notes were permitted and several candidates did in fact use them. If there is a problem of communication between parents and the current Board of Education, then candidates should ensure that they represent themselves as part of the solution to this problem. Mary R. Storey, another Parents’ Choice candidate, also relied on the “we’re parents, we’re angry, and we’re not gonna take it anymore” mentality, though her responses were a bit more fine-tuned than Perry’s. Someone must have told Storey that yelling was a way to win over a crowd because every answer she gave included a sharp rise in her volume and intonation. It was difficult to listen to. Her most reasonable response argued that while culinary and journalism concentrations in some schools are good, some children can not read. She also made a point by suggesting that the parents of suburban students who use city schools should have to pay for their kids to come here, as they “take away from our children” financially. This made a nice soundbite, but I would have liked this statement to have been supported by data indicating how exactly the funding breaks down. The rest of her answers were either generic or of the finger-pointing variety (“too many teachers have failed”). In her closing remarks she referred to an incident in which a police officer escorted a parent out of one of the schools. While this seemed intended to rile up the parents in the audience, one has to ask what details were left out of this story. Why was this parent insisting on being in the school? How was he or she behaving? Did he or she make an arrangement to drop in? From an educator’s perspective, having visitors dropping into the classroom can be an enormous distraction. If there are children with certain disabilities (such as autism) who rely heavily on having predictable schedules, such disruptions can be detrimental to their day. In my experience of working in public schools, there were times when parents could volunteer in the classroom, but parents would never just drop by. In as far as I can tell, the norm in local schools is to not allow random visitors. Perhaps there was more to Storey’s story. Milly Arciniegas was the most reasonable of the three Parents’ Choice candidates. She argued for the top eight languages in the city to be represented (not sure how) and for there to be translation services for parents not speaking those top eight. She called for financial accountability, mentioning that it was not acceptable for schools to be unable to have toilet paper. Many of Arciniegas’ answers seemed to also fall into the generic and finger-pointing category, though she made an interesting argument (that I would like to see backed up with evidence) that teachers in Hartford get evaluated as “good” in such high numbers because if principals review them as “incompetent,” there are too many legal issues to deal with. Of the Parents’ Choice candidates, Arciniegas seemed to be the most clear and calm speaker, which is an appropriate way to maintain oneself during meetings.

Sharon Patterson-Stallings and Elizabeth Brad Noel were the two most understated candidates present. It might be their experience speaking, but they seemed less concerned with being theatrical, instead simply addressing the questions. Brad Noel spoke of the need for arts, music, physical education, and guidance services in the schools, as well as the need to staff certified teachers. She declared that we must stop building new schools and make it a point to support what we already have. As for the presence of clinics in schools, Brad Noel indicated the obvious– children who can use a clinic within their schools do not have to miss a day of school to visit a clinic in their communities. She also promoted the ability for children to attend neighborhood schools. Brad Noel, 78, has the most experience in the Hartford education system, hands down. She worked for 25 years in Weaver High and has had a child and grandchild in the school system. She is currently the vice chair of the Board of Education. Patterson-Stallings, also a current BOE member, presented herself as level-headed. She also vouched for the importance of neighborhood schools and cited her original reason for running four years ago was the issue of parental involvement. She mentioned efforts to get parents more involved. Promoting physical education in schools, she explained that students have a full course-load and need to release the tension from that.

Luis Rodriguez-Davila was unimpressive. Sure, he seemed funny and personable, the kind of guy to grab a beer with, but did not strike me as serious enough about the position, even if he currently sits on the BOE. As one audience member noted, he spent a lot of time saying very little. Responding to a question about the student-based budget, after a long set-up, he sort of slid the blame elsewhere by saying that he has not been listened to as a board member. Really? Why would voters want to reelect someone who has been ineffective thus far? While it’s true, what he said about why 60% of our students fail if we’re doing so well, that changes take time, it’s also a straight up political response. How much time? How many terms will he have to serve before these changes grab hold? However, the Senator Clinton reference he made to back community use of schools gave him some old school cred. Too political. No thanks.

Ines Duke Pegeas had some strengths and weaknesses. She had clear ideas about how the reform benefits magnet school students but does not do enough for special ed students. Duke Pegeas stated that the well-developed child must be taught respect, responsibility, and reason. When asked if she felt it was appropriate to allocate about half of funds for schools, her answer clearly demonstrated confusion about the question, as she first stalled and then asked “why are the services separate from the schools?” and suggested that the services be provided by them. After stumbling with this, John Motley graciously clarified for her that “services” include fire and police. She dodged the question some more and then announced that “fire and policemen need to be in the schools.” It was a bit uncomfortable to watch her flail like this, but her other responses were more informed. She flatly said that she “believe[s] in unions” and thinks the superintendent is trying to weaken the effectiveness of unions. Responding to the question about physical education in schools, she expressed the need for children to have their minds, bodies, and spirits developed. When asked how so many graduates could be functionally illiterate, she got straight to the point by calling out the unfortunate tradition of social promotion. Strangely, she did not refer to one of her strongest qualities — that she has been a teacher for 37 years — until her closing remarks.

Finally, Albert L. Barrueco gave a better impression than what I was expecting. Part of my hesitation with him (and a few other candidates) is that he seems less qualified than I consider myself to be for the position. He only moved to Hartford in 2007. He does not have any teaching experience (unless he is keeping that fact hidden) and has no children. What is he besides cute and single? A lawyer. Energetic. Promising. Through the grapevine, I heard that he does some good work for the community, but this was not highlighted during the forum. His youth does not have to be a penalty, but it is obviously something that could have been compensated for with better research or transparency about all of his engagements (Commissioner of Hartford Parking Authority). None of his answers were appalling or terribly extreme, but too many of his perspectives were based on purely his own experience. On one hand, it is great that he was able to benefit from the American education system, especially programs like New Arrivals that help recent immigrants, but one must step outside his own experiences on occasion. This is especially true, I think, for candidates who may not have too much experience– get some facts and see how other people are being affected by policies. His best answer of the evening was in response to the question of whether or not it was appropriate for half of our funds to support schools: “Yes. Absolutely. It’s worth every penny.” He went on to refer to Duke Pegeas’ response to the same question by remarking that we would “need less police because you’ll be educating instead of incarcerating.” Not bad. Perhaps in four years he would be a stronger candidate.

The election for Board of Education will be on November 3rd. Polls will be open from 6 in the morning until 8 in the evening.

UPDATE: Robert Cotto, Jr.  has informed me that one piece of information was incorrect: “Just a correction on my part [there are actually] three positions recommended for a total of 900,000. This is far worse than what you wrote or I may have said.