They are a diverse group of candidates--young and old, black and white, men and women. There's a homemaker, student, nurse, social worker, and a pastor. One is a substitute teacher, a para-professional, a film producer/journalist and a retired principal. Some are well-known while others are near unknowns.
And according to the crowd of about 150 people gathered at the Middletown High School auditorium on Wednesday night at the Board of Education Candidates' Forum, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.
"There really are eleven great candidates up there!", exclaimed Christine Holley. "I think the quality of candidates and interest from the voters is a response to the current dysfunctional state of affairs and the public reacting to it", she added.
Steve McKeever, president of the Federation of Teachers which hosted the forum stated, “Based on tonight, I think the community will have some hard decisions to make.”
Mayoral candidate Christine Bourne agreed; “I am unbelievably pleased with the quality of all of the candidates.”
In response to the first question of the night, Franca Biales stated what would become a battle cry of the evening-- “The greatest challenge facing the board of education is working together as a system, one team, and improving the communication and trust.” Throughout the evening, Biales demonstrated an ability to sum up the feelings of the candidates and often positively referred to points made by others in her own responses.
Mitch Wynn, a pastor and former employee of the board of education stated, "Change leadership skills are needed to turn the culture of the board and the district around."
Cheryl McClellan stated that the teachers needed greater support and a more staffing and that accountability and responsibility were important goals for a new board to pursue. She suggested that board agenda packets be publicly disseminated electronically prior to the meetings and stated, “I would like to see a change in the culture of the district.”
Ed McKeon felt the board needed to “start off with higher expectations for everyone--for our students, teachers, administrators and from ourselves as a board of education” and “strive to be one of the best schools in the State.” He added, “It is not cost-effective to continue to starve our schools of resources and not expect it to negatively affect our town’s economic development potential.” On accountability, McKeon suggested that “all elected officials sign a pledge that there shall be no patronage jobs.”
Eugene Nocera stated the “the current Middletown model is obsolete and sets up a chess game between the board and the common council.” He suggested a radical, new approach be considered such as committee-driven decision making and site- and school-based management to move the district forward.
Callie Grippo made it clear that, “a change was needed at the top” and that, “good football teams have good coaches”. She poignantly stated, “There are people who care and people who don’t care, and I care.”
Ava Hart made several suggestions about how to improve the functioning of the district including the board hosting community forums “to listen to the public”, school governance councils, and more “communication and trust at all levels.” She added a campaign promise to “come prepared to the board meetings, having read all of the materials in the packet prior to the meeting.”
Write-in candidate Mark Loomis, an independent, stated that identifying best practices was an important goal, along with a need to “evaluate the curriculum.” "I would work to institutionalize and invite open communication up and down the chain of command and encourage ideas and participation."
Kevin Kelly felt his background in behavioral health and nursing was good advance training for serving on the board of education and several candidates had either behavioral health or social work backgrounds. He suggested a way to improve communication was to use districtwide emails and stated, “We seem to have more in common than differences” as it related to the candidate’s often similar responses to questions.
Tami Kapacziewski agreed that a more detailed budget breakdown was needed. She added, “The board of education has been on a power trip” and that, “it is time to stop the bickering and stop acting like kids.” Kapacziewski added that as a former insider, she’s “seen how the money is spent” and would seek more transparency if elected to the board.
Alex Levin expressed “It all comes back to the same question, and that is, there is something wrong with our board of education now.” Levin added he did not feel that teachers should have to “pay for supplies out of their own pockets.” Levin also suggested that not only would he support fellow candidate Ava Hart’s campaign promise to come to the board meeting prepared, but he would also “pass out Jolly Ranchers” to those who showed up, generating welcomed comedic relief.
Mayor and candidate for re-election Seb Giuliano summed up by stating, “All of the candidates did well. I think they all see the same problems and that is the need for more communication, a shared sense of direction, and the need for transparency.”
Kathleen Srubas remarked after the forum that, “It is very clear that the candidates recognize the frustration of parents and taxpayers have with the current leadership and with the board of education.”
Local gadfly and former teacher Sal Caracoglia epitomized that sense of frustration with his parting comment--“People need to understand the reality of what has been going on in Middletown!”
Voters will have the opportunity to vote for 5 of the 11 board of education candidates on November 8, 2010.
An 8.5-minute recording of portions of responses to questions by each of the candidates is available by emailing the author.