BRISTOL — Candidates for the school board offered a clear difference in views at a forum Tuesday night: Republicans proclaimed the city’s education system is getting better, while Democrats warned it’s veering off course.
Republican incumbent Genard Dolan said voters should keep the GOP in control of the board, arguing that the schools have created new programs and improved the graduation rate during the nearly four years since Republicans swept to power.
Democratic incumbent Tom O’Brien disagreed, cautioning, “I’m very concerned about the direction we’re headed … Social values, moral values and property values have been declining since we started a policy of flat-funding schools. We’re well on our way to becoming a second-rate city.”
At a forum sponsored by the local teachers union and the city’s parent-teacher organization, Republicans said more spending isn’t necessarily a solution.
Some problems “require us to simply tighten our belts,” Dolan agreed. “It’s a favorite pastime of Democrats to spend other people’s money.”
Democrat Karen Hintz countered that the schools have offered retirement incentives, cut staff and reduced programs.
“We’re at a tipping point in our city,” she said, warning that Bristol schools are falling behind neighboring districts because of too many no-increase budgets.
“You’re going to pay for these kids one way or the other,” she said. “You can pay for jail or welfare programs down the line.”
Democratic incumbent Karen Vibert agreed, saying, “Young adults are moving out to communities where the people who hold the purse strings show they value education.”
Republican incumbent Jennifer Dube said the schools aren’t being singled out.
“We’re all being asked to do more with less … we need to be good stewards of what we’re given,” she said.
Democrats argued that being too tight with spending can’t succeed in the long term.
“Yes, our taxes may stay the same, but our property values will go down,” Democratic challenger Tina Taylor said.
The sharpest disagreement came over privatizing school cafeterias. Republicans have been pushing that controversial idea for several years while Democrats have resisted it.
“Everyone should understand we’re very compassionate,” said Republican Larry Amara, board chairman. “This is a compassionate way for a win-win for our kids.”
The board protected its current workforce when it developed a contract for a private company, he said, adding that the schools already successfully outsourced crossing guards.
Eliminating the cafeteria’s operating deficit — and raising money by selling the kitchen equipment — will help students by taking pressure off future budgets, he said.
“It’s not a business, it’s a service,” replied Democratic challenger Joe Grabowski, who added that it would be “foolish” to take the jobs of the more than 50 city residents who work in the cafeterias.