Don Stacom – Published 10/1915 in the Hartford Courant

BRISTOL — Managing the cafeterias has become the most prominent wedge issue in the school board race, but the 12 candidates also hold varying opinions on the budget, educational priorities and parental involvement.

The outcome of next month’s election will either keep the nine-member board under the control of Republicans, or shift power to Democrats.

The GOP has held a 5-4 majority since 2011. Supporters say the board has been wise about spending while protecting the city’s educational standards; critics contend that Republicans sacrificed school quality by pushing too hard to keep the budget down.

The ballot has 12 candidates, and the top nine vote-getters win. The system ensures that neither party gets less than one-third of the seats.

The choices for voters on Nov. 3 include:

Republican incumbent Lawrence Amara, 70, a retired principal. He didn’t cite a spending cut that he’d support, but said he opposes any that directly affects students. Amara said the current strategies for engaging parents are working, and said the top new initiative he’d endorse is implementing the superintendent’s “Vision for Success” plan.

Republican challenger Jeff Caggiano, 46, a medical diagnostic account executive. He offered no specific spending cut, but predicted that a new update of financial reports will show “multiple opportunities” for savings. He suggested reaching out through Twitter and Facebook updates, and helping teachers and students learn the skills to do well in an era of Common Core and Smarter Balanced testing.

Republican incumbent Genard Dolan, 79, a retired manufacturer’s representative. He supports outsourcing the cafeteria operations to eliminate deficits, inviting more fathers to the PTA while shifting its focus to parental involvement instead of social activities, and assigning a teacher or administrator to each high school student as a mentor.

Republican incumbent Jennifer Dube, 35, a dental hygienist. She supports outsourcing cafeteria jobs and using the savings to hire classroom paraprofessionals. Dube advocates cooperative work with PTAs or PTOs to improve school Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to reach parents, and said schools must ensure that teachers and students are ready for Common Core and Smarter Balanced testing.

Democratic challenger Joe Grabowski, 18, a grocery store clerk. He says solar and geothermal power at schools would reduce energy costs, and says the education system should make parents feel more welcome when visiting schools. He advocates restoring math and literacy coaches, saying, “Looking at our most recent test scores, it is clear that our students are starting to fall behind.”

Democratic incumbent Karen Hintz, a 52-year-old homemaker. She warns that after years of trimming costs, “further reductions will damage education.” She wants to expand Head Start and the family resource centers to draw parents closer to their children’s education, and supports resuming fully funding math and literacy coaches for at-risk children to stop the widening achievement gap.

Republican incumbent Jeffrey Morgan, 55, a local business owner. He says privatizing cafeterias would save money to use on new teachers and paraprofessionals. He suggests having teachers spend one night a month telling parents about what their students are working on and need to do, and says bringing back shop classes could help students land jobs with Connecticut manufacturers.

Democratic incumbent Tom O’Brien, 70, a funeral director. The former city council member wants to eliminate the sixth-year salary step for future teachers and improve parental involvement by converting elementary schools to kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools. He says the single most valuable initiative next year would be expanded or universal pre-kindergarten.

Republican challenger David Scott, 41, a self-described insurance professional. He did not cite any specific cost to cut in the budget, and said parental involvement can be increased through social media and through communication in local youth and sports programs. He said the board’s selection of Ellen Solek as superintendent has already led to numerous educational initiatives.

Democratic challenger Tina Taylor, 39, a teacher in Hartford. She cautions against another tight budget, saying, “We are doing a disservice to our children if we keep trying to do more with less.” She says the school board can build parental involvement by meeting at schools around the city, and she endorses a system addressing students’ emotional, mental and physical needs as well as academics.

Democratic incumbent Karen Vibert, 53, a court stenographer. Rather than cut costs, she says the schools need to restore high school electives and reduce class sizes. She wants educators to improve relations with parents by avoiding “edu-speak” and offering times to communicate that consider parents’ work schedules. She also wants a districtwide campaign against absenteeism and tardiness.

Democratic incumbent Christopher Wilson, 60, an insurance agent. He supports auditing special education costs to find savings, joining with other districts for discounts on insurance and transportation, hiring a public relations firm to give a strategy for boosting parental involvement and having teams of teachers make home visits to tell parents what students need to succeed.