Mayoral race Q&A: Education

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Westhill

Stamford surpassed Hartford as the state’s third-biggest city this year, a milestone Mayor Michael Pavia hailed as a testament to the city’s expanding business sector, booming housing market and humming entertainment scene.

But the city’s growing population is straining its school system, which will educate more than 16,000 students at its 20 schools this year. Enrollment is only expected to increase as ongoing redevelopment in the South End adds thousands of housing units marketed to young families.

Pavia is not running for reelection this year, and Stamford’s next mayor will take office at a critical point for the city’s education system. As development and population growth pushes the city forward, the city’s next leader will be charged with ensuring its schools keep pace.

OVERCROWDING

Five of the Stamford’s 12 elementary schools were over-capacity last school year, but Superintendent of Schools Winifred Hamilton and the Board of Education have not yet outlined a plan for addressing overcrowding. School officials are waiting for the results of a district-wide space utilization study, which will provide a 10-year projection of future enrollment.

The study, which is expected to be completed this month, could conclude that the city needs a new school or redistricting, Hamilton told school board members several weeks ago.

THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP

As an ever-increasing number of children enter the Stamford school system, officials are struggling to educate the diverse student body equally. Recently-released standardized testing results revealed a 39.1 percent achievement gap at the tenth grade math level, with 90 percent of white but only 50.9 percent of black students reaching proficiency.

Closing the achievement gap will be even more challenging following the expiration of a massive grant from the GE Foundation, which ended last fiscal year after pumping $25.8 million into the Stamford school district over seven years.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNING

One in four Stamford residents speaks Spanish at home, but the city has been under investigation for several years by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. According to the DOJ, most of Stamford’s English Language Learning teachers are not properly certified and the district spent a mere $4.83 per student on instructional materials for English language instruction two years ago.

School officials are working toward a settlement with the justice department, Hamilton said earlier this year. The superintendent also added a new ELL paraeducator position this year and increased the program’s supplies budget by $42,700.

SAFETY

Stamford, like many other school districts across the country, reviewed its security measures in the wake of last December’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The city’s police department performed a district-wide security audit and education officials wrestled with the question of whether to station security guards at the schools.

Hamilton, who has said she doesn’t want to turn Stamford schools into “fortresses,” is opposed to hiring armed guards or installing metal detectors. But the superintendent earmarked $500,000 in this fiscal year’s budget for “safety, security and mental health,” and is now requesting another $2.1 million for additional security improvements.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Stamford’s next mayor will have little direct power over school spending, as city charter prevents him or her from cutting or modifying the education budget. Past mayors have often bemoaned their lack of control over education spending, which increased $9 million this fiscal year to $245.1 million and comprises nearly half of the city’s budget.

The mayor also does not get a say in the Board of Education’s decisions, although he or she is a nonvoting member of the board under city charter. Former mayor Dannel P. Malloy frequently sat in on education board meetings, but Pavia was rarely seen in the Government Center’s fifth-floor boardroom.

With no direct control over the education budget or curriculum, Stamford mayors are forced to find indirect ways to support education. Pavia, for example, launched the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program, which provides paid summer jobs to Stamford teens.

One educational area where the mayor does wield power, however, is the capital budget. In 2011 Pavia and the city Planning Board slashed the Board of Education’s capital budget by 72 percent, leaving only $6 million for repairs and maintenance.

The budget cut put Stamford schools far behind the $11.7 million needed for capital projects that fiscal year, as determined by the Maryland-based engineering firm EMG Engineering & Environmental Consulting Services. The consultant concluded Stamford schools needed $174 million-worth of infrastructure improvements between 2008 and 2015, but the district has spent much less than the recommended amounts.

A slew of infrastructure and maintenance woes hit several Stamford schools over the past year. Toquam Magnet Elementary School failed air-quality tests last year after the Health Department found mold in the building and several schools are in critical need of roof replacements and other major repairs.

In an effort to address the infrastructure issues, Pavia’s administration took advantage of low interest rates earlier this year and sold $25 million in bonds to fund two years-worth of projects at Stamford schools. Board of Finance members described the bond sale as “catch-up” after years of underfunding.

Here’s what Stamford’s five mayoral candidates think about the most important issues in education:

David Martin

David Martin

David Martin, a Board of Finance member endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, is running in a Sept. 10 primary for his party’s nomination. Martin’s two daughters graduated from Westhill High School and his wife is a reading teacher at Northeast Elementary School.

1) What role do you see Stamford’s mayor playing in education issues? Would you attend the Board of Education’s monthly meetings even though you would be a non-voting member?

“I will not just attend but participate in Board of Ed meetings. We need a mayor who’s first of all willing to come to the table. I’m of course going to visit the schools to better understand their needs and issues and show my commitment to making progress and celebrating their successes. I’m going to attend the parent-teacher council meetings. My family was well-served by the Stamford public schools and we owe them a debt of gratitude. A lot of people say there’s a terrible perception of the Stamford public schools. The mayor is the leader of this community and he needs to tell the world when we’re doing good things. I feel very passionately that we need to manage strong, but we also need to be a champion for our success.”

2) How would you address increasing enrollment and overcrowding in city schools?

“We’ve been waiting for a facility study that the Board of Ed is conducting and we are awaiting their demographic and population study. I need to see those studies before I make pronouncements about how I plan to address these issues. I am concerned about overcrowding in our elementary schools and I believe our elementary schools should be made smaller if we can. An elementary school of 2,000 students is not the same as an elementary school with 500 students. If these studies call for the addition of elementary schools then my job as mayor is going to get the state or federal funding to make this happen.”

3) Stamford continues to grapple with a wide achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The challenge became even greater last year when GE’s multi-million dollar grant ended. What can the mayor do to improve education for students from all backgrounds?

“It actually connects in a way to the state funding. It’s not the whole story – the schools have to address the achievement gap – but there is a funding issue. Stamford has a much more diverse population and many more challenges than many of our surrounding towns. Common sense would tell you that in order to address those diverse challenges you’re going to need more funds. I’ve long been an advocate for increased Education Cost Share funding. My numbers suggest we are $40 to $50 million underfunded because the formula unfairly treats Stamford. We fundamentally need to change the way that formula works so we can hold down taxes in Stamford but more importantly so that kids can get the education they need no matter what type of kid they are.”

4) How would you address the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of Stamford schools for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act? How can the city improve English language learning for its bilingual students?

“Part of the challenge with ELL is that some of these students come from a background where they already have education in their native language. How you address that student population — who usually adapt to English fairly well given they are provided with appropriate instruction — is different than some of the students who have not had educational backgrounds even in their native tongues. I think we need to understand those differences so we can tailor programs and tailor our education to address those very different needs. We also have a number of parents who are Spanish speaking. We need to make certain that they have the ability to communicate about their child’s progress in a way that’s efficient and effective.”

5) Do you think Stamford schools are safe enough in light of last year’s shooting in Newtown? Do you support the superintendent’s $2.1 million plan to improve security and what is your position on stationing security guards at schools?

“I’m the one that told the Board of Ed that they should study our schools from a physical security standpoint and quickly address any potential issues that they found. I was the first advocate of this. Unless there are certain circumstances or some other need I do not believe that we should have armed security guards at our schools. When I attended Board of Education meetings as well as the Board of Education budget meeting, which was held this year, I heard parents stand up and say, ‘We need kindergarten teachers more than we need armed security guards.’ I agree with that.”

6) One school-related area where the mayor wields a tremendous amount of power is the Board of Education’s capital budget. Should the next mayor increase spending for building improvements?

“During the first couple years of the current administration there was a significant reduction in the amount of funding provided to the schools for their capital needs. In this last $50 million bond issue we designated half of that money for the public schools to make up for this deficit. For the first time ever we wrote in that bond policy – I am the author — to ensure that the Board of Education would be protected and that capital money could not be diverted without their participation. We cannot spend an endless amount of money. But we are going to provide the schools that we need.”

 William Tong

William Tong

William Tong, a state Rep. for District 147, is running in the Sept. 10 primary for the Democratic Party’s nomination. He is the father of three young children, two of which will attend Northeast Elementary School this year.

1) What role do you see Stamford’s mayor playing in education issues? Would you attend the Board of Education’s monthly meetings even though you would be a non-voting member?

“I think that’s tremendously important – for the mayor to engage in our school system and be present. We need a mayor who’s a dynamic and aggressive advocate and a partner for the Board of Education. I set a very clear goal: To make Stamford the best urban school district in the country by the year 2020. Number one is setting that vision and being a strong advocate and fighting for that funding in the state and federal government, from private foundations and from corporations in the city.”

2) How would you address increasing enrollment and overcrowding in city schools?

“We’re about to get the results of the space utilization study. I’m anxious to see what it looks like. If that means we have to talk about getting another inter-district magnet school with the help of the state and federal funding, we should have that conversation. I’m prepared as mayor to use my relationships in Hartford to try to make that happen. Whether that includes expanding AITE, whether we can redistribute classrooms and capacity and what we need to do about the school population south of I-95. But I think we need to wait for the space utilization study first to tell us in detail where the need is.”

3) Stamford continues to grapple with a wide achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The challenge became even greater last year when GE’s multi-million dollar grant ended. What can the mayor do to improve education for students from all backgrounds?

“I think one of the big answers to the achievement gap is Stamford’s commitment to pre-K. Making sure every student in Stamford has universal access to the pre-kindergarten education in the city so they’re ready to learn. Pre-K is funded by a combination of city, state and federal resources. This is where I can really leverage my relationships at the state level, my knowledge of the state budget process. Getting the help we need from our state and federal partners; that’s one of the most important things we can do to close the achievement gap.”

4) How would you address the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of Stamford schools for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act? How can the city improve English language learning for its bilingual students?

“We have to fully cooperate with any investigation and open our books up and work with the Department of Justice to make sure that we provide not just an adequate but a high-quality, excellent education for all of our students in our school district. We continue to lag behind in our graduation rate for English Language Learners. I come from a family where both parents were not native English speakers. I know the tremendous importance of English language instruction – not just for students but for members of the students’ families. I think English language instruction is a huge priority for all of us here in the city and it’s got to be a top priority for the mayor in our funding decisions. I’m going to work with the Board of Ed to make sure that we have adequate resources for English language learners.”

5) Do you think Stamford schools are safe enough in light of last year’s shooting in Newtown? Do you support the superintendent’s $2.1 million plan to improve security and what is your position on stationing security guards at schools?

“I do support the superintendent’s initiative. We can’t put a price tag on the safety of our kids in our school. This is an investment that we have to make. I do think our schools are safe; I think Stamford does a good job and I think we can do better. I think security guards can be helpful – I think the superintendent and the Board of Education will make that determination. I do not support firearms in school; I do not support people carrying guns in schools.”

6) One school-related area where the mayor wields a tremendous amount of power is the Board of Education’s capital budget. Should the next mayor increase spending for building improvements?

“As a state representative I just helped make a $1.5 billion investment in UConn including a huge investment in UConn Stamford that may include a residence hall and a doubling of the student population. We’re also making a $90 million investment in reopening Wright Tech. At the state level we’re making these huge investments because we can’t afford not to. The capital budget for our school system in Stamford is stalled. The EMG study showed that year over year Stamford should be investing between $15 and $50 million in our infrastructure just to keep it up to date and adequate for our students. We don’t do that. As mayor I’m going to develop a master plan for school facilities; including buildings and technology to make sure we know the true cost of investing in our school system. My job as mayor is to figure out where the dollars come from. I think taxpayers in this city are doing a lot as it is and it’s my job to go out and find state and federal funding and assistance to make these investments happen.”

Michael Fedele

Mike Fedele

Mike Fedele, former Lt. Gov. under M. Jodi Rell, is the Republican Party’s endorsed mayoral candidate. He is a 1973 graduate of Westhill High School, where his wife and three children also attend school.

1) What role do you see Stamford’s mayor playing in education issues? Would you attend the Board of Education’s monthly meetings even though you would be a non-voting member?

“I think any mayor should be doing that. You have to be involved in it, and being at the meetings and listening to the conversation, having input into the conversation even though you’re not actually able to vote on it is so important. The mayor has to be there to represent and speak for all the children in this city and their parents.”

2) How would you address increasing enrollment and overcrowding in city schools?

“I think you have to take a look at what the space utilization report stays. I think you need to look at the configuration of schools, at the curriculum. I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all. It’s not just fitting bodies in a room – it’s what are you going to do with these students once they’re in a room. Is it going to be a modern school, is it going to be a charter school? I would want to make sure we’re not just looking at space; but also what is the curriculum that we’re going to be teaching these students.”

3) Stamford continues to grapple with a wide achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The challenge became even greater last year when GE’s multi-million dollar grant ended. What can the mayor do to improve education for students from all backgrounds?

“I think the first thing you have to do is every child from every sector of economics or color of skin should have a preschool opportunity. It’s so important to make sure that we teach our students at the formative age so they get to kindergarten ready to learn and understanding what’s expected of them. I think that’s so important when you look at the statistics. I would work with our city boards to make sure that we could fund those (pre-K) additional spots and look at the state legislature and federal body to make sure we can find those dollars. I think the other gap we have to make sure we address is when we graduate students into higher education that they’re prepared that first semester in college. I would call upon other corporations to invest in our educational system. Their next employees are coming out of that system and I would make them stakeholders in that.”

4) How would you address the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of Stamford schools for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act? How can the city improve English language learning for its bilingual students?

“In our school system we support 65 different languages. A lot of these students sometimes use the community center system after school. I would make sure that there would be someone from the mayor’s office and Board of Education working with the directors of the community centers to make sure the homework clubs in the centers are coordinating the same homework and curriculum that they’re being taught in school. If they’re going to Yerwood Center or Chester Addison or Neon they’re getting help with their homework and doing things that parallel what they’re doing in school.”

5) Do you think Stamford schools are safe enough in light of last year’s shooting in Newtown? Do you support the superintendent’s $2.1 million plan to improve security and what is your position on stationing security guards at schools?

“The number one role of government is to protect our citizens irrespective of whatever age they are. My administration would put public safety as a number one priority. If our assessment said we had gaps in our security – in our school system, in our senior system, whatever – I would make sure that our systems were protected. We have (school resource officers) in the high school. They’re armed, obviously, because they’re police officers. I don’t know if armed guards would be deterrents. I’d like to see us try to put the resources into securing our classrooms, securing our schools.”

6) One school-related area where the mayor wields a tremendous amount of power is the Board of Education’s capital budget. Should the next mayor increase spending for building improvements?

“I think we should increase spending when things are needed. Increasing spending for the sake of increasing spending makes no sense. Making sure we keep all our assets – not only schools but any city property — in the best shape possible is very important. I’d have to look at what the capital plan is. If there’s a need to replace a roof at a specific school that money will go to replace that roof. If we truly have an issue then we should be looking to fix it. These are our assets. I intend to go to the schools and see what their issues are and listen to the people who work in the schools and the administration. Education is one of the many priorities of my administration. I think it’s important as a city, I think I’s important in job creation and it’s going to be something that’s focused on in-depth.”

Kathleen Murphy

Kathleen Murphy, an Independent Board of Finance member, qualified to run as an unaffiliated candidate on the November mayoral ballot.

Kathleen Murphy, an Independent Board of Finance member, qualified to run as an unaffiliated candidate on the November mayoral ballot.

1) What role do you see Stamford’s mayor playing in education issues? Would you attend the Board of Education’s monthly meetings even though you would be a non-voting member?

“I would attend the meetings. Even though you’re non-voting as mayor you have some ability to influence what’s going on. I think really there’s a lack of communication between the city and the board. I would hope that I could get a better working relationship between the finance departments on the city side and the Board of Ed. I’d help (education officials) understand what effect the actions they’re taking is having not only on the children in the classroom, but also the families of Stamford. We will not sustain or be able to keep a middle class if we don’t get control over this board of Ed budget. Do we need two HR departments? Do we need two IT groups? I think there should be more shared services.”

2) How would you address increasing enrollment and overcrowding in city schools?

“I’d like to see what’s driving the increasing enrollment. This came up as a surprise – all of the sudden we’re too tight. I would try to understand the increase – where it’s coming from. There’s a whole group of construction workers who came out of Texas to build up the South End. Maybe they love it and stay here – but if not then maybe they move on. If that’s causing it we’re going to do something much more temporary. I think we have to rely on this study that they’ve already started. But if we have to expand the schools – we have to educate our children. I would not be in favor of trying to increase capacity by saying we’ll have more kids in the classrooms, higher student-to-teacher ratios.”

3) Stamford continues to grapple with a wide achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The challenge became even greater last year when GE’s multi-million dollar grant ended. What can the mayor do to improve education for students from all backgrounds?

“I think the mayor really has to rely on the Board of Ed and the expertise of the superintendent and their staff. Obviously it’s a serious problem. I think we have corporate volunteers as well as UConn volunteers. It might be a place where you could use them to augment helping these kids with reading and math – just extra time with them. We don’t have to add more teachers to do this. When we look at a grant we have to make sure it’s sustainable. This GE grant – we were supposed to be using this money to train and develop our staff. But it turns out we were using that money really to pay salaries that now we have to pay.”

4) How would you address the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of Stamford schools for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act? How can the city improve English language learning for its bilingual students?

“I certainly as a nonvoting member would be pushing the Board of Ed to try to take this evaluation by the Department of Justice and put some urgency behind it and get it fixed. We could be using volunteers – I think the community can do a lot to help this problem. Just throwing money at a problem is not always the best solution. We are responsible; these are our children and we have to get them up the learning curve. The only way they’ll be able to compete with kids who are English speaking is by being confident and comfortable speaking English.”

5) Do you think Stamford schools are safe enough in light of last year’s shooting in Newtown? Do you support the superintendent’s $2.1 million plan to improve security and what is your position on stationing security guards at schools?

“I’m still a proponent of school uniforms. I once heard a young student from one of the Stamford schools say, ‘That’s how we’d know if there were strangers in the school.’ I guess that’s very old fashioned – but to know the people who are in the school is very important. I don’t know if we should be putting cops with guns in the building. I’m not really fond of that. If things got really bad here – let’s say with the increased gangs as the city grows and the schools get more crowded — I think  metal detectors going in is not such a bad idea. But where I think the money really should be spent is having teachers and staff members to identify problems with the mentally disturbed – to identify them early and try to address them early before something bad happens.”

6) One school-related area where the mayor wields a tremendous amount of power is the Board of Education’s capital budget. Should the next mayor increase spending for building improvements?

“The city did not execute on Board of Ed projects. We never allocated bond funds to them and the projects never got off the ground. Why the Board of Ed let that go on for so many years is a disgrace. We do not have an open checkbook in terms of our debt capacity. You can only issue a certain amount of debt. Are your priorities going to be Old Town Hall, Mill River or are these school buildings going to be the priorities? I would spend money on the schools; it would be my highest priority for capital projects. We have to pave the road, etc. but the schools have been neglected for years and years.”

John Zito

John Zito

John Zito, a 1983 Westhill High School graduate who has never held public office, qualified to run on the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.

1) What role do you see Stamford’s mayor playing in education issues? Would you attend the Board of Education’s monthly meetings even though you would be a non-voting member?

“Any meetings that they have I would attend them. It’s always good to show up to some of the PTA meetings to find out what’s going on with the parents. It’s very important. Some of the schools definitely need work. I want to keep the work for the schools in the town – have local contractors do the work. I’d try to stay in budget and try to keep the work in Stamford.”

2) How would you address increasing enrollment and overcrowding in city schools?

“We definitely need a school. We are overpopulated in some areas but that’s something we have to look into in the future. I’d have to look into what grades are overcrowded. Maybe redistrict, but no one likes that too much because you’re busing them and you sit in buses from Shippan all the way up to Long Ridge Road.”

3) Stamford continues to grapple with a wide achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The challenge became even greater last year when GE’s multi-million dollar grant ended. What can the mayor do to improve education for students from all backgrounds?

“Everyone needs to be treated equal no matter what – black, white, Chinese, Polish, Haitian — it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s created equal. We have to find grants. There are grants that the United States provides for education. I don’t know if anybody in our city right now are looking into those grants to better educate our kids.”

4) How would you address the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of Stamford schools for possible violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act? How can the city improve English language learning for its bilingual students?

“English should be the first major language to be spoken. We need to try to get our teachers bilingual. We have to try to work that into our classroom time for these kids. If I become mayor of Stamford I’d like to work with the Board of Ed and set up programs after school that involve the parents, also. Educate the parents as well.”

5) Do you think Stamford schools are safe enough in light of last year’s shooting in Newtown? Do you support the superintendent’s $2.1 million plan to improve security and what is your position on stationing security guards at schools?

“I think we’re maybe looking at $1.5 million. It’s not about the dollar amount; it’s really about the security. Is the work going to go out to the right contractor? The school has to definitely be locked down. If you go out and want to come back in, you have to be buzzed in. Front door and back door cameras, definitely. With the technology we have today in this world we can definitely do that without a real expensive cost.”

6) One school-related area where the mayor wields a tremendous amount of power is the Board of Education’s capital budget. Should the next mayor increase spending for building improvements?

“If the school definitely needs to be repaired – yes, let’s do it. But let’s try to keep the work in Stamford. We have enough plumbers, carpenters that are qualified to do the work. Concrete and asphalt – we can also keep that in Stamford. Everyone’s asking me that question – everyone’s mad that (South End developer) BLT is bringing in outside concrete guys. Our guys don’t have work and their kids went to these schools. I know we also need to hire a few more building inspectors.”

Last week’s mayoral Q&A: The boatyard debate and development

 

Categories: General, Mayoral race

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