Election could change face of New Milford Board of Education

NEW MILFORD — A determined Democratic party and a growing frustration within the community could sway the Board of Education’s balance of power after November’s election.

There are three Republican and five Democratic candidates vying for five open seats on the board, which has held a 6-3 GOP majority since 2011.

A number of residents have also become dissatisfied with the current board after the closing of Pettibone School, and the decision to turn the property over to the town, along with the school district’s reconfiguration of grades this year.

Teachers have also formed a political advocacy group, New Milford Partnership for Education, and have filed a grievance with the state against the education board.

The new board will have a different leader and will lose two Republican incumbents who are not seeking re-election.

Angela Chastain, a Republican in mid-term, has announced she will step down as chairwoman when the new board convenes on Dec. 1.

Republicans Daniele Shook and John Spatola are not running for re-election. The Republican slate will have Theresa Volinski running for a second term and first-time candidates Scott Leddy and Barbara Greco Parks.

Volinski joined the board mid-term in 2009. She supports her vote to close Pettibone based on the declining student population and since “many new educational programs were added” with the funds saved. Goals for her next term are to see school nurses carry Narcan kits considering the opioid epidemic in the town and bringing vocational training for high school students.

“Sitting on the board means making tough decisions, and that’s what people elect us to do,” Volinski said. “The bottom line is that it’s about the whole program: the students, the teachers, the administration, the facilities. If you want to be on the board, it requires research and knowing the details of the topics being voted on.”

Leddy, a Republican Town Committee member, has a financial background as owner of a print brokerage firm. The father of an eighth-grader, he is committed to students receiving the “best education possible.” He is concerned about the district’s dip in school rankings and its low rating for college preparedness of graduating seniors.

“I think the decision to close Pettibone was the right decision,” Leddy said. “It got politicized, but I don’t believe it was political on the board’s part. Student enrollment is declining and Pettibone will take millions of dollars in work that can better be spent on education. With the financial struggle of many hard-working residents, I want to see tax dollars spent judiciously while children get the best education.”

Parks did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats are making a concerted effort to take as many seats in town office as they can in November. When the party slate was set in July, Democratic Town Committee Chairman Andy Grossman spoke of “taking the first step in ending 12 years of one-party rule.” Grossman said that would be accomplished in part by the party gaining a majority on the Board of Education.

There are five Democrats running on the party ticket. David Lawson is running for a fourth term, joined by first-time candidates Bill Dahl, Brian McCauley, Tammy McInerney and Jason Schemm. Democratic board member David Shaffer is not seeking re-election, while party member Bob Coppola remains in office.

Lawson said immediate and long-term issues need to be addressed with a “comprehensive follow-through.” The district is still in a state of transition from the realignment of grades. There are also “very key” positions that have to be filled and a budget season beginning in January, he said.

“I think the board can do a better job. I also don’t want to see a rush job on hiring a new superintendent,” Lawson said. “I’m thinking of what happened with Pettibone, where people involved and affected had no say.”

McCauley brings 20 years experience as a civics teacher. He sees a need to create a more collaborative environment with the board, administrators and teachers. He said it’s wrong that politics have influenced education in New Milford.

“We need to repair the rift with the community and teachers that has occurred,” McCauley said. “I’m not sure the present board members are as committed to educational goals as I am.”

McInerney was the director of alumni relations at Western Connecticut State University and chairwoman of the Alumni Board of Directors. She left her job at WCSU in 2014 to focus on her three children, ages 11, 9 and 4. She has experience creating budgets that focus on cost savings and is concerned about the loss of personnel at the schools.

“There needs to be an open dialogue and an inclusive atmosphere between the board and the teachers and the public if we’re going to heal the rift that has occurred,” McInerney said.

Dahl brings 37 years of experience in education. He served as teachers union president in North Salem, N.Y., and was part of that district’s last search for a superintendent. He said it’s important for New Milford to find the right superintendent to replace the retiring JeanAnn Paddyfote.

“There has been too much conflict between the Republican and the Democratic members on the board, then between the administration and the board, and the teachers and the administration,” Dahl said. “We have to put politics aside and concentrate on nourishing the students.”

Schemm, a teacher for 19 years, previously taught at New Milford High School and now teaches at Joel Barlow High School in Redding. He would like to bring some of the “cutting-edge” work being done in Region 9 to New Milford such as peer coaching for teachers. He decided to run for office when Chastain closed public comment at a June board meeting because, she said, the audience was being disruptive.

“If we’re not going to have a voice as members of the public,” Schemm said, “we have to get seats at the table.”

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352