Board will support superintendent’s testimony on proposed education bill

The Wilton Board of Education, minus Superintendent Kevin Smith, held a special meeting on Friday, March, 17, to discuss House Bill No. 7276: An Act Concerning Education Mandate Relief, as well as the board’s role in political matters.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) was invited to the special meeting to inform them about a proposed education bill before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee and answer any questions. A public hearing on the bill was scheduled for on Monday, March 20.

Changes called for in the proposed bill include:

  • An optional regional calendar for school districts.

  • Districts would no longer be required to provide 900 hours of alternative education to expelled students, and instead have flexibility in the kind of alternative education they provide.

  • The State Department of Education would be required to purchase a digital school management and reporting software system and provide it at no cost to local education boards.

  • Districts would be able to restrict training in restraint and seclusion only to school staff who have direct contact with students, and any other school employees at their discretion, while having to identify a crisis intervention team for such episodes.

  • Districts would not have to search farther back than the past 20 years when performing sexual misconduct or abuse and neglect background checks for new school employees.

  • School administrators may still, but would no longer be required to, participate in PPT meetings for students receiving special education services.

  • Districts with a total population less than 10,000, and that have less than three public schools and fewer than 2,000 resident students, may choose not to have a superintendent and just have each school run by a principal.

The question on the table at the special meeting was whether or not Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly should provide written testimony relative to the proposed bill to be shared at the Education Committee’s hearing.

Board member Chris Stroup suggested the board not take a position.

“I haven’t spent nearly as much time as Gail has studying this, and I’m not in a position to express a position one way or another,” he said.

“I think Gail is in the position to do so. She can advocate on behalf as my representative, but I don’t feel comfortable advocating for a particular position on all of this or pieces of this.”

Stroup said he was “confused about what some of these provisions really mean and what the implications are for our kids in Wilton and broader kids in Connecticut.”

With that, Stroup said, “I’d prefer to take no position because I don’t feel I’m well educated enough to do so.”

Board members Laura Schwemm and Lory Rothstein felt the same way.

“I don’t have a problem having a vote to support the regional calendar piece of this bill, but I do not feel comfortable voting on the bill as a whole because of the [other] pieces,” said Schwemm. “I just don’t know enough about them.”

“Overall,” Rothstein said, “I think the regional calendar is one issue that we have talked about ad nauseum, and so I think I can very confidently support a statement going forward in support of that piece of this legislation.”

Board member Christine Finkelstein said she feels the board is in a position to support the bill.

“The superintendent has certainly laid out a strong case for how provisions affect Wilton, so I would feel comfortable with that,” she said.

Likly shared draft testimony Smith put together, which spoke in support of four aspects of the bill — the elimination of the regional calendar, mandate relief on districts no longer required to provide 900 hours of alternative education for expelled students, the digital school management system, and altering the wording in the training requirements for restraint and seclusions.

While the board voted to not submit testimony, it agreed that  if asked to provide a comment relative to the superintendent’s written testimony it would make clear that it supports the superintendent’s position.

Role in political matters

During its special meeting, the board agreed to have its Communications, Alignment and Policy Committee try to work on a draft policy that addresses the superintendent’s advocacy, submitting of perspectives to the board prior to advocating in Hartford, and frames when and how the board may take a position of advocacy.

The question of the board’s role in political matters has “not only come up with this [bill],” said Likly — “we’ve also had requests from somebody from the public that we weigh in on the president’s nomination for secretary of education.”

“From time to time, we do get requests to get involved in political issues, and I’d like us as a board to come to some sort of agreement on where and when we should potentially voice our opinions,” Likly said.

Before taking positions on political matters, Rothstein said the board should consider “the direct impact on the kids in Wilton — whether or not it directly impacts our school district.”

When a piece of legislation has a direct impact on the school district’s ability to “provide financial resources or personnel resources to kids,” Likly said, he believes the board has an obligation to look at it and decide whether or not it should act.

The idea for the drafting of a policy came from Finkelstein, who suggested guidelines be created to help “narrow down” when the board gets involved in political matters.

“I think that we are elected to advocate for the students of Wilton and the families of Wilton — the schools of Wilton — and in that respect, when something with a direct impact on our schools [comes up], we do have an obligation to get involved,” she said.

“I do think we run the risk, though, of a slippery slope — like when do we know that this is the one [matter] that we have to get involved in? I think it would be smart to come up with some guidelines to offer direction for us on that.”

Click here to read House Bill No. 7276.