Democrat challenges Republican incumbents for Region 9 board

Three candidates are vying for two open seats to represent Easton on the Region 9 Board of Education, which is in charge of Joel Barlow High School. Redding has different but proportional representation on the regional board.

Democrat Maureen P. Williams is challenging incumbent Republican board members Catherine Gombos and Todd A. Johnston.

Republicans control the leadership of all Easton elected and appointed boards and commissions and elected offices at Town Hall. Democrats occupy only those seats that are guaranteed by minority representation.

All told, 19 Republican candidates and nine Democratic candidates are running for election. Williams, Gombos and Johnston are the only candidates in a contested race in Easton

All three candidates are present or past stakeholders. Williams’ three children attended Easton schools, graduated from Barlow and benefited from their quality education, she said. Gombos and Johnston have children who are currently enrolled at Barlow and Easton’s other schools.

Williams, a family law attorney in private practice, waited until her children had graduated to run for a seat on the board so she has plenty of time to devote to service. She would bring fresh ideas to existing challenges, such as falling enrollment and fostering student emotional health, she said.

Gombos, an almost 18-year incumbent, is board secretary and former chairman. All of her six children either attend or graduated from Barlow. Johnston, a six-year incumbent, has four children currently enrolled in Easton schools.

Gombos and Johnston tout their experience, long-term commitment and institutional knowledge. The Easton Courier asked the candidates to respond to their choice of three of five questions in 600 words or less.

The questions, below, are followed by the candidates’ answers.

Five questions

  1. Easton, Redding and Region 9 schools continue to grapple with declining enrollment, although this year the schools added a few dozen more students than projected. How will you address falling enrollment while maintaining high educational standards as pressure mounts to reduce costs? Should one of the schools be closed?
  2. Students’ mental health and emotional well being profoundly shape their success at school, in their interpersonal relationships and all facets of their lives. How important is it to teach strategies to foster emotional intelligence and positive mental health outcomes?
  3. How can technology better prepare students for the skilled workplace of tomorrow? Might this be an area where shared resources could be used, especially for students taking advanced and college courses?
  4. What specific issues facing education do you want to tackle as a school board member?
  5. Why should voters choose you?

Maureen P. Williams

Why should voters choose me?

Competent, thoughtful, and knowledgeable individuals must serve on the Region 9 Board of Education. In times of uncertain enrollment numbers and state budget cuts, members will need time and energy to make difficult decisions. Collegiality and compromise will need to be ever apparent.

Maureen P. Williams
Maureen P. Williams

I am a 25-year Easton resident; my children attended Staples, Keller, and Joel Barlow High School. I am committed to the future of our town; I am cognizant of my obligations to it, both monetary and otherwise.

I have run my own legal practice, and assisted others with structuring their own business operations and raising capital. I have worked in adversarial environments my entire legal career and am well-versed in mechanisms to foster compromise. I have a “beginner’s mind” for service on the board, but a lifetime of service with children in the legal system; that’s a winning combination!

My focus would be to ensure that our schools provide the same quality education to current and future learners as they provided to my children, each of whom followed distinct paths inside Barlow and thereafter. Right-sizing response to declining enrollment and budgetary constraints cannot come at the expense of comprehensive, 21st century, course-offerings that prepare our students for workplace challenges.

Technology in the classroom

Technology will prepare students for tomorrow’s workplace and provide opportunities for cost savings. Our goals for our educational environment should be to produce communities of lifelong learners.

We must be careful not to depersonalize education in our quest to use technology to its fullest. Education, as an interactive, social process requires that we ask ourselves to what extent the ‘online’ experience meets student need for information but does not meet student need for the nuanced focus of a ‘real-life’ educator.

The critical thinking skills our children will acquire will not be generated by the technology but by the daily work of mentors.

We acknowledge that tech advances will continue to dramatically alter our children’s learning experience. We expect that 3D printers will alter the structure of classroom learning, allowing students to draw/create objects, as varied as locks for belongings to board games. Plans and procedures to allow students to ‘bring their own devices” (phones, tablets, or laptops) will convert ‘book learning’ to mobile learning, reducing reproduction costs and lost hard- and soft-cover book fees.

Blockchain technology will eventually document student learning at a more micro-level than grades do so. ‘Real world’ experiences will have measurable educational value. Tech developments will also provide opportunities to individual student learning and support unique interests at a college level.

On the importance of grit

Strategies to foster emotional intelligence and positive mental health in an educational environment start with a reverence for ‘grit’ coupled with a fearlessness about “failure.” These strategies will make sure our students are successful in all facets of their lives, personal and professional.

Angela Duckworth documented that endurance in effort and reluctance to dwell in the land of disappointment are hallmarks of those who succeed; they simply keep going, working through all manner of setbacks. They learn to speak openly about difficulties, because facing the ‘hard’ is a measure of success.

We do foster an educational climate mindful of the above ideas. We should also be watchful stewards of the change in children — so that we notice that the ‘hard’ for each could be as variable as not mastering a concept, to inability to play on a team, to loss of a parent to death or addiction. Communities must be open, inclusive and welcoming, and they are. Personal attention makes a difference.

Catherine Gombos

Declining enrollment

Declining enrollment has been a subject of discussion and planning for the Region 9 Board of Education and the administration at Joel Barlow for the past five years. The enrollment predictions have guided our discussions and the board and administration have worked collaboratively to “right-size” the school without impacting the quality and diversity of the program offerings.

Catherine Gombos
Catherine Gombos

For a number of years, the school has offered co-mingled higher-level foreign language classes such that both honors and regular courses can be offered. Region 9 is a district with only one school; there is no option of closing the school.

Technology

Students’ success after Joel Barlow will depend on their understanding of technology and their ability to critically evaluate available technologies. Joel Barlow’s curriculum is based on developing the critical thinking skills necessary to function in a world of ever-changing technology and developing the communication skills required to thrive in tomorrow’s workforce. The three districts currently share an assistive technology specialist. As Region 9 grapples with its declining enrollment, partnering with area colleges and universities to meet the program needs of a smaller student body may become a solution as we strive to improve what is already one of the state’s premier high schools.

We are fortunate to be located close to several universities; partnership opportunities that will meet the needs of students desiring to enroll in advanced placement and college-level courses should be explored as a possible pathway for right- sizing Joel Barlow High School.

Why should voters choose me?

For nearly 18 years I have served on the Region 9 Board of Education as a member, chairperson, vice chairperson, treasurer and secretary. I have been the chair of the Negotiations Committee which has successfully negotiated 20 contracts with the certified and noncertified staff.

The recently negotiated contract with the Joel Barlow Education Association includes the provision for mandatory choice of a High Deductible Health Plan in the second and third years of

the contract. This agreement will save the District in excess of $300,000 dollars and provide savings for teachers as well.

My committee work for the board has included work on the Tri-Board Insurance Committee, Facility and Fields Committee, Superintendent Evaluation Committee and Curriculum Committee. Over the course of my service I have worked tirelessly with the administration and fellow board members in creating policy and reviewing and approving program improvements that have advanced and enriched the quality of education for our children.

I take seriously the dual role of the Region 9 board as both a Board of Education and Board of Finance. Assisting the administration in attaining the mission of Joel Barlow High School of a rigorous, dynamic education that respects the diversity of student aspirations has been a privilege for me.

Being a responsible and fiscally conservative steward of the public’s funds guides my thinking as we strive to make the high school a place where students gain the knowledge and skills they need to navigate in this ever-changing world.

Todd Johnston

Declining enrollment

As a board member, I do not want to tell the administration a specific number of positions to reduce or make a drastic budget cut in one year. I will continue to work with the administration and department chairs to create a long-term plan that when necessary gradually eliminates class sections and teaching positions without creating extremely large class sizes.

Todd Johnston
Todd Johnston

We have some tough decisions ahead of us. Jointly, we will make a plan that works for the taxpayers, students and teachers. I do not think one of the schools needs to be closed at this time.

Technology

I think the administration and faculty are innovative using technology and trying new ways of incorporating it into the classroom. I believe there are more opportunities to seek creative ways to do more with less. As we continue to address falling enrollment and easing the community’s tax burden, we may need to consider more televised, college campus and computer-based courses to offer our students the advanced options they want.

Top issues

I will continue to work with the administration to balance the costs of special needs education with other costs. Special education costs will continue to increase, and state funding is always a concern. We need to provide for special needs education costs without sacrificing other areas of the educational program.

The Region 9 Board of Education candidates are on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election, which takes place at Samuel Staples Elementary School. — Nancy Doniger photo
The Region 9 Board of Education candidates are on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election, which takes place at Samuel Staples Elementary School. — Nancy Doniger photo

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