11 vie for six Bridgeport school board seats

October 29, 2017 GMT

BRIDGEPORT — With six seats open and several incumbents not seeking re-election, the nine-member city school board is facing a personnel turnover at Nov. 7’s municipal election.

There are 11 candidates and two races. Nine candidates will be vying for five four-year seats while two candidates compete in a special election to complete a two-year vacancy.

The city’s Board of Education oversees one of the state’s largest school districts on a budget that has remained stagnant for years. There are more than 21,000 students, most of them living below the poverty line.

Only two incumbents are seeking re-election: Howard Gardner, endorsed by the Working Families Party, and John Weldon, a Republican. Both are seeking full four-year terms.

Also seeking full terms are Jessica Martinez, Chaila Robinson and Hernan Illingworth — all Democrats; Joseph Sokolovic, who was endorsed by both Republicans and the Working Families; Shavonne Davis for Working Families, Republican Chris Taylor and petition candidate Sara Lewis.

The two-year race

Running against each other for the two-year slot are Democrat Sybil O. Allen and Republican Joseph Carbone. That race pits Allen, a former city educator and city council member who sat on the board more than a decade ago, and a 74-year-old Bridgeport native who owns a plastics company.

“My concern always was and is the betterment of this city and mostly its great kids. I have no room for politics of any kind,” Carbone said.

He wants to work on parental involvement.

Allen, 78, spent a career as a teacher and administrator at Wilbur Cross and Read schools.

“I see that they are having some problems. I want to see how you can be of service,” said Allen.

Allen says she knows what it takes to help students be well-rounded and successful, even those with rancorous behavior.

That could come in handy on a board known for infighting.

“I hope to be a calming influence on the board,” Allen said. “I would like people to know I have a great interest in our children being successful and being all that they are able to be when they grow up.”

The incumbents

Gardner, 64, a former technology executive, has served one term on the board.

“My own life is a testament to how education can transform the social and economic status of a person,” Gardner said. “I grew up in a poor working-class family on the East End of Bridgeport, but my parents instilled in me the value of education ... So I have firsthand knowledge regarding what education can do for children living in Bridgeport.”

He has two goals for a second term: restore teacher aides cut from kindergarten classes because of budget cuts and become a driving force to institute a more rigorous academic intervention program for students.

“As a community we need to create a culture that places high value on education,” he said.

Weldon came on the board nearly a year ago, appointed by Mayor Joseph Ganim when the school board failed to name a replacement for Kevin McSpirit, who left in late 2016.

“As a current board member, I have developed an understanding of the various personalities of staff and other board members, as well as of the operation itself,” he said. Because of his career in the public sector — he is a field contract manager for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in New York City — he said he knows how a public entity like Bridgeport Public Schools should work operationally.

His goal is to make the district on par with any of the others in Fairfield County.

To him, one of the biggest struggles of the district is staff retention. He wants more vested enough to spend their careers here.

The parents

Five of the candidates have or recently had children in the system.

Robinson, 35, is a residential loan processor with two boys in city schools. She said she is frustrated with the status quo.

“My number one goal is to bring partnership back,” she said of parents and the board. “If we all work together as one, everything can run smooth with little to no hiccups.”

Meetings, she added, would have better turnouts, board members would better understand budgets and together they could face whatever the city or state tosses at them.

Sokolovic, 50, has one son at Park City Magnet School. For the past 18 months, he has attended nearly every meeting of the board.

“I stand ready to make decisions on current issues based on first-hand information presented at those meetings,” he said.

He too wants to increase parental involvement and encourage their attendance at meetings.

“An informed parent with actual facts can be a powerful force at the polls,” Sokolovic said.

Martinez, a business owner, has one son in the school system.

A city native and graduate of the school system, Martinez said she would serve fearlessly “at the same table as power brokers and decision makers.”

“I have a strong passion for our people and ensuring they get what belongs to them,” Martinez said. “I want to help provide better for all the children in Bridgeport schools.”

Her goal is to shift focus toward providing students and teachers with the resources they need.

“For too long infighting has halted the progress of our schools,” she said.

Davis has four children, two of whom graduated from Harding and one who is a senior at Harding.

“I am dedicated to the educational success of our children,” she said. “Based on my own experience, I believe that I know how to keep students engaged in the education process and committed to completing the process.”

The district, she said needs to do a better job providing interventions.

“We absolutely must bring back para-professionals in the classrooms. There has to be greater investment in preschool program(s) to make this critical program universal,” she said, promising also to be a calming influence.

Illingworth, 47, is a production manager who had one daughter who graduated from the district in 2015. He is a former district parent leader and former board member, which, he said, gives him a unique perspective.

“My passion and dedication for public education and the 21,000-plus students in our city has never died,” Illingworth said. “My desire to continue working tirelessly for our children has never been stronger.”

His number-one goal is to bring the focus back to making decisions that best serve students and support teachers, he said.

“My daughter had great teachers, and now it seems like our teachers don’t have the support or resources they deserve,” he said.

Objective eyes

A couple of candidates have no current ties to the district.

Taylor, 48, is retired and recently ran for mayor.

Single and with no children, Taylor said he would make a good school board member because he is educated, fiscally responsible, pragmatic and has an overwhelming amount of life experiences.

His top goal is to provide the highest quality education for all city students, he said.

Like other candidates, Taylor had a hard time when asked how he would improve the district without the infusion of extra money.

“Most if not all of my responses would revolve around proper funding (for) counselors, coaches, paraprofessional, sports, early and after care programs, the arts, etc.” he said.

Lewis, 60, also has no children in the system.

“My personal commitment to embracing students as the first priority in public education is a clear distinguishing factor of my board candidacy and future service,” Lewis said.

She said she wants to “level the educational playing field” by advancing equal opportunity in academic achievement initiatives within every school and neighborhood.

The board’s greatest challenge, she added, is to foster academic rigor and excellence while serving the needs of diverse students with varying capacities and learning styles.

“My professional training and involvement within community-based ministry positions me as an effective catalyst for advancing significant social change through balanced, systematic and peaceful methods,” Lewis said.