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Discussion of race, inclusion continues in Southington school board campaigns

Discussion of race, inclusion continues in Southington school board campaigns

reporter photo

SOUTHINGTON — A dozen candidates, a mix of incumbents and newcomers, will vie for nine Board of Education seats during this year’s election.

Two Republican incumbents, including the chairman, aren’t running this year. Republicans currently have a majority on the board.

Lauren Johns, a Democrat, decided to run after a social media video, showing a Southington High School student threatening black classmates, came to light last year, she said.

In addition to Johns, Democrats running for the school board are George Doherty, Zaya Oshana, David Derynoski, Bob Brown and Lisa Cammuso. Republicans running for the board are Joe Baczewski, Terri Carmody, James Chrzanowski, Missy Cipriano, Colleen Clark and David Falvo.

Several candidates interviewed stressed the importance of diversity in education and support for ongoing conversations related to inclusion that began last year.

Johns, who has a daughter in first grade, is African-American and wants to make the district more inclusive of minorities. She wants to hire “culturally competent” teachers and administrators.

“I’m not looking to hire a bunch of brown and black teachers in the district,” she said. “There are people of every race who do this work and who do it competently.”

There’s a lack of “safe spaces” for teachers, as well as students of color, according to Johns.

“Not everybody should look like my child, but everyone should know how to deal with someone who looks like my child,” she said.

Coalition formed after racist video

Parents, including Johns, and students spoke to the Board of Education earlier this year about their experiences with bullying and racism. During that meeting in January, Johns told board members that her daughter has felt “ashamed to be brown.”

After speaking out, Johns said friends encouraged her to run for the Board of Education.

Johns works for the State Education Resource Center, a group that is advising the school district on racial and cultural issues. The district formed the Coalition for Social Justice in response to the video and subsequent criticisms. The coalition of students, parents, teachers and administrators is working on recommendations for the school board.

Missy Cipriano, a Republican newcomer running for the board, is a coalition member. She’s encouraged by the group’s work and said diversity is broader than just skin color.

Cipriano, who is African-American, hopes her race isn’t at the “forefront of why I do anything or why I’m chosen to do anything.” She was led to run for office through her work with the Alta PTO and the YMCA. Cipriano hopes to encourage parental involvement throughout the district and prepare students for higher education or a career.

“It’s not just one thing we need to work on,” she said of racial diversity. “I hope that all students get the same advantages as everyone else.”

Conversation,education important

Colleen Clark, a Republican incumbent running for reelection, said the board will need to continue conversations on race and inclusion. Clark’s son is black. She said her family has always had to deal with looking different.

“It’s an ongoing discussion. It’s something that we have to keep talking about,” she said. “We have to keep saying that we don’t all look alike and we don’t all celebrate the same holidays.”

Clark said part of the school district’s responsibility is to teach children about other cultures and give them skills to engage with those who are different.

David Falvo, a Republican running for the board and a 2015 Southington High School graduate, said an understanding of history would discourage the use of offensive words or images among students. He referenced the drawing of a swastika on a Southington High School sidewalk.

“I believe if we educate our students on that, they’ll be less likely to do it. I believe it’s ignorance,” Falvo said. “If they truly knew what those symbols meant and those words mean, they wouldn’t have used them.”

Falvo was adopted from Colombia. He’s a history and social studies teacher in Wethersfield.

Budgets, sportsfunding

Board candidates said creating a responsible budget would be a top task.

Clark wanted to have early discussions with other boards, such as the Town Council and Board of Finance, about education spending. She’s working to avoid an adversarial relationship with the other town boards.

“As a Board of Education member, my focus is education. Yes I’m cognizant of the budget dollars, but I’m also cognizant of doing what’s best for the children in our community,” Clark said.

Johns said she wanted to make sure “every dollar goes back to the students.”

David Derynoski, a Democratic incumbent running for office, said parents have told him they’re most concerned about student safety and district transparency. Reduced funding for middle school sports is also a sticking point for some.

“Parents are a little annoyed at the fact that with all the taxes they pay, in order for their kids to play sports they have to pay a lot of money,” Derynoski said.

Falvo said he’ll propose more club and intramural sports for students to provide an athletic outlet that isn’t as competitive. He’d also like competitive athletics at the middle school level to provide training for students with athletic ambitions.

Incumbents leaving

Brian Goralski, a Republican and chairman, and Patricia Queen, a Republican, aren’t running for re-election. Clark and Derynoski spoke highly of both of them, saying their experience would be missed.

Clark said Goralski had been a spokesman for the entire board and was able to respond to difficult questions.

Derynoski said Queen was always prepared for issues and diligent in researching board topics.
Twitter: @JBuchananRJ