NEW BRITAIN - Democratic mayoral candidate Merrill Gay and incumbent Republican Mayor Erin Stewart took to New Britain High School on Thursday to discuss education in the city.
After opening remarks, candidates were asked three questions for each to respond to, then one individual question. The first question asked candidates to identify the No. 1 challenge facing city schools and ways they would address the problem.
While Stewart said funding is the obvious big challenge, she acknowledged that funding is a statewide issue and out of the mayor’s hands to an extent. She said the perception of the district - both from within and from nonresidents - is something the city can control and improve.
“We are our best advocates and I often go to schools to speak to our students and hopefully inspire our youth to not only get involved in politics … but help them understand that New Britain has a lot to offer,” Stewart said. “Our school district has an incredible amount of programs and an incredible amount of opportunities for our youth.”
Stewart said the city needs to do a better job of telling success stories and advertising the many great things happening in the district.
Gay agreed with Stewart that funding is the primary issue facing the district, but added that the potential influx of students from areas affected by recent hurricanes is another pressing issue.
“Those families have experienced incredible trauma and have lost everything and will be coming here needing support,” he said. “We need to be prepared to offer that support.”
Candidates were then asked about special education class sizes and if they would commit to passing Excess Cost Grant funds from the state to the Board of Education in an attempt to reduce high class sizes for special education.
The fund, which is about $3 million for the city, already goes to the school district as part of the city’s net budget requirement for schools.
Stewart said she would not remove this from the net budget requirement to go specifically to special education, saying that that $3 million would have to be made up elsewhere.
“Would I like to see additional money go to lowering special ed class sizes? Of course. Do I think that’s a reality right now given what we’re looking at and the financial conditions that we’re facing? No,” Stewart said. “We’re looking at a $12 to $14 million cut in municipal aid under any of the three budget scenarios that have come forward, we need to make up for that somehow.”
Gay said he thinks that money should just be passed through to the school district for what it is intended to go to.
“I think it’s ridiculous that an educational cost sharing grant - a special ed excess cost grant that is a reimbursement for extraordinarily high special ed costs that the district incurs - gets considered as just general revenue by the city as opposed to a reimbursement for those excess costs that the school district already incurred,” Gay said.
The final question for both candidates asked them how they would address the city’s achievement gap related to other municipalities.
Stewart said she thinks collecting data is the key to closing the achievement gap.
“We need to look at where we need to put our resources,” Stewart said.
The mayor said Central Connecticut State University is a good connection for the school district to have, and getting students excited and prepared for higher education is important.
Gay said focusing on reading levels and early childhood development are ways to close the achievement gap in the city.
“We have some of the lowest reading achievement scores in the state, and we need to look at things we haven’t done before,” Gay said.
The candidate said New Britain should embrace a reading initiative that emphasizes reading skills in students in kindergarten through third grade.
“If we can get things right from the beginning, I think that we can start to address the achievement gap,” Gay said.
The forum was hosted by the New Britain Federation of Teachers - in collaboration with the New Britain Federation of Paraprofessionals, OIC New Britain, the NAACP New Britain Branch, the NBHS School Governors Council and the YWCA.
The municipal election is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Skyler Frazer can be reached at 860-801-5087 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.