Five candidates for the Greenwich Board of Education debated each other last Tuesday night, Oct. 19, in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. It went on for one hour and 17 minutes with a mix of technical errors and interruptions by the moderator. The beginning of the debate featured a lightning round of topical questions about social-emotional learning, gender fluidity terms, critical race theory, the Greenwich Patriots, and whether or not public school students should wear uniforms. To see the full debate, please go to this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=do5C4tc-mbE&t=880s.
This article provides a summary analysis of each candidate listed below. The themes candidates talked about were funding, the schools declining academic performance, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and special education.
Megan Galletta - R
Cody Kittle - R
Michael Joseph Merchanti-Anthony - R
Laura Kostin - D
Kathleen Stowe - D
Kara Philbin - write in (was excluded from the debate)
The top issue pushed by Ms. Galletta was the declining academic performance in the Greenwich Public School system. It was a theme to be picked up on in varying degrees by the other candidates.
An unresolved conflict was the fight over social emotional learning versus academics. Ms. Galletta treated them as mutually exclusive choices. Dr. Anthony wanted to suggest they were not mutually exclusive. Ms. Galletta was suggesting there is only so much time in a school day and that one has to prioritize one’s choices.
She made a dramatic gesture over the issue of mask mandates by putting a mask sized piece of paper over her mouth while talking. She was the only one to take a strong position on masks. Ms. Stowe was more fatalistic. Ms.Galletta also pointed out that the issues of increased reports of depression and anxiety in students is clearly related, in part, to the mask policy. This suggested that Ms. Stowe was rather cold-hearted about the issue.
Ms. Galletta continued to pound away on the issue of declining academic scores. The democrats essentially ignored her comments by defending social-emotional learning and personalized learning.
Cody Kittle - R:
Mr. Kittle stumbled into his own trap - again. This hapless bean counter took another run at the subject of the dysfunctional board by trying to talk about collegiality. Trying to set himself up as some kind of peace maker or diplomat simply does not work. It only set up Ms. Stowe’s remarks defending the existing collegiality on the board.
However, he does get credit for helping Ms. Galletta by pressing on the issue of poor academic performance. He pointed to 29% proficiency in math in one of the grades. Third world countries have been math proficiency than that. The greater issue Mr. Kittle failed to exploit is that the scores are a TREND. Such poor performance demands a loud warning horn demanding immediate attention to the problem. The recent decline is part of a much larger, longer, and slower decline in proficiency. For this there is only one group to blame: The liberals who run the school system. Common core math is a failure, so try something else. That fails, now let’s try something new based on common core. Oops, the scores get even worse. 29% is a lot closer to zero than it is to 100. This trend inspires the old saying, if you are digging yourself into a hole, stop digging. The problem is those running the academics only know how to dig. They need to be replaced if there is to be any improvement in academics.
Dr. Michael Joseph Merchanti-Anthony - R (In Name Only)
Dr. Anthony’s approach to the questions was to engage in “management-speak”. He also pointed to the current board’s reputation for a dysfunctional culture. He referred to it as “systemic dysfunction.” True enough, Doctor. However, your experience in the educational regime of Mayor DeBlasio in New York City has to define dysfunctional. This person needs to be called out. Has donated to Joe Biden’s campaign, as well as ActBlue, an organization dedicated to defunding the police. Put simply, we don’t care what he has to say. He is an impostor by being that deeply in bed with Democrats while pretending to call himself a Republican.
Moreover, the one other interesting thing you had to say spoke volumes about your lack of acumen. The suggestion that EVERYONE should take AP courses is cheap political theater for the education audience. We are not fooled, nor should any else be who understands the concept of advanced placement. Since public schools were formed, there has always been a split between those going to college and those who are not. Such a proposal is an example of being disconnected from reality. Such a person would only bring a whole new dimension of “systemic dysfunction” to the board of education. If a person lies about his political affiliations, what else will he lie about? Go home, Dr. Anthony.
Kathleen Stowe - D
Kathleen Stowe is running for re-election on the Democrat ticket. Perky, bubbly, and quite verbose, she tended to play down some of the criticisms offered by the other candidates, but also loved to talk about the money they could get. In fact, if one takes the time to compare the emotional tenor of her remarks on academic performance and more money, you could tell she gets much more excited about getting more money.
One of the commonly used words in the debate was “stark”. Stark contrast, stark results, stark. Put simply, she is partly responsible for the stark results in the school’s academic performance. The best she could do was say “we are going to do better.” Really? You’ve had four years, and it is during YOUR tenure these bad things have taken place.
She really did not take responsibility for the academic decline over which she has presided for the last four years. To a certain extent, her approach to the different issues was a bit scattered. It made her sometimes hard to follow.
Ms. Stowe qualifies as Gaslighter #1 for playing down the very real problems in the school system
Laura Kostin - D
Ms. Kostin separated herself from the rest of the group by demonstrating just how tone deaf she can be. Her conviction that parents should have no voice in their children’s education was not exactly picked up on by the other candidates. Meantime, her idea of supporting her position was to state she felt that the level of transparency the schools provided about their monthly activities was adequate for her purposes.
Also, she displayed a blind trust in money. She was happy about the “covid money” coming to the district. Yet she was incapable of recognizing the inherent limits, and even contradictions, of her statements. It was captured best by a retort from Cody Kittle where he basically said that people like her, ask for more money, and when things fail,they just ask for more money.
Ms. Kostin is too naïve and dangerously incurious to be seriously considered for the Greenwich Board of Education. She used the most vague and barely allusive terms to mention the conflict over porn in the school’s curriculum. She dismissed it as aberration of no significance. Conservatives have seen that before. She is fooling no one. For this, she is awarded Gaslighter #2. Her comments are clearly dismissive of parents who have concerns. She must not be on the board.
Kara Philbin – Write In
Ms. Philbin has been cheated out her opportunity to have herself heard in the debate. We were not able to interview her for this article. However, based on comments by some who know her, her background in public education in the Greenwich school system is both significant and underappreciated. Apparently, her “time in” around Greenwich has touched on every aspect of how the schools function. She has seen the best and worst first hand. It is too bad she was not given an opportunity to debate. We wish her well. Those who want to write her in, should do so.
The Main Issues Discussed in the Debate:
The kindest phrase for the debate is “wide ranging”. The moderator had a prepared list of questions, but that didn’t stop the candidates from getting off track and taking too long to respond.
Strategic Planning - The comments on this were like listening to one half of a conversation. The candidates alluded to different issues. Listeners had to piece together the different parts of the whole picture: 1) Not everyone on the board knows the strategic plan, 2) There has been a lack of communication to basically everyone about what the strategic plan is, 3) There needs to be more “transparency” about the strategic plan. All of this sounds very damning. If the people most responsible for the plan are the least informed, what the hell do they do every day? It sounds like they are not good at recognizing when there is a problem requiring resolution.
Curriculum – There was a lack of connection drawn between curriculum and academics. They were curiously treated as separate subjects. Ms. Stowe, Mr. Kittle and Dr. Anthony appreciated that curriculum becomes such an important topic they feel the need to not “get in the weeds.” Instead, in the board’s role of setting policy and providing governance, their approval of curriculum should be based on consistency. Ms. Stowe seemed to suggest that this was also linked to the Parent Teacher Advisory Council (PTAC).
The others failed to pick up on Ms. Galletta’s point that curriculum has become politicized. So, it is curious, for example, that in the lightning round of questions, everyone answered NO to whether or not they thought subjects such as White Privilege and White Supremacy should be taught in the schools, though it is already being taught. Ms. Galletta’s point is clearly not understood by the other candidates, and that is why they are at odds with many parents.
Transparency – The concept of transparency depends on who is talking. There is transparency of access, Ms. Stowe. There is transparency of reporting to parents, Ms. Kostin. There is transparency of deliberations, nobody. It has become a much abused term serving different purposes. It is a case of transparency providing no clarity.
Budgets - The essence of the various remarks about budgets, and funding, came down to putting money in the number one or number two position on the list of priorities. As noted above, the two Democrat candidates made stronger and more focused comments about money, than about academics. Ms. Stowe also pointed out that 96% of the budget was fixed costs. That gives the impression there is not much to be done if you have baked in cost increases, long term contracts and the like.
There was some related discussion on expenditures, involving infrastructure, or physical plant, that makes up the buildings of the public school system. There is an argument to be made that the town has been lagging on capital projects. For example, Ms. Galletta mentioned problems with air quality in the schools.
Academics – In rank order, Ms. Galletta, followed by Dr. Anthony and Mr. Kittle, were the ones to express concerns about the decline in academics. The voter has to decide whether or not highlighting this decline is of grave concern. There should have been an honest discussion about factors explaining the decline. There was none.
However, Ms. Galletta was the only one to point out that, as a result, there was declining enrollment in the Greenwich Public School system. For many parents, four years is way too long to allow a problem to get worse. So, they have taken their children out and gotten education for them somewhere else.
All things considered, remarkably little was said about academics by most of the candidates. They effectively show a hands off approach to curriculum and no real analysis about the issues confronting academics, other than to argue about SEL and personalized learning. Academics is the heart and soul of education, yet the other candidates seemed particularly unprepared to talk about it.
SEL and Personalized Learning - The real difference between conservatives and liberals is to be found here. Ms. Galletta, primarily, emphasized that there is only so much time in the day. Time devoted to SEL and personalized learning is time taken away from academics. Dr. Anthony sided with the liberals in defending SEL and personalized learning. They wanted to argue that there was a need for these programs. Ms. Galletta instead argued that such matters as SEL are the job of parents, and not the school. Unmentioned is the system’s mission creep over control of children with these “innovative” programs.
Conclusion - What made this debate so hard to follow was the lack of clear language. Instead, you had candidates tapping on issues like academic decline, board conduct issues, and curriculum then running back to their corners for safety. Ms. Galletta was the only one to even use the word politicization. The others pretended it didn’t exist. Were they afraid? Were they being polite and deferential? Whatever their motivation, it only clouded the debate, and made it all that harder for undecided voters to understand the candidates.
So, what are we to conclude from this debate? Save a few moments where the clouds parted, and a candidate actually said something lucid, the debate had the feel of a foggy day. Poor visibility, confusing sounds impairing the listener’s ability to get oriented and fearful uncertainty about the way forward.
Preparation of this article took lots of note taking and listening twice to the debate. The one candidate who clearly had the parents interests, and the children’s, was Ms. Galletta. Where Ms. Kostin only spoke from her own experience, Ms. Galletta clearly grasped the bigger picture. The level of understanding, and degree of concern expressed by the other candidates was, at best, well – academic.