Four candidates seek two Democratic spots on school board

The Greenwich Democratic Town Committee (DTC)’s Executive Committee has made its call for the Board of Education, but all four candidates are pressing on in their quest for the board’s two open seats.

Last week the committee formally decided to endorse Samarpana Tamm and Rebecca Steinfeld for the two spots being vacated on the eight-person board after Chairman Leslie Moriarty and Nancy Kail chose not to run for new terms. But this is not ending the candidacies of Debbie Appelbaum or Laura Erickson, the other two candidates running. Instead they will bring their case directly to the DTC when it meets on July 18 to formally nominate a slate.

Tamm advocates for western side

The endorsement of Ms. Tam, a three-term member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), surprised some due to her lack of involvement with local PTAs prior to her candidacy. However in an interview with the Post, she quickly pointed to her experience as a volunteer with Kids in Crisis, the Audubon’s Children’s Education Center, the Den for Grieving Kids, as well as her work both at the children’s library in Darien and in town as a tutor for students from New Lebanon School at the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center.

She told the Post that she also is running to speak for a portion of town she feels has been underrepresented for too long on the Board of Education … western Greenwich where New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Schools are located. New Lebanon faces a serious overcrowding problem with students, and both schools have shown achievement gaps that the board has said are priorities.

“I love being involved with children and I believe in public education,” Ms. Tamm said. “Running for the Board of Education is a great opportunity to really bring forward the needs of students living in the western side of town. There’s been a lack of funding and a lack of attention and that needs to change. I’m very aware of what’s happening in my community and I want the chance to be able to speak for them.”

But Ms. Tamm says she is not just running for the board to represent one part of Greenwich. She says she wants to be there for children in every part of town. She said issues like the achievement gap and racial balance don’t just impact western Greenwich but the whole town. A strong advocate for increased quality in and accessibility to pre-K classes to help close the achievement gap, Ms. Tamm also praised the “open dialogue” going on right now among the parents, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie and the board about a solution (see related story on page one) to deal with space and racial balance issues.

“An open dialogue about education is always for the best,” Ms. Tamm said. “We learn from each other. We know we’re a community of one and we’re not just one side of town or another side of town. We’re learning we’re all together in this.”

One issue that has come up in recent days after repeated posts by Chris Fountain, a popular Greenwich blogger, is Ms. Tamm’s past involvement in a cult. While Ms. Tamm has openly spoken about this experience in the past and her daughter even wrote a book about it, Mr. Fountain has given it fresh publicity. But Ms. Tamm said she does not consider it anything that would impact her ability to serve and she is ready to speak about it again to anyone who has questions.

“It is an issue and I can’t deny it, but I’ve had nothing but support from so many people,” Ms. Tamm said. “The surprising thing to me and everyone who knows me is that is an issue. It’s never been something that hasn’t been a part of my life. People knew about this. It’s a life experience. We all have life experiences.”

Steinfeld notes strong links to Hispanic community

Ms. Steinfeld threw her hat in the ring late for the Board of Education but appeared to have dazzled the DTC with her background and priorities, leading to the endorsement. Her mother is Puerto Rican and she is fluent in Spanish, something she said allows her to be very familiar with Hispanic culture and values, which is of growing importance in the district. The parent of three children who went through Parkway School, Central Middle School and Greenwich High School and attended Yale University with post-graduate work at other Ivy League schools, she said her children “benefited enormously” from the Greenwich public schools.

“My primary aim as a member of the Board of Education would be to give every child in Greenwich the same opportunities that were available to my children,” Ms. Steinfeld said.

In a statement to the Post, she acknowledged this was a “lofty goal” but said it could be accomplished through collaboration between the board and the superintendent to attract and retain the highest quality teachers and administrators, embracing new technological and educational innovations and “realistically” dealing with issues of educational achievement gaps and racial isolation.

“My family background, including my proficiency in Spanish and willingness to engage directly with Hispanic members of our community, will facilitate this process as the board adopts and implements the plan to address the utilization of our current facilities and reduce racial imbalances,” Ms. Steinfeld said. “For the Greenwich public schools to continue to excel, this plan will need to retain students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

She also pointed to her background in finance as a positive when it comes to dealing with the school budget.

“My skills will be deployed in the context of the Democratic values that I embrace and will counterbalance the similar analytical skills that the Republican members of the board bring to the board’s deliberations,” Ms. Steinfeld said.

Appelbaum talks experience

Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Erickson, both leadership role veterans from several school PTAs, are pressing on with their candidacies and said they felt confident the full DTC would back them when it was put to an open vote for the membership.

Ms. Appelbaum, who was co-president of the PTA at North Street School, Central Middle School and GHS, pointed to her experience there and working with the Greenwich PTA Council on the facilities committee, transportation and safety committee and the minority recruitment and retention committee. She said that showed her the need to fight for increased capital spending to address deficiencies in school buildings as well as the need to attract and retain excellent staff who “mirror our diverse student population.”

“I learned the art of advocacy, the power of persistence and the effective use of persuasion and communication, all of which are needed skills to insure continued improvement in education in Greenwich,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “Greenwich schools aim to set the standard for excellence, a goal that should never be compromised. Constant turnover at the superintendent position and recession minded spending cuts have put that standard at risk. We need big thinking, innovation, focused and proactive communication and consistent leadership to achieve the excellence that Greenwich students deserve.”

Ms. Applebaum added that her “strategic, big picture thinking skills” would allow her to ask the larger questions needed to move the district forward while encouraging “bigger and broader thinking” to address issues like racial balance and space utilization and the implementation of digital learning before the town.

“We need to address not just what needs to be fixed in classrooms, for example, but also ask what does the classroom of the 21st Century look like, how does it impact our children’s education and how do we fund it within the town bureaucracy,” Ms. Appelbaum said.

Erickson points to track record

A former member of the RTM, Ms. Erickson was co-president of the PTAs at Riverside School and GHS. Because of this experience, she said, she would bring to the Board of Education a “track record of effectiveness” as well as a “solid understanding” of the town’s budget process, which she said will be needed as experienced members like Ms. Moriarty and Ms. Kail step off the board. She has also worked the past few years with the Greenwich Alliance for Education, a non-profit community group dedicated to enhancing the public schools, with a focus on closing the achievement and economic gaps in town.

“The priorities for the district have to be to solve the immediate needs of overcrowded schools, decide on an interim strategy that is minimally disruptive to the district, which will satisfy the racial imbalance statutes from the state and develop an education budget that allows for the adoption of the common core curriculum, digital learning and the teacher evaluation plan,” Ms. Erickson told the Post.

She added she was “… proud of this district and the ongoing work that is done every single day by our administrators, teachers, staff and students.”

“We need to keep moving forward and support our new superintendent and we need a highly functioning Board of Education and an engaged citizenry to do so,” Ms. Erickson said.

DTC Chairman Frank Farricker said that all of the candidates are strong.

“As has become a regular occurrence, the Democrats put forward candidates who can and will lead the board of education,” Mr. Farricker said. “Each of our possible candidates distinguished themselves with intelligence, passion and common sense. While selecting two was difficult, it’s also reasonable to believe all four will serve on the board in the coming years.”

For the Board of Education, any candidates who run who do not receive the party’s nomination may run in a primary in August, or a party could put forth more candidates than open spots to create a competitive election, as Republicans did two years ago.

There is also precedent for the membership of the DTC successfully nominating a candidate who was not endorsed by the executive committee. Four years ago, despite the committee’s endorsement of another candidate, the DTC put forward a then unknown Drew Marzullo as selectman. And two years ago the DTC nominated Adriana Ospina for the Board of Education despite the executive committee endorsing another candidate.

Republicans will also meet in July to formally nominate their slate. Former board Chairman Steven Anderson is not seeking a new four-year term, but current board member Peter Sherr is.

 

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