Bristol's school committee candidates face off in forum

Bristol has eight candidates vying for three available seats on committee

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 10/23/20

They come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience, from education to healthcare and more, but the eight school committee candidates — Brian Bradshaw, Andrew Benn, Karen Cabral, Marjorie …

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Bristol's school committee candidates face off in forum

Bristol has eight candidates vying for three available seats on committee


They come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience, from education to healthcare and more, but the eight school committee candidates — Brian Bradshaw, Andrew Benn, Karen Cabral, Marjorie McBride, Corrie DaLuz, Jamie Brooks, Bill O’Dell and Sarah Bullard — agreed on many of the most pressing issues that will be facing the Bristol Warren Regional School District in the years to come.

The reopening of schools

Moderator Scott Pickering first asked the candidates if they were satisfied with the district’s strategy for and execution of the reopening, in the face of COVID. Most, for the most part, were. From her perspective in the trenches, Ms. Cabral, a school nurse, said she was reluctant to pass judgement given the difficulty of the situation.

“Everyone’s trying to do the right thing and things are changing every day,” she said. Sitting School Committee member McBride noted that the process has had its ups and downs. “I think we were very well prepared in March, but I think we could have done a better job of having the high school open this fall,” she said. “I think it’s a lesson learned.”

Burden on teachers

Asked if the district is asking too much of teachers during this time, the candidates universally empathized with the challenges of teaching to both an in-person and a distant class simultaneously. “I think we are asking a lot of our teachers, and I’m grateful they’re back in the classroom,” said Ms. Brooks. “I know it’s not fair; COVID is not fair. I’d love to see additional supports.” Said Mr. O’Dell, “The question here is, are we giving teachers enough support? I’m concerned they are in genuine need of more support.”

Social-emotional learning

Asking about social-emotional learning, an educational area in which the district has increasingly focused attention in recent years, Mr. Benn suggested that great strides have been made but they continue to come up short, particularly in the education of special-needs students.

Incumbent member Bradshaw suggested progress is being made. “Supports have been established at KMS and Hugh Cole,” he said. “All students can learn. We have to have those programs in place so that we can bring a student into a safe space, understand what they’re going through, and work toward getting them back in the classroom.”

Ms. Brooks agreed. “We need social and emotional supports now more than ever,” she said.

Ms DaLuz raised another important intersection between Social Emotional supports and COVID: “I’m concerned with the number of students who may be falling behind due to distance learning, plus special education students who don’t have access to their usual supports,” she said.

Curriculum and more

Asked what changes they might make to the district’s curriculum, priorities and strategies, most candidates spoke to the need to revitalize a solid vocational curriculum. “We need to develop a curriculum for students who aren’t college bound,” said Ms. Brooks, who also spoke to the importance of diversity and inclusion incorporated into the existing curricula.

“We need to get (students) jazzed about the trades,” said Mr. O’Dell. “Right now there ’s not much demand on the part of the students, and that’s our fault.”

Mr. Bradshaw noted that improvements to career technical educational opportunities were already in the works. “We have heard these voices and we’re responding,” he said. “I’m looking forward to trying to tackle that in next four years.”

Mr. Benn is concerned with the number of students who need to go out of district for an education in the trades. “CTE shouldn’t go out of district,” he said. “It’s critical that we move faster and with more bandwidth. Our students need skilled trades.”

School choice?

The objection to sending students out of district was a good segue to the next question, one of school choice. As Rhode Island state law dictates that the money follows the student, school choice often means the district is left with less money than they had planned. Predictably, most were not in favor. “I don’t think the money should follow the student,” said Mr. Benn. “We send too many out of district.”

Said Mr. Bradshaw, “We should strive for a district where students don’t want to leave.”

The budget

Asked about expenses and funding, everyone agreed that transparency, responsible oversight, controlled spending and finding new sources of funding are all priorities, though Ms. McBride mentioned a funding issue that has her currently very concerned. “We don’t have good control of our budget; we need staff,” she said. “We don’t have a budget and finance director, so right now, I’m very concerned — and I think the two communities should be as well.”

Diversity in hiring

Candidates agreed that it was time to focus more of diversity in hiring, though several also noted that ultimately, the best candidate for the job is the one who should be hired. Mr. Bradshaw clarified the process. “The School Committee hires the Superintendent, and the Superintendent hires teacher and staff, and approves those contracts,” he said. “What we can do is work with the Superintendent so he understands that’s a priority for us, so when students look at the adults in our buildings, they look like them.”

Said Mr. Benn, “We need to recruit the best and the brightest, but we also need to be aware of diversity and inclusiveness. We are doing well, but we could do better.” Ms. Brooks agreed. “We could do a better job making teachers look more like the student body,”she said. “The makeup of the teaching staff is not representative.”

Vision for the district

The final question asked the candidates about their “global” vision for the district, and, if elected, would they come in hoping to make sweeping changes, or stay the course. “I don’t think individual agendas are what we need to pursue, but rather be responsive to the values of the community,” said Ms. Bullard. “While I do have issues that are near and dear to my heart, we are there to function as a committee, and prioritizing my personal agenda should not be part of that.”

Part of Ms. DaLuz’ stated vision would include more uniformity across the district’s many elementary schools, a longstanding concern among parents. “We should be working harder at listening to the community,” she said.

“I do have a global vision,” said Ms. Brooks. “To see Bristol-Warren as one of the top school districts in the state, one of which people should be proud.”

Watch the forum in its entirety here.

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