The five candidates for Barrington School Committee pretty much agreed on Wednesday evening, Oct. 17, that the schools are the town's most important asset. And administrators and the board need to spend taxpayers' money as wisely as feasible while striving to offer a world-class education.
There really were no significant raps against the schools and their management, although each candidate did show slightly different priorities and suggestions for maintaining this asset.
The candidates, incumbents Patrick Guida, Christopher Ramsden and Robert Shea, and two challengers, Meghan Ramsden and Paula Dominguez gathered in the Council Chamber for a League of Women Voters RI “candidates’ forum.”
Approximtely 75 voters and candidates for the Town Council and State House seats in District 66 and 67 who were on the agenda with them looked on.
The format prevented the candidates from answering or responding to all of the same questions. A candidate could use, however, a limited number of “wild cards” to weigh in on a certain question. No one used all the wild cards.
Each candidate got two questions to answer or respond to first. There were strict time limits for answers or responses, including for the wild cards.
The overall format, which included opening and closing statements, therefore, did not allow the audience to assess one specific candidate against another except during four of the 10 questions asked by moderator Scott Pickering, general manager of East Bay Newspapers, which sponsored the forum.
All of the candidates used their opening minute to provide mostly biographical or background information or to focus on their qualifications for the position.
Christopher Ramsden, who went first, stressed his 30 years of business experience and his primary focus: using technology "to leverage tax dollars" that support the :town's most valuable asset."
Guida, the chairman of the School Committee and a member for 16 years, stressed his leadership and connections to the RI Board of Regents and the National Association of School Boards. He also said he maintains "a passion for public education" that he brought to the table 16 years ago.
Robert Shea pointed to his record of achievement and commitment to the schools during his years on the board.
Meghan Ramsden, a first-time challenger, talked about her involvement in the schools through volunteering and the Boosters Club. She said she would champion "teacher excellence" if elected.
Paula Dominguez, also a first-time challenger, also pointed to her volunteer work in the schools and with the Barrington Education Foundation and the Bayside YMCA.
The 10 questions from the floor touched on funding, the "No Child Left Behind Act," the "tuition plan" that has been schelved, school start times, budget priorites, whether a new or renovated middle school is best, and differences of the candidates and what they see as the most important issue facing the schools.
"Are the schools property funded?" was the first question asked. By the order of seating, Chris Ramsden went first.
"I think Barrington taxpayers carry an unfair burden," he said, with 90 percent of the budget coming out of local pockets. "We need more state aid."
Guida responded first and agreed: "We're woefully deficient in state aid."
What is the impact of the federal "No Child Left Behind" initiative?
"It puts much more emphasis on closing the gaps between students," Guida said. "The implementation of the Common Core will give us some international benchmarks."
Shea ageed. The Common Core, he said, give Barrington standards to strive for.
Dominguez used a wild card to respond.
"We need to look at pace-setting school systems in Massachusetts and elsewhere," she said. "We need to pace ourselves with other top performing schools."
The ACLU-maligned "tuition-in" plan for Barrington that was tabled last spring was brought up again,
Shea said "we simply can't cover the cost of students that need additional services." Meghan Ramsden said the proposal to generate out-of-district tuition was "interesting but would be difficult to establish."
Should Barrington spend more to alter the school start times?
Dominguez said the return on the investment in gains in student achievement make it a worthwhile expenditure, primarily in bussing costs. Chris Ramsden said he remains "undecided" because "I have seen no firm data that shows clear-cut advantages."
Shea, who championed the change in start times as the chair of the Health and Wellness Committee, said: "There are definite benefits. The costs are not exorbitant. It's worth it."
What are your budget priorities?
"Technology," said Chris Ramsden. Guida agreed. "Investments in technology, especially bandwidth, will extend to other opportunties." Dominguez said "human capital is our biggest expenditure. Getting teachers involved and using technology in the way it's supposed to be used" requires more professional development.
Should Barrington renovate or build a new middle school?
Guida said the preliminary estimates of costs favor building a new school over a "gut renovation" of the existing building. Shea said new seems better than a gut renovation right now.
How are you different than your opponents?
Meghan Ramsden said she would bring a perspective as a parent, a teacher and an advocate for children to the board. Dominguez said she has worked on national-level education projects and "seen educational systems in other countries."
What is the most important issue facing the schools?
"How to best spend dollars," said Dominguez. "Making sure money is well-spent."
"The budget and maintaining fiscal responsibility," said Chris Ramsden. "We need to better leverage the 87 percent of the dollars in the budget that goes to teacher compensation."
Dominguez gave her closing statement first. "The entire community benefits from the schools," she stressed. She also told a story about the impact a teacher can have on a student. "They can open the world to students," she said.
Meghan Ramsden repeated in her closing that "I would be an advocate for students, families and teachers."
Shea said he would continue to live up to the trust in him that voters have shown in the past.
Guida stressed his significant knowledge of public education and his 5-year objectives for Barrington's schools, including the Common Core implementatin, technological improvements that tie directly to student assessment, the teacher evaluation process that needs to be refined, preparing for a major capitol project -- the middle school. He also pointed to his direct involvement in negotiations for teacher contracts over the last decade.
Chris Ramsden closed by asking voters to "think about the range of talents and skills you want on the board" and members who would fit in a "team of five."
The forum was being broadcast for viewing on Full Channel 9 six times: Oct. 20 at 12:30 pm; Oct. 24 at 8 am; Oct. 29 at 2 pm; Oct. 31 at 8 am, Nov. 3 at 12:30 pm and Nov. 5 – Election Day eve – at 2 pm.
Look for Patch stories to follow on the District 66 and 67 candidate forums.