Trumbull school board forum canceled after candidates decline invite
Voters will not have a chance to hear from Board of Education candidates as a group this year.
Organizers of a planned public forum recently pulled the plug on the event after half the candidates declined the invitation to participate.
Ruth Fontilla, president of the PTSA Council, said the group had secured the support of the League of Women Voters and had planned for an Oct. 16 session. She sent emails to both parties and received a candidate list and contact information from the Democrats. The Republicans thanked her for her interest, and promised to get back to her, she said.
“But then two weeks passed, and there was no more response,” Fontilla said.
On Sept. 25, Fontillo sent the official invitation, and the following morning received an email from Republican Chairman Joseph Pifko declining the invitation on behalf of all five of his party’s candidates — Loretta Chory, Jeffrey Donofrio, Jackie Norcel, Marie Petitti and Stuart Schwartz.
“Thank you for your invitation to the BOE candidates debate,” Pifko wrote. “After polling the candidates the decision has been made to respectfully decline due to the large number of candidates involved.”
By the afternoon of Sept. 26, less than a day after sending out the invitations, Fontilla made the decision to cancel the event citing the small number of candidates — four out of 10 — expected to attend.
Chory, a Republican and current school board chairman, said she had participated in numerous candidate forums in her 12 years on the board and that 10 candidates on a stage together tended to be unweildy and not conducive to discussion.
“There was a time when we had staggered four-year terms that were staggered so there weren’t so many at a time,” she said.
At the time the event was canceled, Democrat Scot Kerr had accepted the invitation. Michael Ward had tentatively agreed to attend but wanted more information about the format.
Kathleen Fearon had declined due to a scheduling conflict. “I wanted to participate, but I’m going to be at a wedding out of the country that’s been on my calendar for a long time,” she said.
Democratic candidate Tim Gallo said he had planned to attend. “It’s disappointing,” he said. “I was looking forward to talking about some of the ideas I had.”
Gallo said, as a first time candidate, an opportunity to speak directly to the public was invaluable.
“We have a lot of important decisions coming up — the new superintendent search, the possibility of moving the school start times back,” he said. “I was ready to go.”
Lucinda Timpanelli also planned to attend, although she said she preferred smaller groups.
“A meet-and-greet gives people more of a chance to get to know the reasons why someone is running, and their qualifications,” she said. “Ayway, school boards shouldn’t be about debating or arguing, it should be about consensus and doing what’s best for the schools.”
Donofrio also noted that the role of a school board did not lend itself to debating.
“The five Republican candidates agree that the Board of Education currently functions in a non-partisan manner,” he said. “The [five] Republican candidates concur that political events are not conducive to furthering the mission of the board.
Chory said board members regularly hear from the public, both at their twice monthly meetings that include public comment, and through emails. In addition individual candidates have been out meeting residents one-on-one.
“They’re all out knocking on doors,” she said.
Still, hearing from one candidate in a short doorway conversation is not the same as being able to hear multiple candidates respond to questions, said Kerr.
“Any opportunity to engage with the voters is good,” Kerr said. “I’m hoping we’ll get an opportunity to meet with voters between now and the election, even if it’s in a less formal setting.”
“I think a meet-and-greet gathering, maybe at the library, would have been more conducive to discussion,” she said.