Debate recap: First selectman candidates talk about education, economic development

After protracted negotiations, the initial First Selectman candidates debate, between Republican First Selectman Tim Herbst and Democratic challenger and Town Council Minority Leader Vicki Tesoro, was held Thursday, Oct. 22.

The 75-minute event was co-sponsored by the Trumbull Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Bridgeport Regional Business Council and presented before a packed Community Room at the Main Library. 

Herbst opened with a three minute statement, which focused on continuing to build Trumbull's economy.

“We will continue to restore our fiscal strength, get our economy moving and make Trumbull a place of opportunity," he said. "I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Mrs. Tesoro countered, “Trumbull needs leadership that is able to create and nurture successful business relationships through the exchange of ideas and open communications.”

The questions began, with each speaker allotted three minutes, followed by a 30-second rebuttal by the first speaker.

Mrs. Tesoro took the first question — how will you “preserve our neighborhoods, while … building our tax base through commercial development?”

"I will keep the public involved in development decisions” to assure that Trumbull’s residential areas are not negatively impacted," she said.

She added that commercial development “should remain at the periphery of our community.” She acknowledged that public input in the new Madison Avenue strip mall eliminated proposed second-floor apartments, and called it “well done.”

Mr. Herbst redid the Plan of Conservation and Development “before we were statutorily required” to find ways to redevelop and repurpose existing commercial zones.

“We need to look at height leniency in corporate parks,” Herbst said.

He cited the state of the art cancer center on Park Avenue by private developers rather than by a hospital, so the project provides tax revenues as an example of what his administration has accomplished. He credited the Madison Avenue and Long Hill Green developments to “a regulatory friendly business environment and a stable tax rate.”

Tesoro rebutted: Why, after six years, is this administration just addressing the height issue?

An education question followed: We are recognized as a “quality education community,” though we invest less than other Fairfield County districts. Should we settle for what we are or strive “to be recognized as one of the best systems in Fairfield County?”

 “I disagree with the premise," Herbst answered. "Independent rankings say we have an outstanding school system. Education budgets have increased each year despite declining enrollment… if we were shortchanging we would not have added 78 positions in the last six years… (including) Intervention Specialists to improve SAT performance."

He added that the performance of our more than 60 academic competition teams is a “testament to the learning going on outside the classroom."

"(We have invested in) improved classroom technology, eliminated portable classrooms, reduced Pay-to-Participate fees, (things that )… were not going under the prior administration despite “very generous investments in education” the first selectman said. "We refocused on things that matters.”

Mrs. Tesoro followed.

"My family moved to Trumbull for our schools," she said. “We have the greatest teachers in the state of Connecticut.

"The Herbst administration has cut Board of Education requests by $8 million," she continued. "Over 80% of our budget funds salaries and benefits. Less than five percent is discretionary… (and) that is where Curriculum Development, Professional Development and Curriculum Writing are funded, (yet where)… cuts have been taken. Curriculum drives the district, and when you don’t have resources… you fall behind. SBAC results from Spring of 2015… are 'alarming'… fifth grade was last in our DRG and SAT scores are still close to the bottom."

The Town Council member said that increased SAT prep classes will not solve the problem.

"We need to address curriculum needs — professional development, more curriculum writing," she added. “Be sure every student can reach their potential.”

Herbst rebutted. She wants to spend smarter — $14 of the $25 million of increased spending (Tesoro cites) has been for education at a time of declining enrollment.

"You can’t fund all these things and reduce taxes," he said.

Following a number of others, the final question was, in light of GE leaving Connecticut, if something like this were to happen in Trumbull, how would you make up for the loss?

Tesoro said you need to build relationships, make sure Trumbull is an attractive community and make sure that the town's school system and infrastructure are strong, that people want to move here. She added there are two ways to control taxes — deal with wasteful spending and continue to work with business leaders to develop relationships.

“What can Trumbull do to retain your business?” she asked rhetorically. "(And) why are we only now seeing changes in zoning two year after the conservation plan was approved? It’s great that it’s an election year because we’re seeing an upsurge in development."

Herbst said he'd continue doing what he has done over his first three terms as the town's leader.

"GE didn’t happen overnight," he said. "They were overtaxed and over regulated. I meet with our legislators to understand the impact of proposed legislation. I hold roundtables with largest taxpayers four times a year to ask 'What can we do for you?' Our Economic Development office brings retailers to developers. That’s why you’re seeing continued commercial development".

For the complete debate, please click on this link:!watch-now/c1hdf.

In the closing arguments, the incumbent told attendees he would continue to do what has worked for six years. The challenger said she would create a more open administration, seek input from the entire community, build more open relationships and spend more wisely.