Aging facilities a key issue for Lyme-Old Lyme school board candidates

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Oct. 23—OLD LYME — The town candidates running for four open seats on the Regional District 18 Board of Education on the November ballot bring to the table a diverse array of professional experience that they say is crucial as the district addresses — and communicates to the public — the need for comprehensive upgrades to several schools.

Three members whose terms are up will not be running for reelection, including Democratic Chairwoman Diane Linderman. Democrat Martha Shoemaker is running to retain her seat on the school board while also making a bid for first selectman at the same time.

Other candidates are: Mona Colwell and Laura Dean-Frazier, who are unaffiliated and endorsed by Republicans; Democrats Marisa Calvi-Rogers, Jason Kemp and Alexander Lowry; and Republicans Michael Presti and Christopher Staab. The board has nine seats, and four of the Old Lyme candidates will be elected.

Anna James, a Democrat from Lyme, is that town's only candidate and will be elected to the board.

The candidates cited improvements to the aging Center School, Mile Creek School, Lyme Consolidated School and the middle school as the biggest issue facing the district. Farmington-based QA+M Architecture this summer began a study that will identify needs and provide design concepts for evaluation by the school board.

The eight candidates work in fields ranging from education to law to manufacturing to social services. For all but one, this will be the first time they see their names on an election ballot.

The lone incumbent, Shoemaker, 62, is a retired teacher currently employed as a purchasing agent at the Old Lyme-based FiberQA engineering firm. A resident for 25 years, she is married with three children.

She credited 12 years as the union president while teaching in Waterford for honing negotiation and mediation skills that are useful on the school board.

She said knowledge gleaned from four years on the school board will be especially valuable going into the large-scale facilities project if she is elected alongside three newcomers on the Old Lyme ballot and one newcomer on the Lyme ballot.

Shoemaker said she made her decision to run for both first selectman and school board after consulting two attorneys.

"If I were elected to both positions, I would do both," she said. "If it became too much to handle then I would drop off the BOE and a special election would be held."

Colwell said she's been a substitute teacher in the district for seven years and recently got her private insurance license. She has a bachelor's degree in finance and strategic management and five years of experience working on Wall Street as a financial analyst for what was then Salomon Brothers.

Colwell, 52, is married with three children. Her youngest attends Lyme-Old Lyme High School. She was a member and past president of the Lyme-Old Lyme Soccer Club.

She emphasized communication is going to be key to winning public support for costly facilities upgrades. She said other infrastructure projects in the town and school district, such as the installation of a turf field at the high school and a boathouse at Haines Park, did not involve the public enough.

An advocate for medical freedom, she testified last month at a hearing before the state General Assembly's Conservative Caucus on her concerns about COVID-19 vaccination mandates at the University of Connecticut. She told the assembled lawmakers she holds all of them "in contempt of our Constitution" because they did nothing to prevent the mandate amid "continuous, disgusting greed over this puffed up crisis."

Colwell said she has been vocal about school issues since she arrived in Old Lyme seven and a half years ago. She cited what she sees as biased curriculum as well as reading lists that delve into subject matter like suicide, rape, teen sex and disrespect for law enforcement.

Lowry, 49, is married with children in grades one and three in the school system. A teacher at Independent Day School in Middlefield, he has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Oregon, teaching certificates in California and Connecticut, and a master's degree in education from the University of Connecticut.

He said the school board's role in planning for the facilities upgrades involves working with the architects and district facilities director to identify the "must-haves," "would-like-to-haves" and "maybe-that-can-waits" and analyzing the financial implications. Then it's about explaining the decision in a way that makes sense to taxpayers.

Lowry described a widespread "misunderstanding of the role and power" of the school board. He said the true function is to set policy, make sure finances are tight and see that the superintendent is doing his or her job.

Referencing a national trend that the Associated Press has reported is turning some school boards into a political battleground over issues like mask mandates and the teaching of racial history, sexuality and social-emotional learning, he said the school board "is not the forum" for those kind of conversations. He emphasized he was not singling anyone out.

Dean-Frazier, 57, is married with three children who went through the Region 18 school system. A graduate of Lyme-Old Lyme High School herself, Dean-Frazier has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Central Connecticut State University.

Dean-Frazier is an assistant social services coordinator in Old Saybrook and Clinton. She worked previously as a manager for Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries. She said a key strength is her approachability and her ability to make people comfortable that she "is going to listen and follow up."

The Old Lyme native said it was important to return to Old Lyme to raise her family after a brief stint in Cape Cod.

"There's four generations of my family that have lived in town and gone to school here. It is really a big part of my heart and soul," she said.

Kemp is married with one child and two stepchildren in the school system ranging in ages from 7 to 17. He has a law degree from Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and works for the state Judicial Branch as a family relations counselor.

He described himself as skilled at balancing the needs of those in the school system with the wider community of taxpayers in order to get public support for the facilities upgrades.

He cited experience working with parents going through divorce and custody disputes as something that translates well into the role of the school board.

"I think that experience will lend itself to trying to balance all these competing interests and trying to carry that process through," he said.

Presti, 47, retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2019 and is currently a social studies teacher at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) in New London. He's a former guidance counselor and leadership instructor at the Coast Guard Academy.

He said his Coast Guard career, during which he was stationed at sites from Connecticut to Alaska, included day-to-day meetings and large-scale disaster response operations.

"I was always in some new place, talking to people, being representative of the Coast Guard or the government," he said. "I always try to represent our interests with positivity, professionalism and always with efficiency. I try not to waste people's time and I try to use the resources given to us by the community in the most equitable way."

Calvi-Rogers, 61, is a retired high school teacher and principal who has worked in Southington and Bristol. She is married with three grown children. A permanent resident in Old Lyme since 2019, she said wants to get more involved in an area that can benefit from her expertise.

She said implementing a strategic plan for the district, which will be discussed at a community forum Oct. 27, is about more than setting a vision for the future. It's also about monitoring progress and collecting data to "truly know you've achieved."

She described her 20-plus years of experience in education as an asset: "I know it's not required, but I think it's critical to help really understand the student issues, administrative issues, teacher issues and be able to support them and keep them moving forward and keep them getting better.

Staab, senior director of global quality for the medical device manufacturing company CooperSurgical, said having a wealth of experience will help guide decisions on buildings and budgets that will be facing the school board over the coming years.

Staab, 39, is married with two children at Mile Creek School. He has a bachelor's degree in biology from Roger Williams University and a master's degree in business administration from Capella University. He's been a member of the Harbor Management Commission for a year and a half.

He said managing 12 different sites worldwide has given him experience in facilities management, personnel management and adhering to governmental regulations. He emphasized the importance of including members on the school board with a wide range of backgrounds.

"We all have different experiences throughout life and through our careers, and those different experiences pooled together help us make the best decisions possible," he said.

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