Earlier this fall, Wilton Board of Education Chair Deborah Low announced she would be moving out of Wilton and as a result needed to step down from her chairmanship and the board.
“It is with mixed feelings, mostly regret, that I announce my husband and I are making plans to move,” she told the BOE in September. She said they had tried to find a house in Wilton after putting their current residence up for sale, but with low inventory in the real estate market, they were unable to stay in town and instead would be moving to Weston.
Low, who has been on the BOE since 2017, added she would be resigning “with deep regret.” At the time she said she’d keep the board apprised of the move timeline.
At the BOE meeting on Thursday, Nov. 3, Low read a letter that made the timeline specific, announcing her resignation would be effective Friday, Nov. 11.
Superintendent Kevin Smith recalled the start of his professional association with Low began 10 years ago when, as superintendent of the Ridgefield Public Schools, she called him to offer her support shortly after Bethel hired him for his first post as a superintendent.
“In those 10 years, and in those last several years when you’ve been here on the board, in addition to being a great colleague and a great friend, you’ve been a tremendous mentor,” Smith said.
He thanked Low for being steadfast in her mission and keeping the BOE focused on what was the priority. “One of the things you’ve done for me and for us on this board is make sure we keep children and teachers at the very center of our work. We all know it, we share it, and you have kept us on track. You leave a great legacy, and we will miss you.”
Low sent her letter to GOOD Morning Wilton to share with readers (below, at the end of the article).
How to Fill the Board Vacancy
The board members discussed the next steps in filling the vacancy left by Low’s departure.
Low explained the process as outlined by the BOE bylaws. “The Board has the ability and the role of appointing someone to fill in the vacancy until the following town election.” If that appointment doesn’t happen within 30 days of the vacancy, under the Town Charter the responsibility falls to the Board of Selectmen to do so. (The BOE bylaws state that if the position remains unfilled after 30 days, an “elector of the Town” will fill the position.)
BOE Vice Chair Ruth DeLuca had prepared a memo suggesting former BOE member Laura Schwemm step in as an interim to fill the open seat — something Schwemm had done once before when a five-month vacancy opened up in June 2021.
Schwemm was a two-term elected BOE member who served from 2011-19. She was appointed BOE secretary from 2013-17 and its vice-chair from 2017-19.
Low was first elected in November of 2017 and re-elected to another four-year term in 2021. Whoever is selected to replace her will serve through November 2023, when the town will vote to fill the remaining two years of the term.
Any replacement has a potential political implication. When Schwemm was asked to fill a vacancy in 2021, Low as chair at the time said she thought Schwemm was ideal as “someone with recent Board of Education experience who is both willing to assist for this short period and who will not be running for BOE election in 2021.”
The current makeup of the board includes two Republicans — Jennifer Lalor and Mandi Schmauch, both of whom are up for re-election in 2023; and four Democrats — Low, DeLuca, Pamela Ely and Nicola Davies. DeLuca also will be up for reelection in 2023 after completing her first four-year term.
In past situations where a vacancy needs to be filled on a Wilton town board, replacements have often been chosen from the same political party as the individual who stepped down from the seat.
Schwemm was elected to the BOE on the Democratic ticket each time she ran.
Until recently, the Board of Education has been one of the least politicized boards in Wilton, with all six members almost always voting unanimously on most issues and rarely, if ever, bringing in political issues to board matters. In the last couple of years, however, national issues with political overtones have become part of the board’s conversation, including topics of COVID protocols and mandatory mask-wearing in schools, diversity policies, and parental involvement and oversight of curriculum.
Schmauch suggested opening the discussion to consider other people who might be interested in stepping up as well.
“Just as you would with any opening. I think Laura did a great job when there were only two months but this is a full year, and it might be great to hear from members of the public who might be interested in joining the board,” Schmauch said.
She felt that the position might be a better fit for someone with children currently enrolled as students in the district. “It might be great not just to assume a role but to find people who are really involved and looking to become even more involved.”
With a budget season already on the board’s doorstep — one that town officials have already predicted will be complicated — DeLuca suggested having someone familiar with the budget-setting process, and for whom the learning curve would not be so steep.
“There’s something to be said for having someone fill the spot who is an experienced board member who can move into the position seamlessly, who understands the budget process, and who, to be perfectly frank, doesn’t have a political motive,” DeLuca said.
She added that with four parents of current students already serving on the board (including Jennifer Lalor and Nicola Davies as well as Schmauch and herself), having children in the district didn’t have to be a prerequisite.
“All of our community members are invested in the schools. I’m not so sure that that particular quality makes for a better choice,” DeLuca said.
Lalor said she “didn’t see a downside” to opening the pool of candidates. “You can always also consider Laura. It just opens the door to have some different ideas and for us as a board to have some different ideas.”
Schmauch added she wasn’t thinking of any of her friends or considering politics in any way and said she “didn’t realize we had gotten to the point of asking people already.”
DeLuca responded that she hadn’t asked Schwemm, but “wouldn’t have suggested Laura if I knew that she wouldn’t be available and just considering how well she served this town as an elected member and a stand-in last time around.”
With no specific process of choosing a fill-in member outlined in the BOE bylaws, the members wondered how best to proceed within the 30-day time limit. Ely cautioned that it could be “dicey” and that the procedure and roles for selecting someone should be specific.
Open communication to the public was a topic of the 2019 election campaign, Schmauch said, when she, DeLuca and Lalor all ran. “It was important to be communicative, and hear what you have to say, and there’s an opening and we’re going to fill it without any discussion opening it up to the community feels a little odd to me,” she said.
The BOE members considered the idea of choosing a candidate from letters sent in to the BOE by interested residents, something the Board of Finance did when it appointed Sandy Arkell to fill a vacancy in 2020. Arkell went on to run and win her own elected term on the BOF in 2021.
Schmauch volunteered to review what the BOF did in 2020 and report back. The next public meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17.
The Board of Selectmen has also filled vacancies but adopted a policy in 2016 outlining how it will do so: “Interested residents are encouraged to submit their name for consideration. Those affiliated with a [political] party are required to contact their party for nomination. Unaffiliated residents are required to submit a nominating petition.” Such was the case most recently in 2018 when Michael Kaelin resigned.
Prior to 2016, the BOS typically turned to whichever party the departing member belonged to and asked for that party — the Democratic Town Committee or the Republican Town Committee — to submit a candidate for the BOS to consider.
Deborah Low Letter
To the Wilton community,
I am resigning from the Wilton Board of Education because I will be moving to Weston. Before I leave, I want to thank the Wilton community. It has been a great honor to serve on the Wilton Board of Education since 2017. It followed after a career as an educator that I loved and being on the Board allowed me to experience another perspective in public education. I will always be grateful.
My Board experience reinforced why the Wilton Public Schools are so special. First, Wilton is a stable school district. Since 1987, 35 years ago, there have only been three superintendents. Each superintendent was different, but each was excellent and each matched, and continues to match, the demands of the times. Long-lasting, talented leadership enables consistency, provides security and develops trust among the staff and the community. Stable leadership promotes a shared community vision for the schools, and district goals and direction are clear.
I also believe the faculty of the Wilton Public Schools are among the best in the world. Wilton is a district where professionals want to work. The number of applicants we receive for open positions demonstrates that and the rigor of our hiring practices brings only the best on board. Many, many teachers come and stay, as evidenced by the seniority of our staff. Our teachers are dedicated, enthusiastic, skilled in their fields, and put students first.
Outstanding principals and assistant principals inspire staff members, bring them together into a coherent unit, and lead in problem-solving and communication to ensure learning is the focus at each school. Our extraordinary curriculum, instruction, technology, and media experts ensure teachers and students are part of 21st-century classrooms with eyes on the future. Counselors, social workers, and school psychologists provide students with the social-emotional support we now know is so crucial.
We also have the best staff to handle our infrastructure. You can’t find a more dedicated custodial and maintenance staff anywhere. Our office staff and student support staff are always ready to go the extra distance to help with any task and their warmth towards students, parents, and staff adds to our positive school climate.
Our students come to school ready and eager to learn. They bring a wide array of unique and individual talents that know no bounds. They develop strong bonds and friendships and demonstrate amazing school spirit and pride.
Wilton families understand the importance of education and actively partner with the schools around the needs of their children. In addition, they volunteer countless hours to augment programs in all sorts of supportive and creative ways. The larger Wilton community takes pride in our schools and provides the resources to support excellence.
As a Board member, I have been in many meetings with Board members from across the state. No matter what the topic of discussion, I always come away realizing how blessed we are in Wilton.
This is not to say we are perfect. We make mistakes, we have strong differences of opinion and approaches, and we sometimes struggle for the level of resources we need. Sometimes things change too quickly; other times, not fast enough. But having had the advantage of a 35-year relationship with the Wilton schools serving in different roles, I know the long-term picture I describe is accurate. Wilton is thoughtful and deliberative and consistently provides an exceptional educational environment for students.
I have been privileged to be part of a great Board of Education. We have done our best to focus on students and their learning. As a Board, we worked successfully through some tough challenges, especially recently, which would not have been possible without Board team-work.
I will miss serving on the Board and I wish the Wilton school community the best moving forward. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.