Several first-time candidates have entered Wilton’s 2019 municipal races. Following national trends since the 2016 election, Wilton has its fair share of women who have never held public office seeking election for the first time this year. GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with all four candidates for the Board of Education and the one woman running for the Board of Finance for this series. Here, we talk to Democratic candidates Jung Soo Kim, who’s running for the Board of Finance, and Savet Constantine and Ruth DeLuca, who are both running for the Board of Education. (You can read about their Republican counterparts today too.)
Jung Soo Kim, Democratic Candidate for Board of Finance
Why I decided now is the time to run: I’ve been a little more politically engaged since 2016. I was asked if I would run, and it’s not something I’d ever really considered before.
I came to America when I was four, with very little. My parents both had college degrees, but from South Korean universities, so they weren’t recognized. My mom got her master’s in education, she became a teacher. My dad never pursued more degrees because he was always working to support the family. My brother and I both went to the University of Chicago, by the hair of our chinny chin chins, because financially, it was a huge deal.
My father talks about the immigration process and being refugees again. I have relatives who started and sold companies. My grandfather was from North Korea. He sent my uncle, who was between 14 and 16 years old, by himself. He was desperate, and he felt like [his son] would have a better life, even on his own. I have four cousins who went to Cornell, one who does genomic research and cardiology.
So when people are afraid of and denigrate immigrants, I would like to be a face of somebody that I hope the community would feel is a contributing member. What an honor it is to be given this opportunity to serve this town that I really love.
Because of who I am, because I’m a woman, because I’m a mother with kids in the community, because I was a stay-at-home mom, sometimes I feel like there’s a little dismissal of our voice.
To have this opportunity to represent who I am, it is truly an honor. I asked my oldest son, “How would you feel if I did this?” He said, “If you don’t do it, who will?” I was like, “You know what, you’re right.”
Volunteering is important. Public service is important. How excited would I be if one of my children were to run and do these things? If so, why is it too much trouble for me?
What I’ve realized on the campaign trail: I love collecting stories. Particularly for the Board of Finance, there’s a lot of financial background, which absolutely makes sense. For me, I was a restaurant manager for eight years, so I’m comfortable reading P&Ls, all the nitpicky line items, what was my expenditure versus revenue, all that I’m familiar with. But when I think of the role, you should be comfortable with numbers, but the responsibility is to be a representative, because there are more people in this town with concerns than vote.
The number of older people who would like to downsize and stay in Wilton, that to me was a bit of a surprise. Some people have tax concerns, absolutely, but there’s definitely the sense that if they could downsize and live in a property that was not as valuable, they know what the tax implications are. I spoke to a gentleman who’s 90, and he had recently given up his car, [and] Wilton isn’t a particularly walkable town. When my father-in-law’s driving fell away, the only reason he was able to stay in town was because we were with him.
For younger families, I spoke to a woman today, she and her husband are renting a house in North Wilton. They’d love to start a family. They both work in the city, and if transportation to New York were more convenient, they’d buy a house here. She’s aware that there are other towns with more direct transport to the city.
I’ve realized the responsibility that comes with representing residents: During my last year as a grad student at Fairfield University, I was a graduate student Senator. I ran because graduate students were the only group on campus that didn’t have free access to the beautiful new health center. They had to pay–everybody else on campus got it for free–all the undergrads, all the professors, lecturers, non-tenured professors–except us.
Then when I got on I found out that [the university] had taken away health insurance from domestic grad students. I started talking to other students. There was a nursing student, a little older, she was a breast cancer survivor, she was single. She was getting her health insurance through work. It was either that or Medicaid, so if the school could offer health insurance, she could go full-time, But it wasn’t an option. I spoke to another graduate student–he had two young children with a third on the way, and he had moved to Fairfield and chosen it partly because they had health insurance. After he had relocated and enrolled in the program, after his first year, they took it away.
When I met with the university administration to find out what the costs were, there were no real costs, except for the administration of the program. I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” It’s just really unfortunate, and I knew that Fairfield University was trying to expand its graduate student population. I met with multiple deans, and the provost, and the Dean of the School of Engineering. I made a case, I said, “Look, this is something that does not affect a huge number of grad students, but it does make a difference, and it is a reason that people choose Fairfield.”
I wasn’t able to get it back for the current school year, but they did re-implement the program last fall, and it was really satisfying to know that I had a positive impact, that there’d be students who’d benefit. If you can, put forth the effort to try to make the world a little better.
The skills I’d bring to the Board of Finance: I’m comfortable with numbers and looking over financial statements. But that said, as a restaurant manager, I became really good at just talking to people and being able to elicit real comments. I am good at listening. I am good at helping people who might not otherwise choose to engage, tell me something real. Sharing people’s stories, eliciting real comments, and something that I’ve always been good at is, just adding a different voice. Having a voice that is different, that has different expectations, is important.
When I look at some of the political conversations that are being written about, on a national level, and people will make comments like “How come there are no women in this conversation?” Because if we’re not volunteering, then I don’t know if we have a right to say, why don’t you drag some poor woman, who doesn’t want to do this, into the conversation to say that you have a woman in the conversation?
So, when the nominating committee contacted me, they said, “You’d be the only woman, if you were elected.” And I thought about what that meant. And then they said, “If you were elected, you would be the only member on the Board of Finance that currently has children in the school system.” Those are all compelling arguments and I think to have a different voice is important. I think it enriches conversation. All the research is that it results in better decision making.
So, I’m volunteering my voice. And hopefully I’ll do a good job representing us.
Savet Constantine, Democratic Candidate for Board of Education
Why I decided now is the time to run: Now that I’ve had two kids go through the whole system, and from all the last five years as PTA president, and all the previous positions before, I feel I know the district as a whole. I’ve seen currently what kids are going through in terms of what standards start from high school in terms of the college stress. In terms of issues they do find in high school.
Starting from college stress and working their way down. Because they have to have these activities; they have to do well in school. There’s so much pressure on these kids and so much more than we ever had that we can’t even dream. Because as parents, a lot of this is new to us. I’m still close enough, especially with the last five years as PTA president. The Middlebrook PTA president, Cider Mill, Miller Driscoll and the new SEPTA president–we hear what’s going on in the schools and you see how this all connects together, Having this big picture puts me in a unique position.
The need to improve communication from the BOE: Communication has always been our weakest link. Way back when we spent hours every week or biweekly putting together the paper newsletter in Miller Driscoll and Cider Mill and Middlebrook; by the time we got to Middlebrook that’s when we started switching to digital. It’s a bumpy start. Particularly now we just as consumers are so oriented towards push notifications, the information is there; it’s how do we push that information and make sure that parents realize that it’s there, please click.
But then again there would probably be 50 of them a week. So there’s a balance of pushing the information and asking parents to be diligent about reading their emails and we all get busy. People are spanning multiple schools and multiple children and juggling activities after school and then on top of that, your own family life. It’s a full schedule, but that’s something we can work on. We need to work on.
The biggest priority for the BOE? Budget, budget, budget: Listen, the biggest work of the Board of Education is the budget that gets put in front of them. It’s 60 to 80% of the town budget and what we do with our school is affects a talent by shaping checkups real, our property taxes, which affects our real estate values. As a board member, we need to ensure our schools engage children, make sure that the each and every child can reach their full potential and also as board members, we need to keep our district strong so we can continue to attract new families here.
We also have to be fiscally responsible to our town and I would hope as a board member we can work more collaboratively with the Board of Finance in order to get on the same page because our town supports our schools at almost $83 million. It’s a lot of money. Are we the highest in our DRG [District Reference Group]? No. We’re second lowest actually this year, but we still support our schools. Sometimes the back and forth over the last couple of years is giving a negative view. The publicity we got are all about cuts and cuts and if out of town buyers are reading, listening, they might be like, ‘Well I don’t want to go there. They keep on cutting the school budget and we’re moving for good schools.’ And that’s not the case. It’s about time we reframe the discussion to be more proactive, more productive, and show how much we are supporting our schools.
As a board member that goes into delving into the budget, asking questions and make sure we’re funding programming that directly supports our children’s education. I believe Superintendent Kevin Smith has done an excellent job since he first came in. His initial reaction, the first time we spoke with him was, ‘Wow, $76 million, that’s a lot of money. Let’s see how we can spend it better.’
That’s been the focus over the last three five years now. And our budget has gone up 1.2% over the last six years, and we still have a really good school system, but education evolves and contracts have to be met. We need board members who can really look at that budget–$83 million is a lot of money. Obviously teaching is a labor intensive job. 80% of that budget is teacher salary, and there’s not much room to move on. However, our enrollment is changing. Just in the last five years, each school has dropped from 70-100 – one of them was like 150–so with numbers like that, it does give you more flexibility to really analyze where the teaching staff is.
The only other thing would be really looking at that whole child approach, which has been the district’s approach over the last couple of years, particularly on the new, long-range planning committee. It’s really looking at the skills kids need moving forward. It’s not just the three R’s anymore, but how kids need to be prepared for a world that’s constantly changing and they need the skillset and the knowledge to be proactive and go with the flow.
What separates me from the other candidates–why someone should fill in the oval next to my name: I’d say my longstanding, proven track record of working with people, of addressing their issues, of always looking to find solutions when people do have issues and addressing their needs, the needs of students, administrators, teachers, parents and even community members. Because as a community you want the schools to stay strong because that’s the underlying part of your housing values.
At Columbia, I got my masters in international affairs with a specialty in marketing. Before that I was Asian studies in economics and history at Carleton college. When I first went to a PTA meeting at Miller-Driscoll and the PTA council VP of budget first started giving their addresses, that’s how I got involved. It was like January 2005–we’re almost 15 years! I’ve always been interested in the more serious topics–budget, policy, educational issues, and it really started from there. I worked on that for a few years to really understand how the school budget affects what can be done in school.
Iit’s all about making sure our policies and our budget are fulfilling the needs of the children in our town. And these needs are changing. Back when our kids were in Miller-Driscoll, I never would’ve thought of vaping as an issue. I never would’ve thought of drugs as an issue. I never would have thought of college stress as an issue. I never would’ve thought of smart phones and digital social interconnectedness that these kids never get a break from. There’s been a huge learning curve for everyone in the last 10 years as smart phones have taken over our kids’ lives and our lives too, and how susceptible they might be. And then they bring these issues back to the school.
We’re going to have to continue to address issues that affect our children. Because at the end of the day, we want our kids to stand on their own two feet. And our schools are doing a good job. We want our kids to be upstanding adults, who can meet this world and face challenges and be productive citizens.
Education isn’t just about academics. It’s about the academics, and then it’s the social, emotional, mental, physical wellbeing of our students. When we were growing up, it just seemed to be about academics and playing on the playground. That was it. It’s not just about teaching the kids knowledge because knowledge is, if you don’t know something, you can Google it. But you do need the skills to realize: are you Googling real information? It’s the skill set of how to research something, how to ask the questions, how to put things together and come up with your own connection system, how you’re going to arrive to that conclusion. That’s the focus of school these days, and it will be evolving too.
Our kids have a huge challenge in front of us and we’re here to make sure that we equip them with the best tools we can.
Ruth DeLuca, Democratic Candidate for Board of Education
Why I decided to run for the Board of Education: We moved here in 2016. There are two things. One was my involvement in testifying in Hartford against the regionalization proposals. The other is my professional background. Those two issues, combined, to really say the work of the board is work that I have experience doing, that I can do, and I am motivated to do for my town and my children.
My professional background that I’d bring to the BOE: I have a law degree and a policy masters. I worked in Washington, DC for years doing regulatory policy and legal analysis. I’ve written policy, I’ve evaluated policy, written legislation and regulation, commented on them, and really have studied over the years the connection between policy and outcomes.
My professional background was in healthcare and FDA regulatory policy, science policy. In private practice, I also did a lot of helping people navigate the insurance environment in relation to their healthcare status.
The board’s mandate is to set policy and policy is a tool that enables the administration and the faculty to then implement a broad vision. There is a way to then look at and say, is our vision too broad? Is our mandate too overreaching? Or is it not broad enough? Do we need to give more for creativity, looking at those connections, and making sure that the board and the administration has the proper tools to look behind the testing scores and the data, and connect those measures with budget and policy. It’s something that I believe I bring to the table in a way that might be different from some of the other candidates.
The areas that are important for the BOE to focus on: What’s facing the board in the immediate is ensuring that our program continues to improve and grow in a fiscally responsible manner. And making sure that we are getting the return on our investment, whether that be in curricular changes, policy changes, making creative decisions even in terms of the new high school schedule. How are our decisions then trickling down, and are they having the effects that we want?
On standardized testing: Standardized testing serves an important purpose. Testing within itself is a good and positive thing, if the test itself is testing what we want our children to know. That it also gives us a measure of growth, development, and achievement. It is only one piece of the puzzle when we’re looking at how are we educating each child. There is standardized testing results, there’s actual classroom performance, there’s social and emotional wellbeing, and all those pieces combine together to say, are we really educating the whole child?
I think that each parent knows their child best. It’s the board’s job, and the administration’s job, to try to educate and help parents understand the value of the testing and that the testing itself is not the end of a conversation, but it’s a part of a conversation about is a child meeting their educational goals and achieving to their fullest potential.
Areas where the district needs to work on: We’ve started the work of looking at our math program over the next couple of years. I think it will be important to do a deep dive into those changes and see if we are achieving the results that we set out for. I think that we are also need to make sure that our math and science curriculum is advancing in a manner that is truly preparing our children for the world that we are currently living in.
The wellbeing of our children also needs to be constantly monitored and addressed. The influence of technology and social media in their life is ever present and ever increasing and at younger ages. I think that it’s important as a community to, within the school itself, set some type of boundaries and education around that.
We need to really look at how the technology in the classroom, working in tandem with the curriculum and the educational outcomes that we’d like to achieve. Technology for technology’s sake is not always the appropriate or best tool or response to an educational need. I think that we need to make sure that the technology that we’re using in schools is complimentary and not replacing other valuable and meaningful educational opportunities and interactions.
A focus on finance and budget: I have a degree in economics. I consider myself the CEO of my household. I do believe that it all circles back to, where is the money being spent and how are we spending it? And really looking into each line item and asking some of the harder questions. I’m not necessarily meaning, how much we spend on an individual piece of paper or a pencil.
Education is a labor intensive proposition. It’s about 80% of our budget. Teachers deserve to be paid their worth. We also need to look to make sure that we are staffing appropriately and that we are being creative in the way that we use the tremendous talent that we have.
Why voters should choose me to represent them: I’m really passionate and really motivated. We chose Wilton to raise our children here and educate our children here. Good schools don’t stay good schools because they once were good schools. It’s up to all of us to work towards that educational goal. I have a set of skills that I think would be helpful and meaningful to this particular work that the board does. My children are now giving me some time and this is how I would like to use my time.