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 Republican candidates Jennifer Lalor and Mandi Schmauch, who are both running for the Board of Education. (You can read about their Democratic counterparts today too.)
Jennifer Lalor, Republican Candidate for Board of Education
Why I decided to run: Two reasons why. Obviously I have a huge background in education. I’ve been a speech pathologist for 20 years and in tune to a lot of what goes on in the schools. My kids are now almost into Middlebrook and high school so it’s giving me more time to look into things that are really important to me.
I’m not a super political person, [my husband] Bill likes to call me ‘civic minded.’ I did a lot of research and looking into it, really this is not a political kind of position. I really try to function apolitically which is why I was okay, and said, ‘I’m in.’
I’ve heard a lot from the special education side and the general education side a lot of concerns in terms of communication, with what the community hears about. Communication is always a key component. I feel like I tackle that a lot, just being a speech supervisor with TheraCare [which provides speech, occupational, and physical therapies; social workers and behavior specialists to children in the birth-to-three population]. It’s constantly what I always tell people–just communicate, just tell people what you’re doing.
A lot of decisions have been happening that we find out after the fact. And it’s important to me just to get everybody’s voice heard and get the information out.
Most of us are here because of the schools. We came here because of the schools–we really had no other reason. We have no family here and didn’t need to be here for work. We really came up here because we wanted a great environment for our children in a happy place to be and I would love to see that continue. As homeowners and taxpayers, we have an additional vested interest in keeping our schools on a track that they’re on and making sure that they’re still great for kids to go to.
A BOE area that needs attention and focus: Number one would be communication, making things easier and more accessible to families and making sure that people’s voices are heard, or at least have the opportunity to share. Our town is full of incredibly bright people who have really great ideas but maybe don’t have the time to be on a board–but it doesn’t mean they don’t have the information, insight and ideas.
My number two would be making sure we’re focusing on every student. I want to make sure that we keep the supports in place for the kids who need them. And I also want to make sure that we’re looking at, in challenging our “meets expectation” kids. Making sure that we challenge all of our kids and always striving for excellence for all of them. I think we’ve gotten too comfortable with having our children meet expectations. I would like there to be more of a push to have our kids exceed expectations.
On comparing Wilton to New Canaan, Westport, Ridgefield, and other communities–whether it’s per pupil spending, test scores, curriculum: Wilton is Wilton, it’s hard to compare us to other towns even though we’re part of the DRG [District Reference Group] and we are compared to them. People talk about test scores and test scores are an area of concern for everyone and will continue to be a focus for the new BOE as well.
On better cooperation between Board of Finance and Board of Education: There’s a lot of divide in town in terms of why are we spending so much in the schools and our taxpayers don’t want to pay for that. At the same time, we want people to come to our town, and our schools are our number one draw to Wilton. And then families want to be able to sell their house. So on some level we have to put money into our schools. That’s something we’re all going to have to look at–but trying to make sure we’re doing that in the best way possible, and whether we need to find creative solutions to do that or we need to make sure we’re managing our money the best way possible. That’s when the Board of Education of Board of Finance are really going to have to work together. Everybody needs to understand their role–can you help me figure out how to make that happen and try to keep everybody happy at the same time.
The way I’ll approach the budget process: My understanding is 80% of the budget is fixed, so you’re really only looking at 20% then that you have a little bit of flexibility with. So my job will have to really be understanding what’s within that 20% and what can be changed and how it can be changed and trying to be the most effective with what we do have.
What sets me apart from the other candidates: I have a background in education. I’ve been a speech pathologist for 20 years, I have experience in special education. I bring a unique perspective to the board. We all have kids in the system now where in the past that hasn’t always been the case. So really it’s my background.
The other thing is, most people who know me know that I don’t take on something if I don’t plan to give it my all. If I take on the role, I will be there 100%, 110%. It’s not something that I would take lightly. I spend an awful lot of time on things that I commit to and I feel like I’m in a place now professionally and as a parent that I can do that.
Mandi Schmauch, Republican Candidate for Board of Education
Why I deduced to run: It really goes back to the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, and ever since understanding what it takes to get things through a municipality and what it takes to work with taxpayers’ money and the collaboration needed, it really intrigued me.
It really resonated that day that the architect came in and said, “There’s been a mistake with the window sizes of the framing of the windows, but no one will ever notice and it’s not a big deal,” and he was prepared to move on. I said, “Can we go back to that–are you admitting that this is a mistake?” He’s like, “Yes, but I promise you no one will ever notice because the existing frames are, let’s call them two inches and the new frames are three inches. No one’s ever going to notice.”
If that was my house, I wouldn’t just say, “Oh, it was a mistake and let’s move on.” But because of the perception of, it’s such a big project and no one’s owning this money, let’s just move on, that’s what really stuck with me. I actually got into it with the architect and I said, “Who’s going to be held responsible for this?” He said, “It wasn’t me, it was this.” So at the next meeting I held him accountable and he came and he said that he would give us a credit. I think it was between him and the builder and the manufacturer, whoever it was, but we got a credit. Because we could not give that credit back to the town, we had to use it because of the scope of the business.
We decided to put that credit back into a playground and I suggested, why don’t we use that for a second playground at Miller-Driscoll. The Miller-Driscoll playground is for the whole community, it’s not just for Miller-Driscoll. We got a second playground of that. I just keep thinking, had I not said anything, it would’ve been a mistake, let’s move on, not a big deal. So that really is what inspired me.
I have very close relationships with so many administrators because of what I do at the schools and people have said multiple times, “Why don’t you run for the Board of Ed? You have such good ideas. You’re a friendly person. You’re a smart person. Why don’t you run for the Board of Ed?” And that planted the seed.
The professional skills and background I’ll bring to the Board of Education: I am a manager of people for a multimillion dollar territory, so I manage people, I lead people, I collaborate with a team. I think about how to run the business the most effective way and the most efficient way. Really it’s just my people skills. The biggest thing is knowing how to work with people in a cross-functional, cross-collaborative team.
On familiarity of working with budget numbers: That’s something I’m looking forward to, collaborating with the Board of Finance to get a better understanding of that. I just see that as an opportunity. But I am also employed by a multinational multi-billion dollar company and am responsible for developing and monitoring performance against company set budgets. So I feel very comfortable operating efficiently within set budgets.
My take on standardized testing–and if parents consider opting out their children: I think it’s a state mandate, and I don’t think that the Board of Ed of Wilton has much ability to change some of these state mandates. I talked to [State Rep.] Gail Lavielle about this and it’s really interesting. There are things that I would love to change, but then a lot of them are state mandates, so you don’t have much flexibility.
It’s a matter of communication and individualized. It all goes back to communication for me, that’s one of the platforms I’m running on is for the teachers to understand where the parents are coming from. For parents to understand the teachers, why are we doing the standardized testing? How is it helping my child individually? Again, it goes back to communication. I think it changes for every child. If your child’s having a major anxiety about standardized testing, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with the teacher.
For me, the biggest issue facing the Board of Education is…: Communication, to really bridge between the community and the board. That it’s not just the board making all these decisions, it should be backed by the community. One idea that I had was having a scholarship for a high school student to create an app to increase the communication so that it’s pushed to the community instead of [telling people to] go to the website, find the information you’re looking for, keep clicking, keep clicking.
My children have thrived in Wilton schools and I put that all on the teachers, in a good sense. The reasons my children have done so well in Wilton schools is a direct correlation between the awesome teachers that they’ve had and I really just want that to continue. We had a meeting with Superintendent Kevin Smith and I asked him what are his concerns, and one was how hard it is to find really good math and science teachers. That’s something I’m really involved and interested in is increasing STEM education. So when Kevin Smith says that, it definitely made me alert and think about looking into that further.
Using technology in the classroom: One of my favorite quotes is, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.” (John Dewey) That’s something I’m really interested in, is continuing to look where technology is going, where education advances are going, what successful schools are doing. But I definitely think as the world is changing, education has to continue to evolve.
On the conflict over education spending in Wilton between families with young children and seniors: I am really fortunate because my mom and her friend, Paul Hannah, live in town. So I look at Paul and I work a lot with the Kiwanis Club and I talk to the guys in Kiwanis about this a lot, and I really think it comes down to communication. Because they hear of things that are changing and they don’t understand the why. I’m fortunate to be able to have people I love who are seniors in this town who are continuing to see their taxes go up as my taxes are going up, and so this isn’t about the parents. This is about the community understanding the evolution of the schools. The only way to do that is to increase the communication. The seniors have every right to be involved just as much in the discussion as the parents do.
They have National Read Day inviting the seniors into see Miller-Driscoll, inviting the seniors in to see Cider Mill. Increasing the communication and the involvement so that the seniors can understand where their taxpayers [sic] are going and the amazing things that our schools are doing.
I’m a huge fan of our schools and one of the reasons I’m running is because I’m such a fan of our schools. I just want people to understand how awesome our schools are. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Is it easy? No, but I’m willing to put the time in and the dedication and the commitment to bridging that gap.