Author: Don Obrien

North Stonington Board of Education, Board of Finance candidates seek to address major needs in coming term | North Stonington

NORTH STONINGTON — There will be a mix of familiar faces and new names on the town’s Board of Education in the coming term as incumbents Christine Wagner, a Republican, and Democrat Jamie Towle-Weicksel will be joined by newcomers Stanley “Chet” Stefanowicz and Lisa Mazzella on a board that will be turning an eye toward the future. Democrat Jennifer Welborn will also return, running unopposed to fill a two-year vacancy.

On the Board of Finance, a Democratic incumbent and Republican newcomer will each receive full terms alongside a Republican filling a four-year vacancy. Each party will also have an alternate seated following Tuesday’s election.

With only three contested races on the ballot this year, candidates for both the Board of Education and Board of Finance will all receive terms following the upcoming Connecticut local elections, but that hasn’t prevented candidates from campaigning to hear from voters and begin determining what the townspeople would like to see moving forward.

For the Board of Education, in particular, that will involve moving on from facility renovations that were completed in the past couple years to finding a viable, qualified long-term replacement to fill the shoes of Superintendent Peter L. Nero, who has announced he will retire at the end of the school year in June.

“The top priority in the coming term will be to find a candidate who will be able to come in, provide long-term stability and build on the successes that the district has had,” said Wagner, 52, who served as chairwoman of the Board of Education during the previous term.

Board of Education

A 15-year resident of the town, Wagner and her husband Jason moved to the community for the schools and small town setting. A State Farm insurance agent with her own business in New London, she said she has been honored to be able to be a member of the board as it has worked to position the district for long-term success.

In addition to seeking the right fit at superintendent, Wagner said the upcoming term will also include efforts to make sure any gaps in education as a result of the pandemic are addressed and to assure that no student has fallen through the cracks. The district’s staff has done an excellent job, she said, but both the students and staff will need a board that continues to work together and puts aside partisan politics to provide the highest quality education it can for town children.

Towle-Weicksel echoed Wagner’s goals, saying that board members will need to search for a superintendent who will be able to grab the torch and carry it forward in order to take an already good school district to the next level.

“We are going to need someone who is energetic, excited to be here and ready to work collaboratively with our dedicated staff to help the district continue to rise,” she said.

The mother of a second-grade student, Violet, with her husband Steven, Towle-Weicksel operates a research laboratory as a biochemist specializing in melanoma research. She became involved in the school community when her daughter joined the district, and she was part of a group of parents who raised $120,000 last year for replacement of aging, dangerous playground equipment at North Stonington Elementary School.

She said she enjoyed the experience and wanted to do more, which led her to run. In her returning role, she said she will remain focused on making sure policies and practices are equitable for all students and that they have the tools necessary to thrive.

Newcomers Stefanowicz and Mazzella, meanwhile, each come to the board with their own experience in education. An 18-year public schools teacher who works in Preston, Stefanowicz has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies and a master’s degree from Sacred Heart University in education. He spent several years as a child protective worker in Iowa prior to shifting to a career as a teacher.

Mazzella, 56, is a 28-year resident in North Stonington with vast experience working with the district’s PTOs including serving two years as a PTO president. She has also served for seven years as as a troop leader for the Girl Scouts of America, is a co-founder of the Informed Citizens of North Stonington, or ICONS, is co-editor of North Stonington Quarterly and has served on the Board of Assessment Appeals.

Both said this week that they have always felt a special connection to the school community and, after finding themselves with the time to do so, wanted to step up and serve in a larger capacity as an elected official. Both also cited the hiring of a new superintendent as a top and immediate goal while expressing a desire to bring their own talents to other needs within the district.

A “student of communication,” Stefanowicz said he feels his knowledge of the education process and ability to think analytically will allow him to hit the ground running, and said while the town maintains impressive test scores and rankings, there are always areas that can be improved upon. He noted that he believes communication is one of the areas where the district can improve.

“Right now, we have a problem getting participation and we need to look at why,” he said. “With the pandemic and Zoom meetings, there should have been 200 parents some nights checking in or watching back and we’ve had not even a fraction of that. In a small town, we need to figure out what is keeping parents out of the process and address that more directly.”

Meanwhile, Mazzella said she also sees communications as an area of need and would like to see more work done to enhance interpersonal communication for students. She said she would like to see programs shift so that students still receive technological training, but are spending more time interacting face-to-face and less time with their faces glued to a device.

“It is important, as studies have shown through the pandemic to have our students involved in appropriate social interaction is a crucial part of childhood development,” she said.

In seeking the seat to fill a two-year vacancy, Welborn will continue to serve in a role she has over the past term. She said she had already served part-time after being elected to fill a four-year term herself and wanted to give Stefanowicz and Mazzella a chance to seek full first terms rather than forcing them into an abbreviated two-year position.

That won’t stop the trained chemist and Navy veteran, who attained a rank of lieutenant, from continuing to be dedicated to her work. She said she plans to take her perspective as a former teacher and use it to try and provide staff and students with the resources they need to succeed, no matter where life may take them after Wheeler High School. She said she would also like to continue to look at scheduling and other factors, including start times, in an effort to help improve student learning.

“There is a lot of work still to be done, and I look forward to working with the other members of the board to do what is best for our children,” she said.

Board of Finance

Democratic incumbent Sarah Nelson, who served the previous term as alternate to the Board of Finance, will square off on the ballot against Republican challenger Gary Annino, a longtime volunteer who ventured into elected politics for the first time in 2021. Although voters will select one, both will serve on the board.

At 56 years old, Annino said his father always taught him the importance of giving back to the community you call home. His father and brother have each served as first selectmen where he grew up, and Annino has been active in North Stonington, including volunteering for 10 years on the Wheeler Library Board of Directors, including serving as president.

Annino, who lives in town with his wife, Stephanie, and their son, Chris, said he would work to delve deep into line items, work to provide greater transparency and seek to find a balance to help identify and meet the town’s financial needs while keeping an eye on impact to taxpayers. He said that, given challenges presented by the pandemic and result of a recent revaluation, it would be important for whoever is elected to not be afraid to ask questions and provide answers for the public, as well as set limits to assure that taxpayers are not overburdened.

Nelson, 41, has a bachelor’s degree in general studies with a minor in anthropology from the University of Connecticut and is an IT program manager specializing in mergers and acquisitions with Pfizer.

With no competition on the ballot, Republican Carl R. Johnston Jr. will be elected to fill a 4-year vacancy on the Board of Finance. Johnston, 63, is the owner of CRJ Home Improvement LLC and works as a general contractor.

The ballot will also include two candidates to serve as alternates to the Board of Finance, Republican Amy Friend and Democrat Winona Berdine.

Friend, 42, a wife and mother of two, first moved to North Stonington about five years ago and said she has always had an interest in politics and volunteering as a public servant in the community. She has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Rhode Island and Master’s of Science degree in education from the University of New Haven.

During the pandemic, Friend said she found more time to follow town politics and became involved after seeing officials spending money that voters had not approved.

She said government spending has also focused too much on growth, and she would seek to find balance between proper growth in the community through organizations and businesses with ties to agriculture, allowing the community to expand its grand list without compromising the rural, small-town setting that so many residents love.

“I feel strongly that the town of North Stonington should not be making deals or financial decisions without input from the public,” Friend said. “People in the community should have more say, and some of these decisions being made need to be brought before the public for voters to decide. That will remain a priority for me.”

Messages left with Nelson, Johnston and Berdine were not returned.

Other races

In North Stonington, there are a number of races for other offices in town, although most remain uncontested this year.

In the contested races, Democratic incumbent Mustapha Ratib will square off against Republican Shawn Murphy for town treasurer and Democrat Anthony Mazzella and Republicans Wayne M. Wilkinson and Priscilla Lewis are each seeking one of the two open seats on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

As a result of the uncontested races, Republican Lisa Mazzella will serve on the Board of Assessment Appeals; Republican Emily Lewis will serve as alternate to the Economic Development Commission; Republicans Robert Mazzella and Robert Kappes will be elected as alternates to the Planning and Zoning Commission; Mark S. Perkins Jr. will serve on the Zoning Board of Appeals; and Republicans Amy Friend, Daniel Smith and William Mason will each serve as alternates to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Democrat Christopher J. Friday and Republicans Salvatore E. Cherenzia IV and Stefan Grufstedt will compete on the ballot for seats on the Economic Development Commission, but all three will also serve.

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