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Westport Education Candidates Answer to Students

WESTPORT, Conn. – In a forum hosted by the Staples High School Student Assembly, Westport's four Board of Education candidates answered questions about issues the town's high school students care most about.

During the two-hour event Wednesday night, students asked candidates Mark Mathias, Michael Gordon, Jeannie Smith and Jennifer Tooker about balancing budgets, sex education, student involvement on the Board of Education, and the Representative Town Meeting, among other topics .

Regarding student involvement on the Board of Education, the candidates were asked how they felt about including a student representative on the board as a non-voting member.

Smith, a Republican, welcomed the idea, saying it's something to be considered. Other districts have non-voting students on their boards, she said.

"I think we all want to hear the voice of the students we serve," she said. "I think it would be very interesting to have an internal student be part of our meetings."

Tooker, Smith's running mate, agreed. She said although there are "some good communication channels in place at the moment," there's always room for improvement.

Gordon and Mathias, both Democrats, supported the idea of students playing a more active role, in general, in Board of Education discussions. Gordon said he would first like to see students attend more meetings and be "engaged on the issues."

Mathias, an incumbent, echoed Gordon's sentiments, and reminded students they already have the ability to provide input.

"Everyone who comes to our meetings has time at the" microphone, he said. "We have PTA representatives who sit in the audience and participate in the discussion, but they can't vote. I encourage anyone, whether student representatives or individuals, to show up and participate in our discussions."

Although it was a Board of Education forum, students brought up the Representative Town Meeting, the town's legislative body. They asked how the board could create a more collaborative and cordial relationship with the RTM, especially those members who "believe the town spends too much on education."

Tooker said she believes greater transparency will help build stronger relationships with the RTM.

"I think we have to be incredibly proactive and be seen as incredibly proactive," she said. "We have to be warriors in making sure we're looking under every rock. If we do that diligence, I think it earns a lot of respect at the town level."

For Mathias, the solution lies in showing the RTM what the town is getting in return for its investment in the schools. This, he said, can be achieved with the help of students.

"From time to time, we should have representatives from the Student Assembly request time on the RTM agenda to talk about the great things that are happening in the school," he said. "I think the more they see how their dollars are being used and what's being derived from that, we'll have more people understand what we're allocating funds for."

On the issue of sex education, the candidates were asked how they felt about furthering the sex education/health curriculum and providing free condoms at school.

Smith said she, as a parent and teacher, believes that discussion must start at home. "I think the school district is trying to meet all your needs, but realizes some areas of your life are personal, and should be something you share with someone close to you."

Gordon said he believes any curriculum, including sex education, should be reviewed regularly and updated if necessary. Although he agreed sex education should start at home, Gordon said research shows it doesn't always happen.

"Both home and school have an important place on the subject," Gordon said. "We need to be realistic and relevant to the times and with our own community."

Editor's Note: This story is Part Two of two on the forum. The first part was published Thursday.

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