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Westport Students Quiz School Board Hopefuls

WESTPORT, Conn. – With less than a week until Election Day, Westport students got their chance to pick the brains of the four Board of Education candidates Wednesday night during a forum hosted by the Staples High School Student Assembly.

And the students didn't hold back. During the two-hour event, the candidates fielded questions about open campus, school start time, standardized testing, student involvement on the Board of Education and even the Representative Town Meeting, the town's legislative body.

On the subject of open campus, candidates Mark Mathias, Michael Gordon, Jeannie Smith and Jennifer Tooker were asked where they stand on allowing seniors to leave school during free periods, such as lunch. It was explained that in Wilton, students are allowed to leave but must return on time to their next class or lose the privilege.

Gordon, a Democrat who worked on education policy in President Bill Clinton's administration, spoke in favor of an open campus, recalling his high school days. Despite his personal feelings, he said he would have to thoroughly research the issue before making a decision.

“I feel the responsible thing to do would be to study the pros and cons of the issue if it were to come before the board,” he said.

Smith, a Republican and former teacher, said she believed the topic was worth examining, especially since a neighboring town has an open campus policy.

"For us as parents and members of the community, we do care about your safety while at school, and that's probably why, I assume, [Staples] is a closed campus," she said. "Maybe it could be done on a trial period to see how it works — that's just an idea."

Candidates were also asked whether the high school should start at a later time. Mathias, a Democrat incumbent, said this issue has come to the board several times. But each time it comes up, he said the biggest obstacle is how it would impact after-school activities, as students and parents often say they don't want to change dismissal time.

Also, Mathias said there's a false presumption that because school would start an hour later that students would get an extra hour of sleep.

"I've found that when students know school is starting later, for whatever reason, and you ask them when they got to bed, they say they stayed up later. So they're still getting the same amount of sleep," he said. "I'm not sure everyone would, but if school were to start an hour later, typically what happens is they go to bed an hour later."

As Mathias mentioned, Smith, Tooker and Gordon all expressed concern over how such a change might impact after-school activities.

“You have to look at all sides of this issue,"Tooker said. "How would changing the schedule affect the community, not only with regard to sports and extracurricular activities, but jobs and family commitments?

The Board of Education election will be held on Nov. 8.

Check back with The Daily Westport for a Part Two on this story to read more about what the candidates had to say.

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