Fairfield BOE candidates discuss special ed, ECC

The six candidates for the Board of Education discussed special education Wednesday night.

The six candidates for the Board of Education discussed special education Wednesday night.

Rachel Scharf / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Less than a week before the election, the six candidates for the Board of Education discussed their approaches to special education.

The Special Education PTA (SEPTA) hosted a candidate forum Wednesday night, giving candidates the chance to address a topic close to the hearts of many Fairfield parents.

Six candidates are running for five open board seats. Incumbents Jennifer Maxon Kennelly (D), Christine Vitale (D), Jessica Gerber (D) and Trisha Pytko (R) are running for re-election, along with newcomers Bonnie Rotelli (R) and Suzanne Cox-Testani (R).

All six candidates discussed what special education means to them. Rotelli, Pytko and Vitale spoke about their own families and how SEPTA jumpstarted their involvement in the Board of Education. Pytko and Maxon-Kennelly also discussed their experiences as teachers and how it’s taught them to appreciate the widespread needs of every child.

Many candidates addressed misperceptions of special education as pertaining only to certain students, emphasizing that it is an investment in the entire community.

“The inclusive environment benefits everyone,” Rotelli said, noting that special and general education should become more interconnected.

Special education, many candidates said, is widening its net as people recognize that every child needs something different from school.

“Special education is growing as children’s needs change,” Vitale said, citing evolving social and emotional interventions.

All the candidates recognized that funding is the biggest challenge to special education, as many town boards have trouble getting past its large price tag.

“I’ve become very sensitive to how it is perceived by other town bodies,” Gerber said, explaining how she’s advocated firmly for the widespread needs of special education in her eight years on the board.

The Early Childhood Center (ECC) was the night’s main source of contest. As the center’s enrollment has doubled since 2009, the board is lacking a single facility large enough to house the program.

While the consulting firm Milone and MacBroom is currently evaluating potential options, the ECC will for now remain split between Warde and Stratfield.

Some candidates said they would fight for a single ECC location, a solution that would bring either hefty costs of purchasing a new space or the daunting task of redistricting. Others, meanwhile, said they need to weigh all the factors and carefully consider the fallout from redistricting before making this decision.

Rotelli said a single ECC creates the best environment for early intervention, which she said saves money for the district down the line.

“The best intervention we have is early intervention,” she said.

Testani said that, with a fresh set of eyes, she’d like to look at new facility options that could create a single ECC without redistricting students out of an in-use elementary school.

Vitale countered that it’s not that simple. Many facilities, she said, have been looked at, and the board has not been able to find a suitable or cost-effective option. She said that although she sees the appeal of a single space, the enriching environment of the ECC can be fostered no matter the facility.

“I don’t think it’s [about] the brick and mortar space of where children are educated - it’s the people,” Vitale said.

Candidates were given the chance to chat with SEPTA families individually as they prepare to cast their votes on Tuesday. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.