FAIRFIELD — The campaign season kicked into gear Wednesday night with the first debate between candidates for the Board of Education.

The event, co-sponsored by the Fairfield Education Association and Fairfield PTA Council, featured the six candidates running for five open spots on the Board of Education.

Four incumbent members are seeking re-election: Chair Christine Vitale (D), Secretary Jessica Gerber (D), Jennifer Maxon Kennelly (D) and Trisha Pytko (R). Phil Dwyer (D) is not seeking re-election.

Two new candidates have thrown their hats into the ring: Suzanne Cox-Testani (R) and Bonnie Rotelli (R).

After brief introductions, the moderator posed both prepared and audience-generated questions, each of which the candidates were given two minutes to answer.

Candidates were in agreement about many of the topics discussed, such as capital improvement initiatives. When asked about facilities, all candidates concurred that necessary renovations must remain a priority for the Board.

The candidates were less unanimous on more controversial topics, such as the town’s racial imbalance issues. For years, the Board has grappled with the imbalanced minority population at McKinley Elementary School, which violates state requirements for each school’s minority population to mirror the comparable proportion for the district. The possibility of redistricting as a solution has long been a source of contention.

Incumbents Maxon Kennelly, Pytko and Vitale all said they are committed to looking at the issue further and open to discussing options, especially once recommendations come back from consultants enlisted by the Board.

Vitale noted that she is not opposed to redistricting if it addresses multiple issues at once, including facility utilization concerns.

“I think this community has been talking about racial imbalance for a very long time, and I think the time has come where we need to address it so we can move on,” Vitale said. “If redistricting is the best option, then I’m open to it.”

Testani, Rotelli and Gerber expressed more reluctance towards redistricting, saying the district should touch base with the state on the necessity of rebalancing.

Testani and Rotelli both said redistricting would harm students and families who want to remain in their neighborhood schools, and that the “antiquated” state law should be contested.

“This is something we need to lobby the state for,” Testani said.

Candidates also took differing positions on the complex budgeting process and how the Board should consider the political factors at play when seeking approvals from town boards.

While all the candidates agreed that fostering excellent education must remain a priority, how the Board should handle politics was less clear.

Maxon Kennelly was most assertive in her opinion that it is the Board’s responsibility to champion the fiscal needs of the schools, despite oppositions to spending.

“Once the Superintendent brings the budget forward, it is certainly up to the Board … ultimately to advocate for it,” she said.

Maxon Kennelly called out Testani for, she said, not answering the question directly, asking Testani to clarify her priorities when it comes to budgeting.

“I believe that good, open lines of communication, assertiveness with the boards and fighting for the children of the town of Fairfield is essential,” replied Testani in her rebuttal.

All six candidates ultimately expressed their desires to serve the district on the Board of Education and work towards addressing the town’s needs.

The election will take place on Nov. 5. The Fairfield Citizen’s profiles of all six Board of Education candidates are available online now.

rscharf@hearstmediact.com