Q&A: Fairfield BOE Chairman John Mitola
Published 8:28 pm, Thursday, December 9, 2010
John Mitola, a father of two and lawyer for the city of Bridgeport, got his first real taste of working for Fairfield's schoolchildren when he served on the building committees for Burr and McKinley elementary schools. He has not looked back since.
Mitola sat down recently with the Fairfield Citizen to discuss his goals for his term as chairman and the issues facing the board.
Q: The Board of Education elected you chairman on Nov. 23. What, in your opinion, is the role of the chairman?
A: I believe that the chairman needs to be a leader in setting the tone for the way the board operates and to help reach consensus on issues in a thoughtful and transparent manner. A chairman needs to be able to run a well-organized meeting pursuant to our bylaws and Robert's Rules focusing our time on issues that matter most. The chairman needs to reach out to all members, hear their viewpoints, and when we differ try to facilitate to reach consensus so we can do our work and move on. Additionally the chairman, as well as all board members, need to listen to the public, the administration and elected town officials' views on issues and take them into consideration when deciding how to vote on issues. As everyone well knows, the board deals with and addresses significant issues, and with nine members we often have differing viewpoints. However, a chairman can only do so much in the area of consensus building, and if board members with differing viewpoints do not choose to attempt compromise and try to reach consensus, then that, in my opinion, is unfortunate. I believe we should be able to do that on most issues because that is in the best interests of the district. However, on those occasions where there are legitimate different viewpoints and consensus cannot be reached, which will happen on occasion, we all must agree to disagree, respect each other's viewpoints and leave those disagreements at the board table.
I also believe the role of the chairman, with the help of fellow board members and the administration, is to reach out to other elected officials in town, the various PTAs and citizens groups to inform those entities on what is happening in the district and explain why having a strong school district is vital for the well-being of Fairfield.
I also think it is important to strike an appropriate balance between our oversight role of the administration and allowing them, as professionals and educators to do their job and help improve academic achievement for all students. Simply put, the chairman does not run the school system, and I think people forget that at times. We pay Dr. Title a good sum of money to do that and my authority as chairman is well defined in state statutes and our bylaws. We have professional educators running the system and we need to respect that. That does not mean we do not ask the tough questions to understand what is going on. Also, that's not to say that if a parent has a legitimate issue or a problem with what is happening in the schools, that we, as board members, ignore that problem. We should address it if it is under our authority as board members. Additionally, if the issue concerns a situation involving a parent and/or child with respect to what may or may not be happening in a particular school or the day-to-day operations of the district, the appropriate thing to do is direct the parent to the proper person in the school system who can look into and address the problem. But ultimately Dr. Title is in charge of the district, and our job is to hold him accountable. If things are not going well, the board must deal with him.
Q: What are your goals as chairman?
A: One goal as chairman is trying to get the board to work in a cohesive, amicable manner to address the issues facing our district, something that has been lacking over the last year, in my opinion. We need to discuss these issues openly and respect each other's viewpoints. If we cannot do that, it will be very unfortunate. I believe if you come to our meetings over the next year, you will really see me attempting to do that.
Also, another goal, along with the entire board, is the need to carefully scrutinize the upcoming budget to make sure it is a responsible budget that continues to support and advance our district's excellent academic achievement and that we are being good stewards of our tax dollars. Once the board has passed the budget, we need to advocate for its passage in front of the other town bodies. All board members need to advocate for our approved budget, and as chairman, I will lead that effort and also seek out parental groups to support budget passage. It is going to be a very difficult budget year. I am looking forward to the results of our audit, which we should have in December to see what things, if any, we can do better to save the district and town money.
A third goal is achieving clarity with respect to our facilities and what, over the next five years, are going to be our facility priorities. The facilities subcommittee has been working on that over the last several months and should have some recommendations for the entire board soon. Two areas will direct the board on facilities: school projections and population over the next several years; and the physical needs of our buildings due to age. In December, we will be getting projection numbers from a new demographer hired by the district which will guide us. Thereafter, it is my hope that the board will prioritize the district's facility needs and then all of us will have to advocate to the other town bodies for the funding on these priorities. Many of our facilities have real needs, not "wants." We have done a lot over the last 10-plus years in the area of upgrading and renovating our facilities and I am forever grateful to the taxpayers and the town bodies that have supported our schools. But more work needs to be done. I am certainly aware that we may only have a limited pool of funds to work with over the next five years and we will have to prioritize. So it is my hope that the board passes a facility plan that will address the next five years; that it is presented to town officials so everyone is on the same page, and that we work to get that plan funded.
Finally, my goal as chairman is to ensure we are providing appropriate direction to and support for Dr. Title to help him succeed and develop a vision for the district in the coming years. People need to remind themselves that he has only been here for six months and he is still learning a lot about the district. We hired him because we wanted a leader who would define a clear vision for the district and be a leader in achieving the goals of that vision. So I look forward to him defining that vision in the upcoming months. Once we as a district develop a more clearly defined vision and action plan for what we want to achieve and how to go about doing that, we will continue to see a growth in academic achievement that will benefit students and the entire town.
Q: What are some of the challenges facing the board this upcoming year?
A: The biggest challenges this year will be the budget and achieving the necessary improvements to our facilities. Obviously, these are difficult economic times and it will be a challenge to clearly make the case that we need the necessary funding for these areas. We all understand that.
Q: You succeeded Sue Brand as chairman. What was her greatest strength and what is yours? In what way or ways might you operate differently than she did?
A: Sue works very hard on behalf of the students and parents. She has dedicated a great deal of time to her board work.
I believe that my greatest strength is that I try to be a good listener and open minded when deciding how to vote on an issue. I also get along with people, take a common-sense approach on issues and I respect my fellow board members and the public, and I think they, in turn, respect me. I am frank and to the point and I think people appreciate that.
With respect to how I will operate, I will try to be respectful to my fellow board members, keep an open mind and when possible will try to seek board consensus on issues all for the better of the district. I will also give the administration the appropriate room they need to run and operate the school system and not needlessly interfere with the day-to-day operations of the district.
Q: You first joined the Board of Education in 2005. You've voted up or down on hundreds of agenda items. What approval gave you the most satisfaction, and why, and what item, above all others, do you wish had been approved that failed to get board support?
A: For most of my tenure I have been consumed, not by choice, with facility issues because there has been such a need. With that said, I would say the Stratfield renovation and addressing the space issues at Sherman and Osborn Hill have given me the most satisfaction to date. With respect to Sherman and Osborn, I felt we were creative and fiscally responsible with respect to the space added to those schools in the form of the steel pods, which I believe have helped both schools. We still have more work to do at Sherman, which is being addressed as well as with some other schools.
The one item that has not been approved is changing the high school schedule to increase instructional time. It took some time to study and formulate a new schedule and when that was finally done a year or so ago, the district did not have the funds to implement it. That was disappointing. So, I would like to review that again and I am hoping Dr. Title can give us some ideas how to increase classroom instruction.
Q: What is the board's greatest strength?
A: I would say our diversity. We have a group of really smart people on the board with diverse backgrounds. We have members with business backgrounds, attorneys, human resource backgrounds and a former teacher. We also have members with many years of experience on the board and newer members. This diversity adds value to the board. All of them bring something valuable to the table.
Q: Can you tell the public why you initially sought a seat on the Board of Education and do you still have the same passion five years later?
A: I grew up and Fairfield and am a product of our public school system. It may sound corny, but I want to give something back to this town. I became involved in school issues when I was on the Elementary School Building Committee for Burr and McKinley Schools and it just developed from there. A six-year term is a long time and I admit there have been many challenges, but the passion is still there. I am really looking forward to this next year.