Goin' to the Candidates' Debate

As tempted as I was to sing Simon & Garfunkel lyrics all the way, Wednesday’s Norwich PTSA event was not a debate in the traditional sense. “Meet the Candidates” was, however, every bit as entertaining.

Last year, coming off a string of high school play-related columns, I approached “Meet the Candidates” as a theatrical review. I thought myself pretty clever in that tack, until I realized that’s really the only way you can write about it.

The Kennedy-Nixon TV debates probably made the performance aspect of these things most obvious, but it remains true today: these “Meet the Candidates” forums are less about what they say than how they say it.

That said, there were some excellent performances at Wednesday night’s event, some poor ones, and some downright bizarre ones.

I have to give the biggest failing grade to the audience – not those who were there of course, but those who weren’t. With the myriad complex and important issues facing our schools in this time of crisis, I find it appalling – and disturbing – that only about 30 people showed up at Gibson’s auditorium the other night. Sure, 6 p.m. on an unusually gorgeous evening is a tough card to draw, but still the turnout was pathetic given what’s at stake. Kudos to the people who did bother to show up, and even more to those who did so armed with intelligent questions (even if a good share of the audience were school district employees, they are still, I would imagine, taxpayers and voters).

On to the candidates themselves, in the order they appeared on stage:

• Erica Barrows. I had no prior knowledge of or dealings with Barrows before she surfaced as a potential school board member, and I applaud her for stepping up to the plate. As someone who went through the school system with special needs, she would certainly understand and advocate for that population well. She has that “outsider” perspective going for her which is always attractive. However, I have to say that her ongoing banter – on and off stage – with her friend/companion/caregiver (OK, I don’t know who he was) was decidedly ... uncomfortable.

• Priscilla Johnson. Being a long-term incumbent is a difficult row to hoe for any candidate, especially when people are hungry for change. Johnson acquitted herself admirably (she clearly possesses both school board and teacher-related knowledge) until questioned by the public, at which point I thought she showed a quickness to anger and frustration. Now I see firsthand why she’s been involved in some of the board’s past dysfunction.

• Tom Morrone. He’s just getting started on the board, having served out a year of a vacated term. I’d certainly like to see what he can do for this organization now that he’s got that freshman year under his belt. Of all the candidates, I think Morrone is the one most likely to tell you like it is. And also, I suspect, the most likely to actually bleed Purple.

• Joe McBride. Our esteemed District Attorney, in my estimation, must be a glutton for punishment in wanting a spot on the school board in addition to his daytime job, but I’m thrilled that he’s thrown his hat into the ring. Reading off his script for the prepared questions didn’t serve him well – McBride really shines when speaking extemporaneously (he handled the question of whether holding both offices is a legal conflict of interest – it’s not – with aplomb). He’d clearly be the board’s best orator, consensus-builder and decisive thinker.

• Bob Patterson. Another veteran of the board (and past president), Patterson took a powder for a year after a defeat in last year’s election and is now looking to get back in the game. Of the whole slate, I’d say Patterson’s “job knowledge” is probably the most expansive and useful. That said, the voters did choose to throw the baby out with the bath water last year, so maybe it’s time for new voices.

My votes (you get to choose two here) next Tuesday are going to Morrone and McBride. It’s my humbled professional opinion that they’re the two who will serve the public best in this vitally important role. I know them both personally, and am assured they approach this service without agenda and with only the best interests of the Tornado populace at heart.

There’s my two cents; do with it what you will. All I ask, implore even, is that you, the residents of the Norwich City School District, exercise your right to vote next Tuesday.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunjeff.

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