Five mayoral candidates including incumbent Bill Finch sans his Democratic primary opponents Joe Ganim and Mary-Jane Foster addressed education issues at a one-hour forum Thursday night at the Cathedral of Praise in the South End hosted by the faith-based group FaithActs for Education. More than 200 people attended in a largely polite church crowd with a few outbursts from candidates and audience.
Finch was the only candidate participant running in the September 16 Democratic primary. The others, Republican Enrique Torres and petitioning candidates David Daniels, Tony Barr and Chris Taylor will appear on the general election ballot in November. Ganim and Foster opted out citing scheduling conflicts. Campaign operatives for Ganim and Foster had concerns that the forum sponsor with members supportive of charter schools was teed up for Finch who backs them. Charter schools receive public funds but operate independently of traditional school districts. The majority audience, however, did not appear to have a dog in the fight. If the audience was pulling for Finch, members did not vocalize it.
Finch’s opening remarks: focused on greater access to pre-k, increased afterschool programs, new school construction, social, physical and emotional development of kids.
Daniels’ opening remarks: product of city schools raised in P.T. Barnum Apartment, stressed he’s on a listening tour of voter opinions.
Taylor’s opening remarks: Says mayor has no strong authority over school board, I work for you you don’t work for me.
Barr’s opening remarks: I listened to the mayor saying all these wonderful things. We don’t need any more parks, we need to fund the school system.
Torres’ opening remarks: Says report from the state places city’s school system dead last. We have failed our children. He claimed 91 percent of students from Bassick and Harding cannot meet the requirements of a graduate. Raising his voice says kids in suburbs perform much better than city students.
The forum rules provided no give and take between the candidates. Each was asked four questions in succession with no rebuttal opportunity. The four questions:
Recently deceased civil rights leader Julian Bond said, “Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving 6 years’ worth of education.” If you are elected mayor of the City of Bridgeport, what will you do to create an education system that ends racial inequity rather than sustaining it?
The City of Bridgeport is home to 45 public schools, 35 of which are run by the Bridgeport school district. Bridgeport students also attend vocational-agricultural schools in Trumbull; charter schools in Stamford; open choice schools in Westport; and magnet schools in Norwalk. More than 2,600 Bridgeport students attend private schools. What schools did your children attend, and what choices do you believe Bridgeport parents should have for their children?
Education is the largest part of the city’s annual budget, yet Bridgeport contributes 40% less per student to its public school system than Hartford or New Haven. Do you believe the city spends enough on education, and if not, will you raise taxes to cover the additional costs?
In a special on Child Hunger in America, CNN recently noted that the United States has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the industrialized world with 1 in 5 children relying on food stamps. In Bridgeport that number nearly doubles: 40% of children here rely on food stamps. As mayor, how would you remove poverty as a barrier to student achievement?
Torres: We have to provide decent living environment for our children. We have too many neighborhoods as terrible places to grow up. Kids have to feel safe and they cannot be hungry. We have to start loving our babies, they have to feel absolute love from us. Let’s love our babies. Torres shared he went to Bullard-Havens and is a trained carpenter. He sent his kids to St. Ann’s School in Black Rock and then private high schools. It makes me crazy that amazing children don’t have those opportunities. Torres says 2016 revaluation of taxable property will shake city to its core. Says city wastes money. We’re putting a park everywhere because contractors are filling their pockets with our money. Contractors building school are filling pockets with our money. Says he will eliminate waste and corruption.
Torres added economic freedom has not been granted to minorities in America. Chains came off but left us poor. Solution to problem is not Bass Pro Shops that will anchor Steel Point redevelopment area of East Side. Our people want to work, no more handouts. We want jobs. If we increase taxes we will put a bullet in the head of our city.
Torres remarks receives applause.
Barr response: Attended Notre Dame of Fairfield. System does not work for the people of color. Urged church leaders to do their job and get involved. Says daughter attended public schools. Barr, an African American, urged voters to stop voting for an Italian or an Irish for mayor. “I am here to wake you up!” he shouted stridently. “Finch has a million. Ganim a half million. I have $37 in my pocket,” he said of his campaign money. It received chuckles from the audience. Why are we building schools? “Our kids are dumbest kids. Bridgeport school system is a joke.” His assertions drew a buzz from the crowd.
Barr added we have to bring change to Bridgeport. We had nine people shot. Barr says Bass Pro is a gun company with a free run.
Taylor responses to questions: He said open up educational opportunities for all kids through school choice. Supports school vouchers. Give parents the power to make their choices about kids education. “I was a bad kid.” Went to Wilton schools and got thrown out. “Went to school of hard knocks.” Said he went to college and graduated two years ago. Taylor says he will lower taxes. Says he wants to follow Mayor Mark Lauretti’s model in Shelton, a reference to the mayor known for keeping taxes down by not investing in schools.
Daniels response to questions: Said as a 25-year police officer he fought racism. I came through the school system. Daniels says what Bridgeport spends on public schools is criminal. Bridgeport taxpayers are the most taxed people in the country. Says there’s a lot of waste in government. On removing poverty he said no child can learn when they are hungry. Shared his experiences as a police officer addressing hunger needs of kids.
Finch responses: Finch focused on diversity. As a dad I’m most concerned about bringing thousands of new jobs available to kids. Proud of water parks, fresh air, sunshine in a wonderful way. Not one fire hydrant was opened this year. Bridgeport getting better every day. Finch said his children attended public schools, but will not make them political football. He added this is about resources through pre-k, getting kids starting early and building new schools with technology in a clean environment. Finch said we have a poor state and a rich state. His comment that the city should fight the state for underfunding city schools drew applause. Says state has an obligation to spend more on city schools.
Finch said a good education is a way out of poverty. We must fight the funding formula in the state legislature. He said the balance of power is in the suburbs. He urged people to vote the top line of his ticket.
At the end of the forum a man stood up and yelled “tell Bill Finch that Joe Ganim is not a member of the Klu Klux Klan,” a reference to a mailer the Finch campaign sent out to voters regarding Ganim doing paralegal work in 2010 for a law firm that represented a man accused of providing weapons to the white supremacist group.
The forum was moderated by Jason Newton of WTNH and Frank Recchia of News 12 Connecticut.
The organization’s Executive Director Jamilah Prince-Stewart had worked at the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, the education reform group focused on closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. ConnCAN has been a high-profile public education advocate pushing policies to further more school choice such as charter schools and classroom accountability. Finch is a proponent of charter schools that receive public money but operate independently of traditional school districts.