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Stratford school board members seek end to ‘restrictive’ term limits

A handful of school board members are renewing calls to do away with term limits that prevent residents from serving consecutive four-year stints on the school board.

In a letter to the Town Council, Board Chair Andrea Corcoran, Secretary Amy Wiltsie and member Janice Cupee urged local officials to take another look at town rules that prevent them from running for reelection, arguing the existing policy is too restrictive.

“School districts are complex and have many content areas in which board members must become well-versed – from school, finance to academic programs in assessments, legislation, state mandates, and other legal matters,” the members, whose terms all expire this year, wrote. “The current term limit and staggered terms impede the collective Board from acquiring this knowledge in the depth necessary to operate at its full potential.”

School board members have been barred from serving consecutive terms since voters overwhelmingly approved a town-wide referendum in 1991. In addition to the school board, the change limited members of the Planning Commission, Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals to a single four-year term.

The successful referendum, which was approved 7,450 to 4,208, also restricted Town Council members to just three consecutive two-year terms. Elected officials are only eligible to run again after a break from that same office for at least one term, according to the town code.

Patrice McCarthy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said Stratford is the only locality in the state that she is aware of that limits school board members to non-consecutive terms. She said term limits in general are uncommon for school boards.

McCarthy argued term limits preclude members from achieving long-term district goals, developing a deep understanding of the local budget process and rising to a leadership position. She called the current arrangement unfortunate.

“Term limits can result in a lack of institutional memory,” she said. “When you are only going to be on the board for four years, you don’t have the opportunity to build up as much of that knowledge.”

The request marks the second time in three years school board members have asked the Town Council to tweak the term limit ordinance. In early 2020, the board voted unanimously to send a similar request to the council, but the proposal never went far.

According to Mayor Laura Hoydick, a revision to the town’s code regarding term limits could be approved by the Town Council as part of an ordinance change. Town Council Chairperson Christopher Pia said Tuesday the council will discuss the topic at its next meeting on March 13.

Cupee, who is barred from running for reelection this year, told council members during a meeting last week that the term limits should be loosened to give members the time to build trust among fellow elected officials and to learn the ins and outs of the school system.

“Allowing board members the opportunity to run for reelection will hold board members more accountable for the performance of our students and the district while minimizing unnecessary delays to already difficult decisions,” Cupee, a member of the Democratic Town Committee’s executive board, said.

The proposal already has bipartisan support. Connecticut Republican Party Chairperson Ben Proto, a Stratford resident who serves as a public member of the school board’s finance committee, said the rules have hampered the board’s ability to overcome years-old financial challenges facing the district. He called on town officials to address the issue.

“If (people) don’t want you here, there’s a way to get rid of you,” Proto said. “It’s called an election and you go away. It happens all the time.”

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