Questions For The New CEA President

We are in immediate need for dynamic leadership in public education in Connecticut. Public education is under attack. Visionary leaders who recognize that vibrant public schools are an absolute necessity for the functioning of a democracy are essential.

Those currently in power in our state are about to change. We will have a new governor, a new commissioner of education, and a new president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. As the candidates present themselves, I will ask them the same twelve questions. I will then report their answers as a way to raise consciousness about the issues facing us as a state as well as to provide readers with detailed information for making their own choices.

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Robert Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Robert Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education  Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT. I will post two of the questions and the candidates’ answers each day this week.

Jeff Leake

  1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

I offer these quotes:
Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader…they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role-Always about the goal.
The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.


       2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Resources necessary for addressing the real educational, emotional and social needs of all our students are not available in too many districts, so problem #1 is funding. We need to fix CT’s tax and funding system and provide the necessary resources for our students, with a special emphasis on our least resourced communities;

b. We need to ensure that we are preparing the next generation of teachers for the changing needs of our students and the communities in which they live, and further ensure that the profession is attractive to those wishing to become educators;

c. End the growing privatization of our public schools;

d. Expand opportunities to develop and empower teacher leaders.


Robert Smoler

       1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

Transformative leadership comes from a willingness to embrace change. Change starts from gaining an awareness of your environment and the needs of your constituents, the ability to plan strategically, the ability to communicate that plan effectively, and the ability to bring people together to turn the plan into a reality. Those are my skill sets. It’s what I do. I was successful doing that at Oxford Health Plans where we took a start-up company and built it into a market leader with 7,000 employees and 2 million customers. Along the way, we improved the lives of countless people. I was successful doing that with Westport Baseball and Softball where I created one of the best town youth baseball programs in the state. That program turned a bad Staples baseball team into a perennial powerhouse that has won 3 league and one state championship in 12 years.   We’ve also helped dozens of young men to get into great schools due to their baseball skills. I’m doing it right now in Fairfield where we’ve helped to elect an education friendly Board of Education, Board of Selectmen and RTM; built coalitions of administrators and parents all working toward a common goal of creating a great education experience for students: and got teachers a seat at the table when discussing important issues affecting teachers and students.  Fairfield teachers feel proud to be part of the association and half of our 1,000 teachers have done something to advance our mission.

          2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Problem 1: The decrease in State funding for local public schools, especially inner city schools, coupled with the siphoning off of public funds for the benefit of unaccountable for-profit charter schools.

Solution: The narrative that funding for public schools is somehow just a line item in the budget to be cut is extremely short sighted. Exceptional public schools are critical to the growth of CT as a state, essential to maintaining and growing each town’s grand list and essential to the future of our youth. Currently, Connecticut’s education system is in the top 10 in not only results, but also as a state that is favorable for teachers to work in (This is despite our major achievement gap). These facts represent an asset for the state to build on. I intend to convince all state officials and the public that investing in education is the primary way for the state to thrive fiscally, socially and from an opportunistic standpoint as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The public relations component of this is just half the battle, though. It is harder to convince people to change their minds than to reinforce current thoughts. That is why the CEA needs to make sure that we elect at the local and state level public officials that already understand and appreciate how critical our public education system is to the future of CT.b

b. Problem 2: Outside parties are defining our profession. They have established how teachers are to be evaluated (the CT teacher evaluation system), what we will teach (common core), who can teach (Relay and elimination of CEUs) and how we will measure success (standardized testing). I fundamentally disagree with each of these approaches as I believe they denigrate the teaching profession and represent a lack of understanding of what is involved in growing a child into an independent adult capable of contributing to society.

Solution: The CEA must establish the CEA Academy whose mission is to establish best practice in teaching and child development.   The work of the Academy must be research based, data driven and take into consideration the skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century.   We also need to create many types of alliances (PTA would be one example). One key alliance should be with education and leadership departments in our state’s public and private colleges/universities. Public schools and our pubic and private colleges and universities represent the continuum of education that is responsible of developing/educating the vast majority of US citizens. We need to be aligned in our approach to this development.

c. Problem 3: We are looking at a serious teacher shortage all across the country and CT is no different. CT will never be able to maintain a high- quality education system without establishing the teaching profession as a desirable field for talented individuals to enter. Attacks on public school teachers; declining wages, benefits and working conditions; declining job security, i.e. attacks on tenure; and a lack of resources and support are all turning talented people off from teaching.

Solution: First, collective bargaining and interest arbitration must be maintained. That is the only way that reasonable wages, benefits and working conditions can be maintained. We must elect state officials that are committed to this process.

Second, I would be in favor of requiring all school districts to participate in the CT Partnership 2.0 health insurance program.   Insurance has long been based on the law of large numbers. The more people covered under a single plan, the less costly the plan will be, because the risk will be spread over a larger number of individuals.   I would also encourage the state to make a retiree version of the CT Partnership 2.0 plan available as the primary program for retirees. This will provide continuity of coverage for individuals as they enter retirement. This retiree program could either be a Medicare Advantage program or a supplement to Medicare. Ideally our state or country would adopt a universal healthcare program, but until that happens, the above will have to do.

Third, CT should encourage high school students to study education in college through financial incentives.   Scholarships to CT State Schools should be available to those students, especially minority students, who are willing to commit to the education field for at least 4 years. Students who enter college on this basis should be able to graduate in 4 years with a masters in education and full certification so they can begin their teaching career right after graduation.

Lastly, the state retirement system needs to be maintained and updated. More and more teachers are retiring before age 65, often with less than 25 years of service. Many teachers in their early and mid-term ages are as concerned about having amounts of adequate life, disability and health insurance as they are with their retirement. They also have worries about putting their kids through college. Those closer to retirement are concerned about paying for very expensive health insurance after retirement if they are under age 65 as well as long-term care needs. I think the CEA needs to take a comprehensive look at the profile of a teacher at all phases of their career and perhaps suggest a program that not only includes post-retirement income replacement but also the financial needs of a teacher throughout their whole teaching career. Attracting and retaining teachers requires a comprehensive approach and it can’t all be about what you get when you retire.


One thought on “Questions For The New CEA President

  1. I am very impressed with Bob Smoler’s comprehensive, original and well thought-out responses. He goes way beyond trite, repetetive responses.


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