Refusing to “pander” to an audience of schoolkids at a mayoral candidates’ debate, Matt Nemerson called for lengthening the school day, raising the bar to qualify for Promise scholarships, and holding back kids until they’re ready to compete with China. He found himself getting into not one debate, but two.
Nemerson (pictured above with student Mahogany Mathis) was one of three candidates—and one candidate’s surrogate—to show up Wednesday afternoon for a debate at the Metropolitan Business Academy on Water Street. He was joined by East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker and former city economic development chief Henry Fernandez, who all are seeking the Democratic nomination to replace 10-term retiring incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. Four other candidates seeking the nomination didn’t make it. One of them, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, sent his campaign manager on his behalf.
Candidates fielded questions from members of the city-wide student council before a crowd of about 60 people in Metro’s high-tech auditorium.
Nemerson, a former Chamber of Commerce president, emerged early with a theme he has been employing at past debates, framing himself as the guy with business sense who won’t just say what the audience wants to hear.
The question at hand: What’s the first thing you’d do as mayor?
Elicker named early childhood education as one of three areas he’d focus on. By the time a kid is in 3rd grade, his academic ability is a predictor of whether he’ll be headed to prison, Elicker noted. “That’s a crime.” He said he’d focus on expanding social and emotional supports for kids in schools, including teaching anger management and conflict resolution skills.
Chris Campbell (at right in photo with Fernandez), Holder-Winfield’s campaign manager, apologized that his candidate could not attend the event; he said Holder-Winfield was wrapped up in an important meeting at the Capitol. He said he wouldn’t take a stance on Holder-Winfield’s behalf.
Fernandez said the first thing he would do is to “come back here and have a conversation with you” about how to improve the city. He called for a better training program to “make sure we have the absolute best principals in the schools.” He called for changing the school’s complicated system of grading schools, which he said you need a PhD to understand. Instead of the three “tiers” the school system uses, each school should get a simple A-F report card, he said, so that parents and students could be “aggressive advocates” for their education.
Nemerson began bluntly.
“I’m not going to pander to you,” he said. He said unlike Fernandez, “You’re not going to be the first people I talk to” once in the mayor’s seat. He said the first group he would talk to would be businessmen who are “willing to choose New Haven” to bring in new jobs and start companies.
“I’m not pandering,” Fernandez later replied. He said as the co-founder of the youth agency LEAP, “I get tremendous energy from young people” and would sit down with them “every week” during his mayoralty.
Nemerson (pictured) returned to his tough-talk approach when a student from Sound School asked what the city should do for kids who get Bs and Cs.
He called for a longer school day and a longer school year, eliciting some groans and laughter from the crowd.
“I told you I wasn’t going to pander to you,” he said.
He said the city should extend the school day “from kindergarten on up” so that kids who are not at grade level can catch up. “We should make sure these buildings are open at night.”
He denounced a recent move by New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program, to lower the bar for kids trying to score college scholarships. Promise recently opened up 20 scholarships to kids with a GPA between 2.5 and 2.9, instead of the requisite 3.0.
“It’s wrong” to “knock down Promise standards,” Nemerson said. “We need to have higher standards.”
He called for an end to social promotion, where kids are passed through school without showing mastery of skills.
“If we’re not giving you the education you need, we need to keep you here,” he said. When kids go out into the world, he said, they will be competing with kids who are “trying desperately to get out of their tiny town in China.”
The answer, he said, is not to raise the minimum wage, or lower the bar in city schools, but to give kids a solid education so they can go out and make $30 per hour at a high-skilled job.
The suggestion—the $30-per-hour part—earned a rare round of applause from the audience.
The other candidates shied away from stressing “standards” and brought up non-academic supports. Elicker (pictured) called for more character education, emotional supports and early childhood ed. Campbell touted Holder-Winfield’s work on involving parents in governing schools and in a K-3 reading program. Fernandez called for an investment in the type of activities not measured by tests—the arts, band, and student council. Those activities help kids stay engaged in school, he argued.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the debate ended. But not for Nemerson.
Metropolitan students Mahogany Mathis and Christine Puglisi (pictured) engaged him in a second round.
Christine, a junior, objected to Nemerson’s call for an end to social promotion.
“My concern,” she told him, “is that won’t people at our school feel disenfranchised?”
Nemerson replied that the answer is not to “dumb down the school system,” but to “bring up the standards.” “The instant we say a B-minus is good enough, we’re dead.” Those kids will never land jobs in emerging fields at companies like Google, he said.
“Google isn’t the goal for all kids,” Christine replied.
Nemerson said while not all kids will be destined for Google, they could still write computer code for a local company.
“I think we’re letting teachers off the hook. We’re letting Garth off the hook,” he said, referring to Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who attended the debate. He called for empowering teachers to rewrite curricula to align with modern day jobs.
Mahogany, a senior headed to Howard University next year, listened politely. She later called his remarks out of line with her experience in city schools. Kids in city schools are far behind grade level, she noted. She said it’s not because they’re not trying.
“I’m a B student,” she said. “I work hard and I’m not at the top of my class. I did what I could to get out of the environment I’m in,” she said. Kids at Metro already stay after school for clubs and activities, but they shouldn’t be “punished” with a longer academic day, she argued.
“Some kids aren’t going to go to college,” she added. Schools should prepare them for careers, not start holding them back if they don’t get As.
Nemerson’s remarks met more support from junior Jordan Bryant, who hung around to ask if candidates would “follow through on all the promises” they made. Jordan lives in Hamden, and doesn’t qualify for Promise. She said she stands with Nemerson against lowering the threshold to get into the program.
“Handing out money” to kids with below a B average is “unfair,” she said. “You should strive for excellence.”