Democrats flipped Killingly’s school board in Tuesday night’s municipal elections, following more than a year of controversy over a grant-funded mental health care center at the school.
Democratic candidates took four of the contested seats, pushing chairman Norm Ferron and board member Jennifer Hegedus, both Republicans, out of office. The wins in the Republican-leaning town come after a series of controversies and an official state inquiry into an alleged failure by the Killingly Board of Education to provide adequate mental health services for students.
The state’s inquiry was opened after an April 2022 10-4b complaint from Killingly residents claimed the local board had violated the educational interests of the state when the majority-Republican board had voted in March 2022 to deny a grant-funded mental health center at the high school.
The board has also faced criticism over its decision to reinstate the Redmen as the school’s mascot, which made Killingly ineligible for nearly $100,000 annually from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund. A 2021 law restricted the use of Native American nicknames and logos, and Killingly is one of three districts in the state that didn’t comply.
“For the Board of Education, specifically the mental health center was a major issue,” said Jennifer Reynolds, chair of the Killingly Democratic Town Committee. “Parents from all sides of the aisle were very concerned, especially when students started to speak in favor of the mental health center and weren’t receiving the services.”
Six of nine board of education positions were up for election, and each party was allowed to put up four candidates.
Democratic candidate Danny Rovero will retain his seat on the board, and fellow Democratic nominees Kevin Marcoux, Meredith Giambattista and Misty Murdock were newly elected. Sitting Republicans Ferron and Hegedus lost their seats while Laura Lawrence and Laura Dombkowski, also endorsed by the GOP, kept theirs.
Murdock ran against Hegedus for a two-year term. The rest of the newly elected members will serve four years.
The Killingly board’s initial decision on the mental health center was tinged with rhetoric more commonly heard from the political right. Those opposed raised concerns about cancel culture, Hillary Clinton, abortion and gender identity. Some questioned whether schools are the best place for mental health care and raised concerns about parental rights.
Since then, many school board meetings have been tense. Some members of the board have resigned, including former chair Janice Joly. The former superintendent and Marcoux, the school’s popular athletic director, left the district.
Months after its initial vote to reject a grant-funded mental health center at the school, the board approved a separate contract to offer mental health services in two of the Killingly schools. But residents have said the contract hasn’t resulted in the care kids need.
Marcoux ran for school board after he left the school’s staff and won Tuesday night. He and the other newly elected Democrats will start their terms later this year.
Democrats will hold a 5-4 majority on the board.
They’ll have the power to make changes to the provision of mental health — as well as the mascot — even though the state’s official hearing into the mental health center matter is set to begin Nov. 15, before the new members take office.
Town Democrats said it’s early to predict exactly what the new board will undertake. Some of it will depend on the outcome of the November state hearing, Reynolds said.
She added that she thinks bipartisan unity will be a focus for the new board members. Marcoux is a registered Republican, and Murdock is unaffiliated. Both ran as Democrats. Reynolds said the party endorsed people who would focus on helping the school after months of turmoil and controversy.
“We put that above party affiliation and I think that resonated with folks,” Reynolds said. “I think they saw that we were trying to put forth a bipartisan effort.”
Giambattista said she wants to ensure there is adequate mental health care at the school, particularly as many kids in the community have said they’ve felt isolated since the pandemic.
“I’m looking forward to just getting the mental health center going,” she said.
Murdock wants to improve communication between the community members and the school board members and work on teacher retention in addition to ensuring mental health care is moving “in the right direction,” she said.
“I think the only other thing is we just want to bring back open communication,” Murdock said. “I think at times some people felt that it was difficult to talk at some of the meetings.”
Rovero said he wants to talk to members from both sides about the best approach to help students and improve the school’s image.
“Just do what is best for our students, whether it’s one kind of an agency or another kind of an agency, whether they can talk to them with the parents’ consent or without the parents’ consent, whatever is best for the students,” he said.
He added that he’s interested in looking again at the issue with the mascot, particularly because the district is giving up tens of thousands of dollars annually to keep the Redmen. He said that the Redmen mascot isn’t on uniforms or football helmets.
“Money loss is the big thing, just to hold onto a mascot that no one uses,” Rovero said.
Giambattista said the mascot issue is also something she wants to look at when she starts her term.
The board will also have to appoint a new chair as one of its first actions, Reynolds said.
Ferron lost his seat with 1,188 votes. Dombkowski, who kept her seat, was the closest to Ferron with 1,252 votes, according to unofficial results from the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s Office.
Ferron was board chair through much of the turmoil over the mental health center in Killingly. He replaced Joly as chair after her resignation.
“The voters have spoken and we have to accept the results,” Ferron said in a written statement Wednesday.
Raymond Wood II, chairman of the Killingly Republican Town Committee, praised the Republican candidates’ efforts in a written statement.
“While the results were not what we hoped for, we are proud of our candidates who were willing to serve their community,” Wood said, in part. “Killingly is a great town thanks to those who have served over the last four years and will continue to be so if the newly elected will continue on in their footsteps.”