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Critical race theory roils school board race in Guilford, a town long open to a study of slavery

With its Witness Stones Project, Guilford has confronted an overlooked history of slavery in New England.
With its Witness Stones Project, Guilford has confronted an overlooked history of slavery in New England.

GUILFORD — Across from the village green on Whitfield Street, an easy-to-miss plaque lays flush with a sidewalk used by parishioners of St. George Catholic Church on their way to Sunday Mass.

The marker bears a name, Jouachim, and a legend, “ENSLAVED HERE, 1794.”

The bronze 4-by-4-inch square was installed on Nov. 15, 2018, one of the “witness stones” that dot Guilford, testimony to an overlooked history of slavery in New England and a contemporary willingness to confront it.

Now the same town that embraced the heralded and imitated Witness Stones Project is an unlikely outpost in a culture war over the terms of America’s racial reckoning and its place in public education.

In a community where the Democratic first selectman is running unopposed for a second four-year term, the election for the Board of Education has turned spectacularly venomous, primarily over teaching about race.

“I’m watching an entire community being torn down over an issue that really should be bringing us together and having that intellectual conversation,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, who represents a portion of Guilford.

A slate of five Republican outsiders, parents new to politics, insist Guilford’s schools are influenced by doctrinaire leftists, while a coalition of Democrats and Independents brands them as Trumpers peddling disinformation.

Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who has run unopposed three times since winning his first term in 2014, said he sees the fabric of a community unraveling.

“I have a pit in my stomach every day,” Scanlon said.

Candelora, who is the leader of the House Republican minority, said the contest has devolved to “character assassination,” evidence of a toxic and dangerous new reflex in American politics to marginalize opponents.

“To me, it’s a tragedy,” Candelora said. “And I think, bigger picture, we as a community need to come together in trying to repair what I would say has been a very ugly campaign.”

The central issue is whether the school administration’s approach to confronting racism after the murder of George Floyd is based on critical race theory, or CRT, an academic approach to assessing racism as systemic in institutions.

The reconciliation suggested by Candelora will be difficult. Suspicions over the ultimate goals of each side run deep, with an inability to agree on the origin of their differences or even a common vocabulary.

Political discourse increasingly is akin to a Rorschach test, with words and phrases parsed for coded signals.

What do you see in CRT? A willingness to see racism more broadly than individual bigotry, with influences in literature and law? Or perhaps an affront to America’s self-image and history, given the role of slavery from its earliest days to the Civil War?

On Sept. 2, 2020, a conservative writer, Chris Rufo, told Tucker Carlson that “investigations that I’ve unleashed” found critical race theory to be “a cult” of indoctrination infiltrating the federal bureaucracy.

“Conservatives need to wake up, that this is an existential threat to the United States,” Rufo said. “And the bureaucracy, even under the Trump administration, is now being weaponized against core traditional American values.”

On a program known to be essential viewing for Donald J. Trump, Rufo closed by calling on the president “to immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.”

By month’s end, Trump would comply — and denounce critical race theory as un-American and dangerous thought.

“This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed,” Trump said. “Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”

Whether the Guilford insurgents’ campaign is organic — springing from parental concerns over curriculum and transparency in the local schools — or inspired by Trump, their initial victories are seen in broader terms by national conservatives.

By packing a GOP nominating caucus in July, they stripped moderate Republican incumbents of the party endorsement. Proving the caucus was no fluke, the slate of five won a primary in August, each member winning by margins of nearly 3-1.

The results drew approving coverage from the National Review, a conservative journal with Connecticut roots, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. and now published by Jack Fowler of Milford.

It dubbed them “The Guilford Five,” evidence of how “the specter of critical race theory in the classroom has galvanized grassroots moms and dads without prior political credentials” around the country.

The National Review saw a clear agenda: “These five kindred spirits, self-titled ‘watchdogs, not lapdogs,’ had one goal: winning back the board and sacking the CRT sympathizers.”

One of the five, Bill Maisano, said he found the National Review prose “purplish.” A retired police officer who had worked in the schools as an anti-drug D.A.R.E. officer, Maisano insists he has only affection for teachers, respect for School Superintendent Paul Freeman and no desire to sack anyone.

“Oh, my gosh,” Maisano said. “No, no, no, no.”

But a year ago, about the time Trump provocatively made CRT an issue, another member of the slate, Danielle Scarpellino, was circulating one petition calling for the dismissal of Freeman and another demanding an end to “social justice indoctrination.”

Scarpellino could not be reached, but she told the National Review: “In order for our cause to come to fruition, which is to keep the evil tenets of CRT out of our children’s education, we need to flip the board.”

Race has never been an easy subject, not in schools, workplaces, churches or political bodies. But Guilford schools, aside from the Witness Stones Project, have seized on teachable moments when they arise.

Two years ago, a Guilford student woreblackface to a football game against a visiting Hartford high school. The student was made to remove the makeup before entering the stands, but Freeman addressed it in a letter to the community.

“If even one Guilford student felt that wearing blackface was acceptable or funny, then we have more work to do,” Freeman wrote. “As a community we will continue to educate our students about racial relations, about racism and racist behaviors, and about ways in which to be accepting and supportive to all.”

Then came the death of George Floyd in May 2020, a handcuffed Black man killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck.

“We had a lot of outreach from the community and a lot of recent alumni who said, ‘Can we look deeper on what are we doing, as a district, on diversity, equity and inclusion, and social justice?” said Moira Rader, a Democrat on the school board.

One topic was raised in hundreds of emails: Isn’t it time to lose the “Indians” as the name of the high school’s sports team?

The board agreed that it was, empowering students to pick the replacement. Rader would have preferred a local sea bird, but the kids went with alliteration, the Guilford Grizzlies.

Maisano, the retired police officer, said he first met with Freeman over his concern the system was failing to consult with parents before addressing difficult topics.

There is nothing new about parental discomfort over what and how schools are teaching their kids. Maisano’s first concern was about sex education, not race. He said his son, who was 12 at the time, came home and mentioned that anal sex had been discussed in a class.

“I’m a Christian,” said Maisano, who felt the topic was one best for the home, not school. “We’d like to be able to do it in our own way.”

Maisano said he feels the schools put too much on children, race included.

“I want my kids to be kids, I really do. They’ll grow up soon enough, and they’ll have the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Maisano said. “I just want them to enjoy their youth. I want them to learn from their parents, I want them to go to school and have some beauty — you know, read beautiful poetry, create art, beautiful music, enjoy sports and your friends.”

He said he does not want his children to “feel that you’re being groomed to somehow go out and correct all the evils of the past. We know that as adults we can’t even do that. I would never pressure a child to feel that.”

Some parents grew suspicious when Freeman, a month after Floyd’s death, announced an audit of the curriculum, with an eye toward subtle racism. For each employee of the public schools, he purchased of copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Maisano found the purchase to be heavy-handed. “It kind of infers to me that he’s suggesting, ‘OK, you really need to read this book, and it’s something that I feel strongly about.’ I don’t even know that that’s fair to the teachers,” he said.

Maisano said any overlap in his slate’s messaging with Trump’s was not of a grand design.

Bill Bloss, a Democrat and former chair of the Guilford Board of Education, heard ever-louder echoes of McCarthyism in the remarks by Trump and the Guilford group. Bloss said Trump is a branding genius, and the Guilford insurgents are following his lead.

“They’ve really just taken the CRT phrase and used it as a branding exercise,” putting an ugly face on attributes like equity and diversity, Bloss said. “Equity is good, right? Critical race theory is bad, so they say. So they branded positive efforts negatively, in order to turn people against them.”

The election

Bloss, a lawyer who has litigated cases involving Connecticut’s arcane laws regulating minor parties and ballot access, is advising the unusual fusion campaign of two Democrats and three Independents.

The Guilford school board’s nine members serve in staggered four-year terms. Democrats hold a 5-4 majority, and the town charter prohibits any party from holding more than a one-vote majority.

Five seats are on the ballot this year: Two are held by Democrats and three by Republicans. The other four are held by three Democrats and one Republican who are at the midpoint of terms expiring in 2023.

With three Democrats in terms that do not expire until 2023, the party nominated only two candidates: Rader, an incumbent, and Arnold Skretta, who would succeed Mary Best, a Democrat not seeking reelection.

Skretta, the father of 5-year-old twin daughters, said he had raised his hand for the next opening on the Democratic school board slate.

“Finally, I was up,” Skretta said. “I thought, ‘Great, I’ll help maintain the Democrats’ majority. It should be not too crazy of a race.’ I thought literally it was going to be a fairly inconsequential, routine endeavor.”

Voters can cast votes for five candidates for school board, meaning Democrats can vote for Rader and Skretta, then Independents Kristy Faulkner, Jennifer Baldwin and Noel G. Petra on Row C. Republicans Aly Passarelli, Scarpellino, Nick Cusano, Maisano and Tim Chamberlain are on Row B. Joseph A. Golino, one of the Republican incumbents who lost the primary, is running as a petitioning candidate.

“I had no interest whatsoever in running for anything until this happened,” said Petra, an unaffiliated voter. “Frankly, the moderate Republicans are doing a great job. I had no interest in replacing them. It was going just fine. Schools, top 5% of the country. Our kids are well-educated.”

Well-educated and prosperous

Guilford is a community of 22,000, comfortably spread over 47 square miles, and rooted on Long Island Sound between the harbor at New Haven and the mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook.

The population is 92% white, well-educated and prosperous. The median household income is $112,000, and nearly 60% of adults have four-year degrees or more. The public schools rank highly on standardized tests.

Twenty years ago, Guilford was politically purple, with 3,976 Republicans, 3,856 Democrats and 6,578 unaffiliated. By Election Day last year, it was solidly blue, with 6,300 Democrats, 3,552 Republicans and 6,551 unaffiliated.

“A lot of people’s feeling was that Guilford was not a likely place for these tin-hat conspiracy theories to take root,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat. “And the idea that a graduate-level seminar course on critical race theory is being taught in Guilford elementary schools is a conspiracy theory, just like microchips in vaccines is a conspiracy theory.”

Murphy recently was in Guilford, the last stop this year of a week-long walk he tries to take every year during a congressional recess.

Ben Proto, the new Republican state chairman, said national politics are overtaking local issues, with Democrats playing a role. He pointed to the quick branding of Republicans as Trumpers.

Watching it all is Dennis Culliton, the retired history teacher who conceived the Witness Stones Project. He said his project has not been directly drawn into the school board election, though he periodically hears murmurs about the point of rehashing a past that discomfits so many in the present.

Guilford’s children are capable of absorbing hard lessons about an overlooked past, he said.

“You read a book like ‘Disowning Slavery’ by Joanne Pope Melish, and you read that book, and it’s not critical race theory,” Culliton said. “It is history of New England and how we forgot about slavery.”

Witness Stones has now installed 72 markers, not all in Guilford. There are more to come, each with a story of an enslaved human being who contributed to building New England.

They can be found on both sides of the Guilford Green, one by the entrance to Town Hall. They are meant to be discovered, to provoke a question, a thought of what came before, what it means today.

Witness Stones is about telling an uncomfortable truth, something done less than formally in the U.S. than other nations, Culliton said.

Canada’s treatment of its indigenous people is the subject of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Germany is forthright in confronting the Holocaust. In fact, the Witness Stones was inspired by the stolpersteine, literally “stumbling stone” in German. They commemorate the lives of Jews killed in the Holocaust on the streets where they lived and worked.

“In South Africa, there’s a lot of things that aren’t wonderful, but they tell the truth there,” said Culliton, who has traveled there. “They tell the truth about apartheid in Johannesburg. They tell the truth about slavery in Cape Town, and it’s out in the open.”

Culliton said the same can be done in the U.S.

“I never taught the kids that America was an awful place. I’m a Marine Corps veteran. My father fought in World War II. I love my country,” Culliton said. “You have issues with your family, you don’t love them less. And that’s our country — we don’t stop loving our country because it made mistakes.”

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