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Soon after she was elected to the Old Saybrook Board of Education, Tara Barros (shown here with Jojo) was given the chance to lead the board as its chair. She embraced the opportunity. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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She may be a Valley Regional High School graduate, but Tara Barros has roots in Old Saybrook. The new Board of Education (BOE) chairman’s parents grew up in the town, and she and her family live in the house where her grandparents raised her father and aunt. It’s where she and her husband are raising their two boys.
“I’m a local girl,” she says. “And although I did go to Boston for six years and kinda try out city life, I’m a definitely a country mouse.”
Tara grew up in Centerbrook.
“I think everybody who grows up in a small town thinks that it’s better someplace else. I went [to Boston] and realized I really was homesick,” she says. “I missed my family, I missed going to Stop & Shop and knowing everybody, and running into people on Main Street.”
Public service runs in her family. Her mother, Deborah Pearl, served as probate judge in Essex for 30 years, and her father, Keith Nolin, has volunteered for nearly 40 as an ambulance driver and EMT and also served as fire marshal in Deep River and Essex. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she’s embarked on a journey of increasingly committed service to her town, taking on new roles and responsibilities.
She laughs about what her husband dubbed the Great Cupcake Debacle, when they lived in Old Lyme.
“Someone said, ‘Do you think you could make mini-cupcakes for [a PTO event]? We need about 450.’ I literally spent like two days in my kitchen, piping mini-cupcakes, and I’m no great shakes at that,” she says. “They were pretty scary. A lot of sprinkles.”
After purchasing her grandparents’ house in Fenwood, she joined the local PTO, and then volunteered on the school district’s public relations (PR) committee.
“It was, without question, the best committee I’ve ever, ever, ever been on,” she says. “Because think about it: You’re talking about great stuff. It’s ‘I didn’t know we do this really great thing—how do we tell everybody about it?’”
About a year after taking that on, openings came up on the BOE and she was encouraged to run.
“Ironically, the person who reached out to me was Phil Broadhurst,” who died on Nov. 12, Tara says. “He was a member of the board for a long time. He reached out to me—a really wonderful guy. He was pretty straightforward: ‘It’s a lot of meetings. But it’s for everybody. You don’t have to be an education person, you don’t have to be a former teacher, it’s kind of a good place to learn about how the schools operate.’”
The decision wasn’t an easy one, though.
Her first thought was, “No flippin’ way am I running for public office. This election stuff’s nuts.”
“And then you get to know everybody and they’re really just kind,” she says. “Nobody does this for the glory. We’re unpaid volunteers who go to a lot of meetings.”
Her parents advised her to proceed with caution.
“[They] were concerned about me from a time commitment perspective,” she says. “I think their own experience with that made them concerned. How are you going to balance all this?”
Their concern was well-founded: Tara has a full-time, high-stress job at Verizon, selling network services to finance companies, modeling financials, and drawing up contracts. She started at MCI in 1995 when she lived in Boston and has been with the company—now Verizon—ever since. Fortunately, she largely works from home and her extracurricular activities have the support of the company, which she says values volunteerism and community service.
She ran, won a seat on the BOE, and didn’t look back. A mere year later, after the slate of officers—chairman, vice chairman, and secretary—had been approved, the chairman, Kelly Kennedy, announced that her husband had accepted a job in another town. She had to resign and the job was up for grabs.
“I threw my hat in the ring and I guess everybody agreed with me, which was nice,” she says, with what seems like a mixture of pride and disbelief.
She is now serving out the remainder of Kennedy’s term.
People might think the BOE chairman wields a lot of power, but that’s not the case, Tara says. She facilitates meetings and speaks on behalf of the BOE, but only after the body as a whole empowers her to do that. She also serves as intermediary between Superintendent of Schools Jan Perruccio and the board.
“I’m kind of the face of the board, but [I have] no extraordinary powers. The board is much more a body. Talking to one of us is kind of like talking to somebody’s elbow unless you’re talking to all of us and we all agree and have consensus. There’s really no individual power in that.”
BOE members, who are from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and political parties, work as a team, she says.
“We’ve got a real well-rounded group of individuals. We’ve got some people who are educators, some people who are business people, some people who are really smart academic brains. And we all kind of bring something different to the table,” she says. “If you ever wanted your faith restored in people being able to work together and the democratic process—we have a mix of people from both parties and it is a non-partisan board. You can’t go in there with this idea that you’re going to run around with a certain kind of flag because that just isn’t the way things work.”
A large part of what Tara brings to that table is her experience as a businessperson.
“For me, I look at it as a prospective employer. I’ve hired a lot of people and fired just a few over the 20-some-odd years I’ve been doing this [job], so I certainly think of it through that lens when we talk about graduation requirements, when we talk about how students are going to learn certain things or the opportunities that are going to be afforded to them.”
And of course she’s a parent, too, with two children who have come up through the Old Saybrook school system. Alex is in 8th grade and Nicholas is now a junior in high school who is beginning to look at colleges. Because of some rocky patches along her kids’ academic paths, she has personal experience with the resources and energy the district devotes to students who require additional support.
“Both of our kids at different points in their education have required some extra help at different levels. I say to Jan [Perruccio] all the time, I look at where my kids started and where they are now, they’re mentoring other people and they’re on track with great grades…and a great launch into whatever they decide to do. They had started with some challenges. I think it’s a testimony to the success of the programs and the people being engaged and guiding us calmly through a lot of things.”
The size of the district—there’s a total of 1,219 students—is certainly key, and Tara is aware of this from her children’s experience as well as her own.
“If your kids are in the school system, they’re going to get a lot of attention; it’s going to be really personalized learning. And then along with that comes challenges I think that every small school sees. There’s the social part of it where you’re with the same little group of people starting in kindergarten and all the way up through high school. I think we’re lucky by and large we’ve got some really sweet children,” she says. “So how do we make sure that everybody going through the experience has a good experience and they continue to have good experiences and they don’t feel pigeonholed or what have you?”
In addition to BOE meetings, Tara continues to contribute to the district’s PR committee, whenever possible. She also participates in meetings and conventions of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, an organization that provides professional development, advocacy, and opportunities for collaboration between BOE members from across the state.
It’s a lot for one person to take on, but Tara is a lifelong learner and swears she gets more out her service than she gives.
“Our administrators are so engaged with the kids and they know them personally. And we get to know them personally on the board. It’s like last year—it was my first graduation as a board member. You see these kids who you’ve seen throughout the year presenting different things,” she says. “I’m crying like a baby, like they were my kids. I’m so proud.”
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