By Frank Mand 
fmand@wickedlocal.com

Three seats on the seven-member School Committee are up for election this May, and four candidates are vying for those seats, including two incumbents, one newcomer, and one self-described “perennial candidate.”

PLYMOUTH – Despite a late cancellation the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters Candidate’s Night was held Thursday night at the new Town Hall.

The much-anticipated debate between Ken Tavares, incumbent chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and his challenger, Town Meeting Rep. Kevin Lynch, was postponed due to a previously scheduled surgical procedure for Tavares.

Three seats on the seven-member School Committee are up for election this May, and four candidates are vying for those seats, including two incumbents, one newcomer, and one self-described “perennial candidate.”

The incumbents include Kim Savery Hunt, the board’s current vice chairman, and Margie Burgess, a former board chairman who is completing her 20th year on the School Committee.

Political newcomer Vedna Heywood, a South Plymouth resident who works as a trauma nurse in Boston, is also seeking one of the three seats, along with Town Meeting Rep. Jay Ferguson.

The League’s format was not a true debate, instead offering the candidates the opportunity to make opening and closing statements and, in between, to answer 11 questions on a range of school-related topics.

The first question asked the candidates, reflecting on the recent tragedy in Florida and the subsequent student movement to end gun violence in schools, to comment on the safety measures presently in place in Plymouth schools and any new measures that might be under consideration.

Burgess stated that “safety is our first concern,” noting that a safety committee that includes the police and fire chiefs meets monthly and is always looking at “new protections.”

Repeating a theme that she would use throughout the night, Heywood made a plea for more resources, especially in the area of psychiatric or counseling, so as to be prepared to deal with these issues before they arose.

“Some of the protections I would suggest,” Heywood said, “would be to educate our children on the effects of gun violence, to counter the glamorization of guns.”

Ferguson, a retired marine engineer, first said that whatever measures the school had in place should be, in large part, a secret. Then he spoke of a friend who had served on the Maersk Alabama, the ship that Pirates attempted to hijack a decade ago, noting how they had rehearsed what do in case. “You have to plan ahead for the worse. I don’t have all the answers,” Ferguson said, “but I want to be part of that discussion.”

Hunt answered the question with specifics, noting that she had served on the Safety Committee, which meets once a month.

“Mental health is a high priority of the committee now,” Hunt said, emphasizing the need for more resources to be able to deal with those issues.

Question 2 referenced the recent public debate over where Plymouth schools ranked, and what if anything they could do to improve those rankings.

She again emphasized a need for more resources, for parents and children, and along with that more transparency about the availability of those resources.

Ferguson suggested it was simply a matter of money.

“Pour money into a school,” Ferguson said, adding, “Tell the people in The Pinehills to stop playing with the budget.”

Hunt gave a detailed, full-throated defense of the school’s ranking, noting that the ranking systems most often cited “were created by real estate companies, and the algorithms they use emphasize the percentage of students that go on to attend four-year colleges while we offer a phenomenal technological education (whose students go to work, not to college), and that affects our ranking.”

Burgess repeated some of what Hunt said, adding that the programs offered by Plymouth schools “increase the chance that students will be successful in life.”

Question three asked the candidates to suggest how they would handle contract negotiations with the teachers’ union.

Hunt and others acknowledged thought that those kinds of benefits did not materially affect the budget.

Burgess is on the contract negotiation team, which she said meant she couldn’t address the specifics of the ongoing negotiations.

Heywood said she had a different, but relevant experience, at the hospital where she is employed.

“Though I have never taken part (in contract negotiations), I am a union member at my hospital where we went through a rough, difficult negotiation,” Heywood said, then suggested that she felt it was important for any contract to take into consideration inflation, the cost of living and the costs of basic benefits like health care.

The League then asked the candidates about the impact of the opioid crisis on the schools and whether there were any new initiatives under consideration to deal with the crisis.

Hunt said everyone was impacted, parents and students, and the schools were constantly working on that issue within the school and through outside organizations, always looking for new ways to have a positive impact.

“My biggest complaint is about events and programs,” Hunt said. “We need programs that we have throughout the school year, not just one time events.”

Burgess said that the problem, as she understood it, was mostly affecting an older generation, people in their 20s.

“The biggest problem in the schools was vaping,” Burgess said, noting that electronic cigarettes emitted nicotine plus benzene, cadmium and arsenic.

Heywood said the problem was affecting children, in that “a generation of children is losing their parents, being raise by grandparents. In this country 25 percent of children are being raised by grandparents, leading to developmental setbacks, mental health issues. So the question is, do we have the resources to combat that, to help them.”

Ferguson offered a simple approach to the problem.

“I have no patience for people that want to take junk,” Ferguson said, then recounted how on a motorcycle ride through his neighborhood a 12-year-old had asked him for heroin. “I called his school resource officer.”

Burgess said there was a psychiatrist on staff, and various counselors and support services available but that there was a clear need for more.

“There are so many mental health problems,” Burgess said. “You can’t throw enough money at it.”

Heywood said simply there were “not enough,” suggesting the schools should have many more social workers.

Ferguson, as he did repeatedly on this night, offered a personal story. As the father of a special needs son he was “tormented” by his interaction with the schools. But instead of suggesting that they needed more mental health staff, Ferguson suggested that what he and others could use was more “community, or neighborhood support.”

Hunt again offered specifics, noting the specific number of guidance and adjustment counselors, psychiatrists and support staff available at each level and offering her belief that “social emotional learning is key. We need to educate the whole child.”

Six more questions were posed by the League, which will be addressed in the second part of this story in an upcoming issue.

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