At last week’s League of Women Voter’s Candidates, Night four candidates for three open seats on the School Committee fielded 11 questions. Last week the OCM offered a summary of the first five and this week the candidates’ answers to the last six questions are presented.
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PLYMOUTH – At last week’s League of Women Voter’s Candidates, Night four candidates for three open seats on the School Committee fielded 11 questions. Last week the OCM offered a summary of the first five and this week the candidates’ answers to the last six questions are presented.
The four candidates vying for those seats include two incumbents – Kim Savery Hunt and Margie Burgess – one newcomer, Vedna Heywood, and Jay Ferguson, a self-described “perennial candidate.”
Question 6 asked the candidates to assess the impact of charter schools on the overall budget.
Heywood noted two important elements of that budgetary relationship: the charter schools take a sizable – ”$6 to $8 million,” she estimated – the chunk of the school’s overall budget and yet the school department had little if any say in the operation and focus of the charter school.
Ferguson called that charter’s school’s portion “disproportionate” and stated that the charter school teachers were not unionized, were paid less and so, he wondered out loud, “where did the money go?”
Hunt said a large portion of the money that is diverted to the charter school from the overall budget is for transportation; the School Department’s budget pays for busing students to this separate school.
Hunt added that she was not against having the charter school “as long as it was created to fulfill and underserved population, offered programs not normally available in Plymouth schools, accept all students that seek admission and operate transparently.”
Burgess put the cost of the charter schools at “a little over $7 million, plus busing,” and called that “quite a chunk.”
She said that the arrangement is “out of balance,” in large part because they don’t have the cost of special needs students.
“It’s nice to have that choice,” Burgess said but feels that charter schools should be in areas where students don’t have the range of educational options offered by Plymouth’s school system.
Question 7 asked for an assessment of the manner in which teachers are evaluated and whether it was effective. This question produced some of the shortest answers of all 11 the candidates were asked.
Hunt said that the process belonged in the “unfunded mandate category,” suggesting that while the state expected these evaluations to take place, they left the school departments to figure out how to pay for it.
Burgess simply noted that the Plymouth School Department had received an award for implementing teacher assessments.
Heywood said that she was unfamiliar with the process, but offered her belief it was an important issue.
Ferguson noted that in his career as a “ship’s officer” he was continually asked to assess his crew. His advice was to just do what the state asked.
Question 8 asserted the town’s overall high school dropout rate was just under 4 percent and asked the candidates how the town could improve on that.
Burgess addressed this subject in detail, arguing the school department already offered proactive measures to address dropouts focused on flexibility and options.
“The charter school, the alternative school… we encourage dropouts to come back in, we knock on doors and speak to students and parents and ask them to come back,” Burgess said.
Burgess noted that some students don’t fit into the regular school day, for a number of reasons, and for them the school offers flexibility.
Heywood said the dropout rate – which she asserted was actually 9 percent – was one of the main motivations for her candidacy. She noted that she had looked at this issue thoroughly, surveyed other schools, and was dismayed to learn that economically disadvantaged students, and those for whom English was a second language – along with special needs learners – were disproportionately represented in the dropout numbers. Heywood advocated for early assessment and intervention – perhaps at the Middle School level – and more resources overall.
Ferguson saw the problem in terms of students who were expelled.
“Let’s not be quite so heavy-handed with children when they make mistakes,” Ferguson said. “A little compassion goes a long way.”
Hunt agreed with Heywood that the problem needed to be recognized as early as possible, “identifying them earlier so we can work with them.”
Hunt also suggested that the problem was connected with other social issues, including the opiate crisis and added, as she had suggested earlier, that to be successful the schools needed to “celebrate the small wins, to boost the confidence of children.”
At-risk students, Hunt said, needed to be treated as individuals, not as “groups of people.”
Question 9 asked the candidates if the “non-instructional responsibilities” that teachers have are overwhelming them and, if so, how would they remedy the situation.
Heywood said the only question was whether the schools provided sufficient resources to the teachers to be sure that they are not overwhelmed by all of the reports, forms, and other bureaucratic duties they are responsible for.
Ferguson said he didn’t think teachers were overwhelmed. “If they are, no one has shared that with me,” he said, and recalled a professor at Mass Maritime who told him that the two best reasons for entering the teaching profession were July and August (summer vacation).”
Hunt said those responsibilities could be overwhelming, adding that high-class sizes were part of the problem. She suggested “common learning time, professional development, and peer to peer sessions” as a potential remedy.
The final two questions concerned the condition of the town’s other schools (other than the two new high schools) and whether the town would need to add a new elementary or redistrict in the near future.
Ferguson and Heywood knew of no infrastructure issues at any schools.
Hunt and Burgess praised the School Department’s facilities department, noting that though they have three buildings over 100 years old the condition of those buildings and others is excellent.
The only movement of students from one school to another that may happen, Hunt said, was that of kindergarten students, as the School Department tries to offer kindergarten classrooms in every area of town to reduce travel time for that age group.
The Town Election is Saturday, May 19.