Friday, April 27, 2007
From budgets to dress code: School Committee candidates share their views
Four candidates running for two openings on the Carlisle School Committee faced each other and the public at the League of Women Voters Candidates Forum last Sunday. Incumbent Wendell Sykes and three challengers, Dale Ryder, Don Rober and write-in candidate Kevin T. Smith of Lowell Street, responded to a range of questions on what the schools need and whether they can afford it.
Background and motivation
Rober is running because his focus is on the future. "How do we get the education we want with the fiscal constraints we have? It is a difficult time to work through what we can get with what we can afford."
Kevin T. Smith said he grew up in Acton and has lived in Carlisle the last seven years. With four small children, two now in school, "My interest is very acute." He is a lawyer and feels his skills of advocating for clients will serve him well on the School Committee.
Ryder has volunteered at the school for many activities including co-chairing the Spaghetti Supper, co-producing the seventh-grade play and participating on various committees including the Carlisle School Association (CSA), in which she currently serves as president. Ryder said there needs to be a balance between technology, programming and fiscal constraints. She says she is a consensus-builder. "I believe I can make a difference."
Sykes says, "I have had 12 years of experience in public education. I am seen as an independent [since he has no children in the schools]. Education is facing a new level of challenge. We are dealing with a global, not a local, economy Our kids will have a number of careers."
What is the most important issue for the schools?
Sykes sees the most important issue as "the reconciliation of two different points of view. One view is that of elders who look very carefully on how dollars are spent on education. The other view is that of parents saying what my child gets from education is incredibly important." He said support for the school has been somewhat like a sine wave, which is not always good.
Dale Ryder says the most important issue is an aging facility and how to manage that with an increase of students.
Smith said, "We have an excellent school with an extraordinary faculty there. We will struggle with what it will cost to educate students and the class size. Our struggle with growth is a serious challenge."
Rober said the most important factor was the operating budget. "The facility is starting to get old, particularly the Spalding Building. We need to educate the public, make a case to the people. It's a difficult, but important, issue."
Quality education vs. fiscal restraint
The moderator posed another question: "The cost of operating our school at level services is projected to continue to rise. What are the areas that you feel are most important for the School Committee to measure to assure a quality education is maintained within financial constraints?"
Rober said he would focus on the "core of the educational process." He said that grants that are given to start programs which the school budget will ultimately have to incorporate need close scrutiny.
Smith said, "A strong core curriculum is important There's an important place for art, music and non-core activities and classes as well."
Ryder said, "I would focus on the core curriculum and the relationship between staff, faculty and parents. We may need to cut back on technology and ride out the bad financial times."
Sykes said a reduction in the educational budget means a reduction in faculty. "I have seen a resistance to measurement at the school. We need to figure out how to best use teachers in efficient ways."
The next question to the candidates was, "With the fiscal challenges, what specific cuts would you make?"
Sykes said, "Applying the axe is not cost effective. If we just cut, we'll lose seed-corn."
Ryder said she would cut in the area of foreign language. "We just can't do as much as we'd like to do." Smith echoed Ryder's remarks. "We need to preserve the core curriculum, don't make cuts there. Cut building maintenance. The Water Treatment Plant is $80,000 over budget. That over-budget item is amazing. It needs to be looked at carefully."
Rober agreed with Ryder as well, in terms of trimming the foreign language program. He suggested having other town buildings use the Wastewater Treatment Faacility.
Is state reimbursement essential?
The moderator next asked whether the School Committee could go ahead with a school building project without state reimbursement.
Roper said, "The economic and political reality is that we won't get people to say "yes" without the state. I hope the State will not say yes to both requests at the same time. [Both the Carlisle Public Schools and the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District have requested financial assistance for school building projects.] The high school is a dump and it needs to be bulldozed. But we need the State to help finance the new high school."
"You are 100% correct," responded Smith. "We need State participation. It's difficult to get [projects] approved without state money." He felt the School Committee should advocate for a new school once state money had been approved. Also, he had played in the CCHS gym when he was a high school student in Acton in the early 1980s. "It looks the same now. It was old then!" He hopes his kids go to a new high school.
Ryder said, "Parts of the school are falling apart." She thought Spaulding would be the first to be replaced. In terms of the high school her recommendation was to raze it and start again.
Sykes had a different answer. "Present a range of alternatives and let the town decide. The current site [Carlisle Public Schools] is a real challenge. At most, we can make one addition. Doing it twice would be painful." He had concerns about doing piecemeal additions.
How can the School Committee foster a positive environment?
Sykes responded to the question saying that the school committee's job was to bring the faculty on board, to bring them along.
Smith said the faculty and administration need to believe the School Committee is taking their requests seriously. He said the teacher is most important to the child and we need to support the teachers as much as we can.
Roper described the School Committee's role by stating the three things it does: "It hires and fires the superintendent, sets the budget, and makes policy. None of these things has a direct effect on the question asked." He said the committee can listen, work with the superintendent and listen to the staff. The faculty can come to the School Committee as well.
Do we need a "dress code?"
"It makes a lot of sense," said Roper. "A certain level of decorum would be appropriate." He hopes to listen to what people think about a dress code. Smith thought "dress code" was a "loaded term" and he was in favor of a limited dress code.
Ryder seemed to be the only one who knew a dress code already exists and is described in the Handbook. She said, "The dress code hasn't been enforced in the past. The new principals are enforcing it now." They tell individuals that a skirt is too short or that caps must be off in class. "I'm very comfortable where it is right now. I like that the administrators talk to the kids individually."
Sykes is happy to see a stronger hand at the principal level. "The principals are the front line." He's glad to see them sticking by the policies that are in place.
Do you support the override?
This was a no-brainer. All the School Committee candidates support the $150,000 override for the school that will be on the ballet this May. All would have supported a larger override and are concerned about the cuts at the school to get down from a level-services budget, which would have needed a $400,000+ override. Ryder is concerned about 25 to 26 students in every eighth-grade classroom. Smith said, "I'm feeling badly." He wondered whether this would be a reality every year. Sykes had a different perspective. "I wanted a [level-services] budget. The superintendent felt sufficiently undermined that she didn't feel confident enough to ask for the override amount needed for a [level-services] budget." Sykes felt that lack of confidence was caused by the teachers in their unrest over the last year or so.
In closing, Smith said, "I am pleased with the faculty. My education is the bedrock of everything. I have a vested interested in what my children are learning and I want what is best for my kids."
Sykes said, "We have started the school in the direction of change and improvement. I would like to continue it."
Ryder says, "I really love the school. I love working with parents and staff. I want to affect good change and what's good for kids."
Roper says, "The changes up there in the last year have been tremendous. Let's take it forward and make it better."
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