Friday, May 4, 2007
Another look at candidates for School Committee
Seldom is there a Carlisle election with four candidates running for two open positions, as is the case this year with the Carlisle School Committee race. On April 29 the Mosquito asked the candidates a set of additional questions to help voters understand how the four might differ in approaching the work of the School Committee. (See also the candidates' statements in the Mosquito, April 20 and April 27, and the article on their appearance at the League of Women Voters Forum, "From budgets to dress code: School Committee candidates share their views," Mosquito, April 27, page 7.)
· How would you differentiate yourself from the other candidates? None wanted to speak critically of the others, but each mentioned characteristics they believe set them apart.
Donald Rober: "Generally everyone who runs for town positions are qualified people." He noted his experience as a member of the Carlisle School Building Committee and the School's Technology Committee. He is familiar with town finances, serving as a member of the town's Long Term Capital Planning Committee and as chair of the Long Term Capital Requirements Committee. He added, "I've got two kids in the school. I want the very best education for my children, just as everyone else does. I've spent time listening to the school and what they need. I've looked at the numbers. I've also spent time listening to people who do not have kids in school, and what they feel they are willing to spend."
Dale Ryder: "One of the ways the four of us are different is in our personal styles." She urges voters to watch the rebroadcast of the LWV Forum on public access cable TV, where she believes the different styles can be observed. Ryder, who has served as a school volunteer, most recently as president of the Carlisle School Association, believes it is important "that whoever serves on the School Committee can collaborate with other members of the committee, and reach out to the rest of the community so they have a better understanding of what is going on up at the school." She feels there should also be a strong relationship with the school staff, "It is extremely important that there be trust and respect between all those constituencies."
Kevin T. Smith: "Are the other people qualified and would their heart be in it? Absolutely. The only way I differ is I have more kids in the school and with my job I appear before municipal boards all the time and I think I understand in a general sense how they work." He explained, "I have two [children] in school and two more to be in the school soon, so my interest in what goes on there is fairly intense. I care what happens there, not only because I think education is important, but because it will directly affect my children over the next 12 years.
"As a lawyer, I deal with issues that require negotiation every day." He believes these skills would be useful when the School Committee negotiates for the school budget with the administration, Finance Committee and Selectmen. He would serve, "with an eye toward scrutinizing everything that happens, within the umbrella of doing what's best for the children."
Because Smith is running as a write-in, his name does not appear on the ballot, and anyone voting for him must add his full name and/or street (Lowell Street) to distinguish him from another Carlisle resident named Kevin Smith.
Wendell Sykes: The only incumbent running and also the only candidate without children who will be attending the school, he noted, "I suppose as much as anything, it's experience...I'm already on the committee." Sykes added, "Why am I doing this? I think we have succeeded in changing the way the school is administered, and we are just beginning to get into it. I've invested a lot of my time in making an improvement in education in Carlisle, and I'd like to carry it a little further."
· Do you feel the present school fees could be expanded as a source of additional revenue? None of the four were enthusiastic about raising fees. Rober: "I would try my hardest to avoid adding additional fees." Philosophically, he prefers to avoid fees "for things that are not optional" and gave as examples the fees seventh- and eighth-graders pay to ride the school bus, and the fee charged for children to attend full-day kindergarten.
Ryder: "It's one of the things I'd like to take a look at." She added, "I would not be in favor of hitting parents hard with more or increased fees. I think they are about maxed out with what they've got now."
Smith: "I would rather not have fees, but as a last resort the answer is yes." He accepts that fees are necessary, at least for now, and citing the sports program said, "If using a fee is the only way to provide that educational experience, then we'll go with that option."
Sykes: "I'm not sure people realize how high they can be. There are a number of families who are paying over $3,000. If you have a number of children in different activities, it can really add up." He felt that, especially for families who have a lot of children, "We may be assessing fees on those who can least afford it." However, he noted Carlisle's school fees, "are generally in line with what is being charged by other school systems."
· Are teacher salaries effective in attracting quality applicants and retaining experienced faculty?
Rober: "I think we really do want to hire teachers with some level of experience, and I think we pay competitively for that."
Ryder: "Yes, I think they have a very good contract. Also, I think they deserve it because they are very good. They also have a hard job."
Smith: "I don't know the answer to that question." He then said, "You have to be competitive, but that involves more than just salary." He feels the support system and working environment is important to teachers as well.
Sykes: "I believe that they are." He said the school usually hires teachers with three or more years experience, "We almost never hire a teacher with no experience at all." He went on to say that after a failed budget override in the 1990s teachers agreed to a lower increase than they were entitled to, "so the most recent contract was, in part, to give appropriate compensation for past sacrifices." He also said that the Carlisle school system is now seen by teachers as "desirable."
· What is your feeling about community use of school buildings, for example, the Corey Auditorium?
All the candidates supported community use of the school facilities, second to the educational needs of the students.
· What would you propose to do with the Highland Building?
The School Committee has voted not to use the century-old school building for classroom space, and it is currently rented to Emerson Umbrella for use as artist studios. (see "Highland voted out of School Master Plan," February 10, 2006.)
Rober: "My idea for the Highland Building is to take the building, renovate it into affordable apartments for entry-level teachers or custodians. Make the apartments 40B compliant." He added, "Barring that, I'd love to see someone step forward to move the building — but it is wider than the street, so that probably won't work."
Ryder: "I feel very strongly that we should find some use for the Highland Building."
Smith: He was not familiar with the building and said he had not focused on the issue, "I'm not sure I can answer that one."
Sykes: "It's a wonderful building, a monument to the past." He said, "The Highland is not a part of our educational plan." However, he noted, "The Highland is occupying very important land." He was not against preserving or moving the building, but did not feel it was a suitable project for the school to undertake.
· Is the current administrative structure the optimum for a school of our size?
Rober: "I'm happy with how it's working now, and would like it to continue this way."
Ryder: "Should we regionalize? Should there be one principal? I have loved the small K-8 format. It's what makes Carlisle special. It may not be the most cost-effective, but is better for quality." With regards to having one or two principals, she said, "I have found that the issues that face the middle school are so different from where the kids are in the elementary school, it's important having two principals focusing on those issues."
Smith: "It seems to be working right now. I'd have an open mind, but it seems we have good people there now who are doing a good job."
Sykes: "For now, yes." Focusing on the relationship of the teachers to administrators, he said that in the past teachers were more or less on their own and "coordination was more of a voluntary process." He said it has been difficult to move the school towards setting educational goals for each class, so that all fourth graders, for example, are taught the same material. He added, "The principals are really the front line of managing educational change." While he said that later on the School Committee might want to look at the administrative structure, he also said, "Right now, we really need those principals."
· With the upcoming cuts in faculty and support staff, do you think the school can adequately service the special needs of its students, or will more out-of-district placements be necessary?
Rober: "The aides are a cost-effective way of providing services in the classroom in an inclusionary way, and they wind up helping the entire classroom, and I think that's good." He noted, "With the new administration, they are looking at more accurately fine-tuning what services are needed. I think sometimes in the past there wasn't the attention paid to what level of service was needed."
Ryder: "There's a number of people in town who think up to 30 or 32 kids in a classroom is not a big deal, but I am very concerned about the class size going up to 27 or 28." She said that things have changed from a generation ago, giving discipline as one example. She added, "The curriculum is so much more sophisticated. Technology is more sophisticated." She recognized that most of the younger grades will have smaller average class sizes, "but for the current seventh, sixth and fifth grade, they are not going to get as good an education, because of the class sizes. It's not ideal at all."
Smith: "It will put some more stress and the infrastructure in place are pretty strong."
Sykes: "This is a delicate subject. I think that it may be that we weren't necessarily using SPED [Special Education] support personnel as efficiently as we might." He continued, "I don't think there will be a need for additional out-of-district placements. Under [Director of Student Support Services] Karen Slack, we will be able to provide superior SPED services more efficiently."
· Given the school's needs for expansion, how do you respond to the town's financial constraints recently described by the Long Term Capital Planning Committee?
Rober: He noted that he served on that committee as well as the Long-Term Capital Requirements Committee and the School Building Committee. "I've looked at what the school needs and the economics of it. Building a school is never cheap. It requires a major commitment on the part of the town." He then asked, "When is the right time and how much should you build? I feel I have a good idea of what we need, and what functionality people will be willing to support. We're not going to build the Taj Mahal." He concluded, "I also don't think we're going to get anything built until we get state matching funds, and I wouldn't ask the town."
Ryder: While she said she was not familiar with the details of the Master Plan and proposed school expansion, she said, "If I was on the School Committee, I would not say we have to have everything." Speaking from her experience with her children, she said, "It's not so much about the space, it's about the teachers, and how the administrators set the tone for the school. It's not even about the technology." Ryder said she would favor a piecemeal approach to renovating buildings on campus, in order to better fund administrators, adequate class sizes, and to ensure, "the teachers have what they need to teach," as opposed to focusing on buildings.
Smith: "If there's going to be any significant work done to the school, under the various options identified in the Master Plan, there has got to be state funding. Without significant input from the state, I'm not sure the town could afford to do major changes, nor should we ask for it. There's a limit to what the town can afford, and to the tax base and the size of the town...There's only so much money to go around."
Sykes: "The Long-Term Capital Planning Committee has developed a model to help the town assess the impact of any large capital project. It is a planning tool. One of the things I see in America at this point — the word 'sacrifice' for the common good can't be used." He recalled how pressure at both the state and federal levels to reduce taxes has "made it difficult to fund education as it used to be. More and more, education is sustained by real estate taxes. But state and federal taxes are lower, so maybe it's not unreasonable to pay higher local taxes."
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