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Montague prepares for school committee election



Recorder Staff
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

TURNERS FALLS — In addition to voting for town government candidates Monday, Montague residents will also be able to select new School Committee members.

Robert Whittier, of 175 West Road in Gill, is challenging incumbent Valeria “Timmie” Smith of 351 West Road for the three-year School Committee seat representing Gill.

Robert Whittier

Whittier says that he decided to run for the School Committee following the controversial decision to change the mascot.

“I felt that this was handled improperly with little or no regard to what the student body and the majority of the residents wanted,” he said.

He believes that some of the issues currently going on with the School Committee — such as loss of students to other districts and morale “at an all-time low” — began with the decision to change the mascot from the Indian.

“I believe what I bring to the table is the ability to listen to what students, teachers, and the community have to say and make sure I represent their opinion and views,” he said.

Valeria Smith

Smith, the current School Committee chair who’s been a committee member for over 10 years, is seeking re-election because she says she enjoys being part of a committee that provides quality education at an affordable price to the towns.

Two major challenges she sees the committee facing is to continue the recent trend of increasing student enrollment in district schools, and to annually develop an affordable budget.

“I might say this does not put us in a unique position as a rural, western Massachusetts school district,” she said. “But by using our $200,000 grant to fund (the) Powertown in the 21st Century project and the $109,998 Efficiency and Regionalization Grant to creatively look at our present high school model and offerings will certainly help us to move forward.”

Smith believes that the process will guide the committee to best serve the needs of the student population and prepare them for life after graduation.

Smith’s previous positions within the town include Budget Subcommittee chair and vice chair.

“I am very proud of the Committee’s accomplishments this year,” she said, promising to continue being a “creative and constructive thinker” with a positive attitude and attention to detail.

Montague has a couple of contested races on the ballot. One involves a one-year committee seat where Joyce Philips of 18 Vladish Ave. in Turners Falls is challenging incumbent Mike Langknecht of 14 North St. in Montague

Joyce Phillips

Phillips is running for School Committee because she wants to see a “stronger focus” on student success and policies. She has 22 years of experience with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees on school finance, open meeting law, special education law, collective bargaining, school leadership standards and evaluations, school committee roles and responsibilities, public records law and conflict of interest law.

“I want to promote a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals,” she said. “I want to restore trust and respect within the school community.”

Phillips says there are a number of current issues that are “either being ignored, overlooked or disregarded” by the current committee: developing a focus on learning with high expectations for achievement, accountability-driven policies, a collaborative relationship with staff and community, and a need to “embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative.”

Mike Langknecht

Langknecht says he’s seeking another term on the committee because “it’s critical to continue the significant progress we’ve made in the GMRSD.”

Langknecht says the most important issue in the district is continuity in leadership.

“If we are to continue to recover enrollment and raise achievement, our students, faculty and communities need a stable culture that supports personal development and continued growth,” he said. “We’ve lived through the revolving door at the central office and barely survived.”

“As a School Committee member, I focus on the issues that affect education, not on the politics or the personal agendas that constantly threaten our progress,” he said.

Langknecht believes he has contributed significantly to “building trust and mutual respect” with and between his colleagues and promises to remain dedicated to team-building if re-elected.

“We must be role models for our students, staff and communities,” he said. “If we are not, then we have failed.”

Four candidates are running to represent the town of Montague in the School Committee for three years. Voters may vote for no more than two of these candidates. Running are Haley Anderson of 16 Eleventh St., Jennifer Lively of 81 High St., Chris Pinardi of 139 West Chestnut Hill, and Heather Poirier of 43 Turners Falls Road.

Chris Pinardi

Pinardi began attending Gill-Montague School Committee meetings in 2016 “to promote the idea that the taxpayers and students should have a voice in the logo debate.”

“That idea of representation of the community by the committee is what drives me to run for a seat today,” Pinardi said, explaining that he started out with the goal of involving the community in the logo decision. However, along the way, he realized that there are many decisions impacting students and staff “on a daily basis” and these impacts are “not always ones that set them up to succeed.”

Pinardi says he would like to be part of a school committee that seeks community input, listens actively and responds proactively.

“Our schools have great teachers who need our support and fantastic kids who need our help to reach their fullest potential,” he said. “I would like to be your representative on this committee so that I can help make good things happen again.”

Haley Anderson

Anderson, whose children attend district schools, says that she wanted to run for school committee because she’s a firm believer in the importance of participation in local government.

Anderson also says her experience working as a program administrator at the Giving Tree School in Gill gives her a solid foundation.

“Too often there is apathy around local elections — until a hot-button issue comes along.” she said. “I entered the school committee race because I see a need for people who are in it for the long haul.”

The main problem Anderson sees for schools is long-term budget sustainability. She’d like to hold the state accountable for fully funding rural schools.

She believes students “choicing out” to other schools is partially a marketing issue since “a surprisingly large segment of families with school-age kids in the towns haven’t even looked at our public schools as an option.”

She would also like to see more family engagement and outreach to pull families in from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups.

“Perhaps most importantly, I’m going to be open-minded, respectful and willing to learn from the people around me,” she said.

Jennifer Lively

Lively decided to run for School Committee because she says she is passionate about being “an involved and engaged member” of the community.

“As a lifelong volunteer and advocate, a parent, and a third-generation alum of the district, I am extremely invested in student education and success,” she said.

Some of the challenges she sees the committee facing are budget restraints, lack of resources, enrollment decline and “responding appropriately to mental and physical safety concerns.”

She also wants to “encourage efforts to increase school spirit and community participation in the schools.” She supports “a creative budget” that prioritizes student outcomes and education yet keeps the district fiscally responsible.

“I will ask questions, value researched plans, and encourage open communication,” she said. “I will work diplomatically and respectively. I will prioritize student outcomes and education while keeping the district fiscally responsible.”

Lively would also like to “go above and beyond” by participating in subcommittees “where important work is done.” She also vows to use her enthusiasm and position on the committee to “become more involved in advocacy efforts for increased state aid.”

Heather Poirier

Poirier, a Turners resident for almost 30 years, is running for the committee because of her past community involvement, including running a local child care program and previously working for the school district.

“I simply want what is best for my children, all the students and our teachers,” she said.

Poirier says that one of the biggest issues in the district is teacher shortages. She believes the district needs to find ways to “provide updated materials and supplies” to benefit education and teaching.

“We continue to see more and more families choosing to choice out of our district for a variety of reasons, and I feel we need to build up the schools so students come back rather than continuing to choice out,” she said.

Poirier says that if elected, she will listen to the needs and concerns of families, faculty, taxpayers and students and also take positive steps to move the district forward.

“I will represent with an open mind and with the community’s best interest in mind,” she said. “I am excited for the opportunity to build this district up to what I know it can be.”