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Gill-Montague school committee candidates talk School Choice, mascot

  • Turners Falls High School is at 222 Turnpike Road in Montague. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/SHELBY ASHLINE



Recorder Staff
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

TURNERS FALLS — School Choice, diversity training and standardized testing were some of the hot topics among debating school committee candidates Tuesday night.

Turners Falls High School hosted seven of the eight candidates vying for school committee seats for the district in preparation for Montague’s election Monday May 21. Montague residents can vote from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Gill residents can vote from noon to 8 p.m.

The seven candidates agreed on a need to address the issue of students leaving the Gill-Montague Regional School District via School Choice. They also were of the same mind regarding the benefits of diversity training and shared a disapproval of standardized testing.

Montague Town Clerk Deb Bourbeau moderated the debate, first allowing candidates one minute to introduce themselves. Candidates are Joyce Phillips of Montague, Haley Anderson of Turners Falls, Jennifer Lively of Turners Falls, Heather Poirier of Turners Falls, Christopher Pinardi of Montague Center, Timmie Smith of Gill and Mike Langknecht of Montague. Robert Whittier, who is running against incumbent Timmie Smith, was unable to attend the forum but is still reportedly in the race.

Enrollment

The Montague Reporter and Gill-Montague Partnership put out a call to the community for people to submit their questions to the candidates. Four 60-second questions and five 30-second questions were asked.

The first question asked candidates why they think district enrollment has generally declined, citing high school enrollment decline and elementary enrollment showing an upward trend.

Langknecht said School Choice and the budget situation are large contributing factors to the decline, but said the decline has leveled off due to more stability in the district.

Phillips believes course offerings, staff cuts, program cuts, discipline issues and bullying in the high school are the main reasons students choose to attend schools out of the district.

Anderson said she personally knows families who aren’t considering the Gill-Montague school district as an option, and believes the school has “a bit of a perception problem.” Poirier also said she has personally seen many families leave the district.

Lively said the high school enrollment decrease is a “real concern” since many choose to attend the tech school or other districts.

Pinardi believes to maintain the enrollment increase at the elementary schools, more teachers and better teachers need to be hired. He also believes the schools need to “not push our juniors and seniors off to GCC.”

Smith cited the net loss of $1.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget due to students choosing to attend other districts.

Skills and experience

The second question asked what skills and experience committee members have to make them effective in a role that deals regularly with budgets and policy decisions.

Candidates cited real-life experience from their jobs. Phillips cited her extensive experience with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and Anderson mentioned her work as an administrator at the Giving Tree School. Poirier said her experience working in special education offices has helped her with collaborative techniques.

Pinardi said budgeting is one of his strengths since he used to operate a car dealership and now owns his own business. Smith voiced her appreciation for working with numbers and figures.

Langknecht said his experience on school councils and a building feasibility committee gave him chances to negotiate contracts and be a good listener and team builder.

Finances

The next question asked the candidates how they would help make the district more fiscally sustainable, especially with the serious challenges it faces.

Anderson, Pinardi and Lively encouraged advocating at the state level for more funding. Pinardi encouraged reaching out to parents who have taken their children out of the district and find out why they left and how the district can get them back. Phillips also encouraged the committee to look into why students are leaving the district to go elsewhere. Poirier agrees that getting students back into the district is important.

Smith discussed the state-awarded Efficiency and Regionalization Grant, which may help the district share some aspects such as transportation with other nearby districts.

Langknecht expressed disapproval for the state’s style of education, which “doesn’t scale down to a district of our size.” He believes the liberal arts approach fits poorly with the small district.

“We’re being asked to do something we can’t afford to do,” he said.

Additional questions

When asked about whether the school district would benefit from diversity training, all candidates voiced their support.

The mascot debate came up as a 30-second question, where candidates were asked if they would support changing the logo back to the Indians.

Pinardi said he would support a process that would allow the community to be “completely involved” in the decision. Poirier said she’s “not sure” she’d try to bring it back, but acknowledged the number of residents who weren’t happy with how the process went.

Smith, Langknecht, Phillips, Anderson and Lively believe the decision is a done deal and would not try to reverse it.

When candidates were asked about whether standardized tests are a good measure of the quality of teachers and learning, all candidates said they are opposed to this style of testing.

“Standardized tests, standardized kids,” said Langknecht.

“We spend way too much time teaching our kids to pass tests and not enough time teaching them to be well-rounded, successful people,” Pinardi said.

Reach Christie Wisniewski at:

cwisniewski@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 280