WHITMAN — The three candidates seeking the opportunity to serve Whitman on the W-H Regional School Committee met in a Candidates’ forum at Town Hall Thursday, May 6. Two seats are up for election this year.
Incumbent Fred Small and challengers Heather Clough and William Haran attended the forum. But incumbent Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven was unable to attend.
Small thanked his opponents for taking part and noted he was running for his fourth term in office, saying he has “unfinished business” he wants to pursue on the School Committee. He noted both his children are graduates of W-H and are residents of Whitman.
“I have a lot of things I’d like to get done,” he said. “But understanding what the committee is — by myself, I am nothing — I’m just a person. It’s the committee as a whole that has the power.”
Haran, a graduate of WHRHS attended Whitman schools all his public life, and had the opportunity to assistant teach in Hanson Middle School during his senior year.
“Through that, I learned that education is my passion,” he said, promising to stand up for students and parents no matter what. “I’ve seen a culture of under-funding, holding back our students and our towns. I’m running to change that.”
Clough said she is running because she thinks the district can do better for students.
“I’m not saying that we’re not doing great again, I’m saying that we can do better, and that we’re obligated to do better,” she said, citing academic regression because of the pandemic as a huge concern.
Clough said some academic studies indicate younger students will be six or more months behind, especially in math, as a result of the education challenges posed by COVID-19. Trained in special education advocacy, she wants to bring her training with state agencies to work for the School Committee.
“I want to make sure that all of our students get the kind of academic supports that they might not have needed before the pandemic,” she said. “This has been tough for everyone.”
Questions ranged from topics such as: Why would one run after the turmoil surrounding the assessment formula; could there have been a better compromise for the school funding issue; their understanding of the budget and what needs to be done to move the district forward; potential participation by town officials in collective bargaining; state funding support for a new Whitman Middle School; the impact of COVID-19 on education; and the job performance of Superintendent Jeff Szymaniak and his administrative team.
Haran said he wanted to run because the Whitman schools have been such a large part of his life.
“Even in times of turmoil, our kids still need us,” he said. “We still need a School Committee that’s going to stand up for them even if that’s tough to do.”
Clough said it is time to move on from that debate. Small reiterated the call of unfinished business.
“If not me, who?” he said. “I also want to see us bring a sustainable budget. I believe that is within our grasp over the next few years.”
Offering foreign languages as early as elementary school is one area that should be pursued, he added.
Clough argued that a more gradual approach to a funding compromise for the school assessments could have been possible, but what’s done is done. She said the numbers don’t lie. Whitman taxpayers could have used the $4 million over six years that the town paid instead of Hanson, could have been used for other financial priorities.
Small said Whitman officials don’t know that the figure is $4 million, but there is one person who has made that assertion.
Haran said he believed the switch to the statutory method was done in the correct way, and noted both towns agreed to it at last year’s town meetings. He did say, however, that the switchover should have occurred sooner that it did.
Small outlined his knowledge of the budget process and offered that, to move forward, the revenue sources of new growth and additional levy within Proposition 2 ½ limits the district to about $1 million for fiscal 2022.
“We need to become sustainable,” he said.
Haran argued that establishing a budget subcommittee that analyzes budget needs each year, perhaps ahead of the rest of the committee, would be a good idea. It had also been recommended by a DESE review of the district in 2014.
Clough also advocated for a budget subcommittee “keeping an eye on things that may come down the pipeline as needs for capital improvement and educational programs.
“Educating people about the schools … actual ‘This is what you get when you invest in education,’” she said. “People are more willing to invest when they know they have a personal stake in it, even if they don’t have students within the district.”
All three expressed a willingness to include a town official in collective bargaining negotiations with educator unions. Funding for the Whitman Middle School project was also discussed.
While Clough admitted she did not know the exact funding percentage, the Whitman Middle School as a grade five to eight school, is going to need a lot of work, so an investment in a new building is wise, she said.
Small, who chairs the building committee, said the funding is currently at about 50 percent, with points available depending on design specifics. He also served on the high school building committee. He wants to discuss with administration what the best grade levels would be to place in the school.
Haran also was aware of the reimbursement level and that is fantastic that the town is on the list and should embrace it.
The candidates also discussed their ideas for how to help students catch up on lost learning time due to COVID. Haran said appropriate use of federal relief funds should be used to help a school committee willing to fund schools to help students come back.
“You’re not going to get a committee that’s willing to build back better from this from a committee that hasn’t consistently stood up for school budgets anyway,” Haran said.
Clough said the goal could be achieved by a wide variety of approaches, from a movement break during class to allowing them to have a small hand-held fidget.
“But students are going to require remediation academically,” she said. “They’re going to require tutors possibly, they’re going to require extra help. There may even be students who end up having to repeat a grade or possibly retake the MCAS again in high school.”
Small said the School Committee’s role is to provide resources to help every student who has regressed.
One question initially left Small speechless — the job performance of Szymaniak and his team in terms of preparing the school budget.
“There are frustrations that I have,” Small said. “I believe that the superintendent means well in everything that he does, and [he] wants to see the absolute best for our children.”
But he also said Szymaniak is a realist about the challenges facing school districts and committees. While Small lauded the team Szymaniak has formed and the work that they are doing — while COVID has caused disruptions — he said he wants to move at a faster pace, which he has addressed with the Szymaniak.
Haran said Szymaniak is a hard worker who does a good job of running meetings and getting information to parents and running the schools.
“I do have frustrations, as well,” he said. “For me, it comes during budget season. He could do more to advocate for the district goals that he and the committee are setting forth for themselves.”
“I believe that Superintendent Szymaniak is doing a pretty good job,” Clough said. “He’s only human. He does as much as he can and he advocates for all of our students.” Her only critique, she said, applies to anyone — more listening and community outreach.
Other questions focused on the need and importance of full-day kindergarten; other issues — such as out-of-district special education costs, the culture in the partnership with Hanson, and hold harmless allowance from the state — were also discussed. Visit the WHCA site at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTTbXJv_Rpo.