By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The same differences of opinion that inspired the crowded pool of School Committee candidates to enter the race for a seat were highlighted in the Times’ first School Committee debate Thursday night.
Hot issues like the future of the Fuller building, the configuration of the elementary schools and the gradually rising state test scores drew in nine candidates for the committee’s six elected seats. The seventh seat on the committee automatically goes to the mayor.
Challenger Jack O’Maley, who rose from a coaching position to an assistant principal position before illness forced his resignation a few years back, said the question of where to temporarily place West Parish students while their school is demolished and replaced with a new $30 million model, sparked his attention.
“The discussion surrounding the students in the West Parish school awoke my energy,” O’Maley said in making his pitch for a seat.
School committee incumbents Melissa Teixeira, Jonathan Pope, Kathy Clancy and Tony Gross at various times each expressed the importance of hearing out community members on issues.
And, though Clancy explained during the debate that Fuller would cost millions to repair and bring up to code, and the committee declared the building surplus this winter, they would still consider it for temporarily relocating the West Parish students during a building transition.
Candidate Michelle Sweet, a former four-year School Committee member, a Gloucester schools graduate and mother, said she visited the Fuller building during a tour recently, and the conditions shocked her.
“It was a complete mess. We went down to the basement where the antiquated oil burners and the pumps were rotting out,” Sweet said. “We’ll have to work together to find the best solution, to explore the options. We’ll absolutely have to have the whole community’s input.”
Still, O’Maley, J.D. MacEachern, and Joel Favazza supported using Fuller at least temporarily. The committee has drawn one applicant for request for proposals paperwork to offer a location to temporarily house the students — an inquiry from the owners of the former ITT Rule building in the Kondelin Road industrial park.
“If we’re going to have to refurbish a machine shop, I’d rather refurbish one of the city buildings like the Fuller building,” O’Maley said.
Favazza, a lawyer in the city who attended the Gloucester schools and plans to raise a family here, stressed his perspective that the School Committee and past committees have “allowed” Fuller to fall into a state of disrepair.
“You do what’s educationally best for all of Gloucester’s students, even if it’s hard, even if you’re going to face push-back,” Favazza said. “If we don’t look at mistakes that we’ve made in the past, we’re bound to repeat them. We hear it’s a complete mess, there’s so much work to be done, but how did it ever get this way?”
Teixeira, an incumbent who stressed that she loves being a “strong” voice for the community’s children, said she was offended by Favazza’s accusation. The School Committee had made the decision to stop paying for upkeep on part of the building as the economy shook in 2008-2009.
“We made the decision to keep our teachers in the classroom and not do so much maintenance. As far as maintenance, there were years of abuse before we got on the school committee,” Teixeira said.
The debate, based on questions submitted by Times readers, also touched on topics like longer school days, something the School Committee has taken up in recent meetings, in fact.
“I can see absolutely nothing but benefit from a longer school day, provided that it’s spent on education or something otherwise productive,” said Gross. “We don’t spend enough time now on educating our kids.
When the discussion turned to the more radical change of possibly converting some elementary schools into magnet schools, a virtually unanimous answer was no.
Kathy Clancy, the only candidate with a child still in Gloucester’s schools and a longtime board member and Gloucester Education Foundation member, highlighted the thinking of most of the candidates that elementary school is too early for magnet schools.
“If it’s a magnet school that focuses on art, I’m not sure more than a small percentage of kids would even know that art is where they want to be,” Clancy said. “They’ll miss out on other areas of study.”
Added Gross, “(Different students) arriving with different skill sets (for middle school) could set us behind.”
In the shadow of skill sets, came a discussion of state test scores among the elementary schools in the district. While most of Gloucester’s schools received one or two rankings, the top marks on a scale of one to five, Beeman and Veterans, the schools that carry a much more dense concentration of high-needs students, reached only a Level 3 ranking and saw lower proficiency percentages than the other schools.
Pope — the current School Committee chairman who sat on the committee from 1998-2007, then was elected again in 2011 — addressed questions about whether redistricting would be a solution to dealing with the concentration of high-needs students in two of the elementary schools.
In one grade level at Veterans Memorial, he said, 81 percent of the students fall into the high-needs category.
“If 81 percent of your class is high needs, and there’s 22 kids in your class, that means that four kids aren’t,” Pope said. “The question is how do you spread those kids out, and is that the answer, or do you put more into the schools with those students?”
Hannah Kimberley, a teacher who taught at elementary, middle and high school levels before moving to Gloucester and taking a job as a teacher on Endicott’s Gloucester campus, said that moving students from here and there to various schools would be “an absolute conundrum” for parents and kids. But she liked the idea of instead focusing extra financial aid and programming on the elementary population with higher rates of high-needs students.
“It would be an idea to look at more services for these kids,” Kimberley said.
Each candidate closed the debate with a statement, and many explained where to find them on the ballot.
J.D. MacEachern, referred to a couple of times during the debate as half the School Committee’s meeting audience, added a unique pitch.
“I would like to make the transition from being the audience to being on the committee,” MacEachern said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.