Creating a regional school district with Rockport may be the best way to serve Gloucester's students over the long term and a very preliminary exploration of combining the two systems already is underway, several candidates for School Committee said last night.

The topic came up during a candidate's forum hosted by the Gloucester Daily Times and 1623 Studios. Several hundred people attended the event at Gloucester Stage Company/

Joel Favazza, an incumbent School Committee member seeking re-election, raised the notion of regionalization during a discussion about ways to encourage more families to take advantage of the city's schools, whether by moving to Gloucester or by refraining from using the state's school choice system to send children elsewhere.

"If you can't beat them, join them," Favazza said. With children of Gloucester residents taking advantage of the state's school choice system comprising about one-third of students in the Rockport schools, Favazza said, the hard work of integration has already begun.

School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, who is seeking re-election, added: "That would be great. We're working on it." He noted that a feasibility study has been funded but the process of combining systems would take "a long time."

On the wider topic of convincing more families to use the city's schools, candidates almost universally said the district is the victim of an unfair reputation.

Committee member Kathy Clancy acknowledged the process of choosing a school can be "complicated" for a family but said today's Gloucester schools offer what she thinks would be the best choice for nearly any family.

Candidate Ida Shaker, who is not presently on the committee, said there should be further study of why families don't choose Gloucester schools.

Candidates spent considerable time addressing a question about the process of razing East Gloucester and Veterans Elementary schools and building a single new school to replace both near the current Veterans site. Any new building will require voter approval — a vote is likely in May or June — due to the level of borrowing that would be required.

Asked about school safety in Gloucester, several candidates said it was as important to fund social workers and school psychologists as building renovations designed to make it easier to keep intruders away from students.

The candidates agreed that Gloucester students might benefit from increased instruction in civics.

Besides incumbent candidate Melissa Joy Teixeira Prince, Monday's debate also included candidates Samantha Verga Watson and Laura Wiessen, neither of whom is an incumbent.

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