December 18, 2018

Four Seek Two Open Spots on Seekonk School Committee

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In the most contested race in this year’s Annual Town Election slated for April 2, four residents are seeking to be elected to only two open slots on the school committee. Cynthia Corbett, Noah Escaler, Kimberly Sluter and Justin Sullivan are all seeking election to the three-year post. None of the candidates have served on the school committee before.

All four candidates were recently asked a series of questions. Their responses follow.

Reporter: What is your background and why do you feel you are qualified to be a member of the school committee?

Corbett: I have lived in Seekonk for fourteen years. As a parent of two who are in the school system- one in high school and one in middle school- and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have vast experience working with community social services and systems. I have attended the school committee meetings and feel strongly that my professional experience and involvement in the schools will serve me well as a committee member. My previous experiences include being actively engaged both as a volunteer and board member of the PTO at Martin Elementary School. In the wider community, I served on the Board of the Friends of the Library, for approximately five years, and was then their liaison on the Meadows Committee.

Escaler: I feel as though I am qualified to be a member of the School Committee. I am a lifelong resident of Seekonk. I am a middle school teacher with a master’s degree in Education/Special Education with an administrator's certification. I currently serve as Vice-Chairperson of the Capital Improvement Committee within the town. I was an advocate and proponent of Full Day Kindergarten, participating in sub-committee meetings. I have attended and actively participated in many school committee meetings within the past five years. I have two young children in the school system presently and believe they as well as ALL children deserve the highest quality education, opportunities, course selections, electives, and extracurricular activities, with appropriate decisions and fiduciary duties that I will add to the committee. I would also be a diverse member as I have an educational background, an educator, advocate as a parent, and conservative as a taxpayer to look at issues/concerns with multi-lenses. I am very active and involved as a coach within the town, coaching our youth in soccer, baseball, and football. This in turn also facilitates conversations and relationships with parents, grandparents, and guardians pertaining to schools and it’s on goings. If elected I will make every effort to be available, approachable, and responsive to all citizens with any questions, concerns, ideas and suggestions as an elected official.

Sluter: 12 years ago, my husband, Seekonk native, Matt Sluter and I made a very intentional decision to relocate and buy our first home in Seekonk. Like him, I was also raised in a close-knit community. I come from a family of education supporters. My mother is a first-grade teacher in NH and has been involved in her local education association and currently serves on the NEA NH board. My father served 4 school committee terms while I was growing up. Currently, I am a member of the Senior Leadership team at New England Construction. My ability to connect with a diverse group of employees, clients and consultants, negotiate win-win contracts, set and operate a fixed budget, develop and execute both short and long-term plans will be an asset to the School Committee. My husband and I currently have two sons attending Aitken School. Jack is in fourth grade and Charlie is in first grade. I am currently serving my second term on the School Council for Aitken School. I volunteer my time and resources at various events throughout the school year. I am a regular school committee meeting attendee. Over the last 10 years I have served various roles on the board of the Friends of the Seekonk Library.

Sullivan: The last three years I have served on the Seekonk Finance Committee. During that time I was Chairperson and served as liaison to the School Committee. I also served on the Full Day Kindergarten Sub Committee. These roles have provided me the exposure to what is working for our schools and where there are areas of improvement. Professionally I have over 15 years management experience where I can help offer my assistance in strategy, finance, and problem solving. I have 1 child at Aitken with 2 more entering the system in the next 2 years.

Reporter: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Seekonk school system and the school committee in general? How would you address it?

Corbett: We have a thriving school community. As a member of the school committee, I will work diligently to meet the demands of our growing student population and their changing educational needs. The school committee is immediately tasked with hiring a new superintendent and approving a budget that is both fiscally responsible and responsive to the needs of all our students, teachers, administrators and the community. These tasks will require being open to creative and collaborative problem solving. 

Escaler: One of the biggest challenges facing the Seekonk school district is the current retirement announcement of our Superintendent and Finance Director. We must search for a competent, knowledgeable and innovative Superintendent to lead our schools. We are also in need of a well-versed Finance Director who will work collaboratively with the members of the school committee, other boards/committees and Town Administrator. School budgeting and lack of space/infrastructure, are also concerns and a long-term plan needs to be implemented immediately. Other concerns pertain to the lack of communication between boards. This is concerning but certainly rectifiable with persistence and collaboration. I would propose that Quad-board meetings be held more than once a year. This collaboration would certainly mitigate any miscommunication between boards and serve as a proactive approach to simplify budgeting concerns. It would facilitate deeper understanding of the intricacies of each of the boards. This collaboration would ultimately bring many stakeholders together who have an immense array of talents and expertise to solve issues together.

Sluter: Hands down, long term planning. We must plan for the future, not by attempting to predict it but by positioning the town and the school district to be ready for whatever the future brings. We can address this by selecting and supporting the new school Superintendent and then by reviewing his/her performance. The School Committee cannot govern well without the Superintendent’s collaboration and the Superintendent is less likely to lead effectively without the unflagging support of the School Committee. Seekonk must have more collaboration across town boards to create a stronger leadership team for our school district. By addressing long term planning we will tackle the large issues including facility space planning.

Sullivan: There are a number of challenges facing the school system & committee but one cannot ignore the fact that year in and year out the Committee & Administration submit unreasonable budget requests knowing that it exceeds any funding that they are like to receive from the Town. When discussion of these "cuts" from the wish list ensues, this causes tension and mistrust among all the stakeholders in our community. As a result, it makes addressing challenges, like overcrowding and modular classrooms, a more difficult discussion. The budget process for our schools needs to be addressed immediately and not serve as a roadblock. Additionally, the School Committee needs to increase its communication with the Selectmen, Finance Committee, and the CIC in order to meet challenges head on with minimal surprises. It would be a lot easier with the support of the community to address the schools needs together.

Reporter: What are the top three things you would like to accomplish during your term?

Corbett: If offered the opportunity, I will work tirelessly to address the challenges while continuing to support the excellence and on-going enrichment of all of our youth. I will work to continue improving communication with other town boards and to help facilitate future planning.

Escaler: I have many ideas that I would like to accomplish if elected as a member of the school committee.
A. Safety is my priority in schools. I would make every effort to enable collaboration with the Seekonk Police Department to ensure proper proactive/reactive parameters/procedures. This would ensure all students, teachers, and staff, know that they are safe and protected. Bearing in mind the current tragedy with school shootings, this is not a topic that should be forgotten or taken lightly. I also believe that parents/guardians should be given opportunity to be involved with transparency and knowledge of the protective measures to ensure their concerns of safety within our schools are acknowledged and answered.
B. Secondly, I would with my expertise in Special Education, facilitate the Special Education director and administration in continuing program development and instill a philosophy that will benefit all students in either staying in district, or return to district, ultimately providing Least Restrictive Environment and substantial cost savings when comparing to today’s tuition costs per pupil.
C. I would also utilize a budgeting system that will start the fiscal budget from zero, and/or from the ground up and focus on true needs for our schools and students. I am fiscally responsible/conservative and certain with the implementation of these programmatic changes within the budget, that it would possibly retract fees in sports/transportation/etc that parents currently pay for some of our short falls/deficits within the school budget.

Sluter: Good boards can get better. I want to be part of “getting better.” We need to create a stronger culture of candor, respect and inquiry.
A. Set Direction: I want to build an environment for positive change to occur. This requires increased collaboration across town boards and engaging in public outreach. Hopefully this starts with increased voter participation in this election.
B. Ensure and Protect Resources: The school district makes up 65% of the Town’s budget. We need to secure and conserve adequate financial resources. We all need to become more aware of the key financial drivers that generate resources, productivity and program quality.
C. Action and Accountability: We can improve our meetings. We need to encourage a culture in which interested, highly engaged committee members and Seekonk residents are encouraged to ask questions and participate in constructive debate on vital issues and priorities. We need to be held accountable to action items identified in meetings. There are some improvements we can make to the way our agenda is organized.

Sullivan: A. Deliver a level budget in line with reasonable increases based on the projected tax levy from the town.
B. Find ways to bring more special education services in house while enhancing enrichment programs for all students.
C. Develop a long solution to our space needs.

Reporter: Do you have any specific changes you want to make in school district policies, programs, or the various school curricula being offered? If so, what changes do you want to make and why?

Corbett: did not answer this specific question

Escaler: There are specific changes that I would like to implement concerning long term planning, school budgeting, and fees paid by parents due to deficits in the budget as well as a plethora of other areas. 

Seekonk administrators need to finalize the long term strategic plan in our schools. I have witnessed on many occasions motions and warrant articles that are presented impulsively and without short term or long-term plans in place. This unfortunately discredits the schools work both within the committee, as well as the administration. I would as a member recommend a deadline to a finalized a strategic plan conducive to the betterment of our schools.

Grants or lack thereof including the Massachusetts School Building Authority have only recently been utilized and/or applied for by the school department. This form of grant/reimbursement needs to be applied for every time the schools go out for bids on capital improvements. Grants could be written to decrease budgeting burdens that the schools have had over the years. One suggestion would be to seek a qualified and/or certified grant writer.

Continued program development in areas of Special Education and working closely with the out of district coordinator is imperative.

I would also during my term strive to also eliminate fees encumbered by parents as I would hope my efforts within the school budget would mitigate the need for this payment in the future.

These are just a few examples that could make an integral positive impact in our school department.

Sluter: I’m here to make positive change and my approach is to fully commit to my duties as a school committee member. I view these duties in the following way. A. Duty of Care: Obligation to be reasonably informed, act in good faith, and be diligent in making decisions. B. Duty of Loyalty: Obligation to be accountable by putting any personal interests aside for the good of the students, families, Seekonk residents, administrators, educators and the Town. C. Duty of Obedience: Obligation to comply with legal, regulatory and reporting requirements to serve as a guardian to the mission of the school district.

Sullivan: I am not focused on making specific policy changes, or curriculum changes in our schools. I am open to considering suggestions from teachers, administrators and parents.

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