READING – With the Reading Public Schools set to contend with a number of challenges in the coming years, the four candidates for School Committee gathered to lay their priorities on the table ahead of next month’s town election during Tuesday night’s Candidates Forum.
The forum, hosted and broadcasted by RCTV, touched on a variety of subjects, including the candidates’ views on the superintendent’s contract, how to address space issues and future building projects, their thoughts on full-day kindergarten and how to best bridge the communication gap between the school community and the rest of the town.
The candidates include Megan Fidler-Carey, Carla Nazzaro and Erin Gaffen, who are running for two three-year seats on the School Committee, as well as Shawn Brandt, who is running unopposed for a one-year seat on the committee.
By and large the candidates were all in agreement on most issues. Among other things, all four indicated that they were not in favor of Superintendent John Doherty’s recent one-year contract extension, that they strongly support transitioning to full-day kindergarten for all, and that they favor long-term investment into addressing the schools’ space needs.
“I think we need to very carefully choose something that will really meet our needs for the long term,” said Gaffen, a former special education teacher and administrator who was involved in the effort to pass the 2018 override. “I’m in favor of moving RISE out of the high school so that the entire RISE program can be together, and I’m definitely in favor of rebuilding or renovating Killam. I felt that Scheme B is probably our best path forward.”
Several questions dealt with communication, both between School Committee members and the school community as well as between the schools and the town at large. All agreed that communication needs to improve, with revised social media policies enabling more interaction on Facebook repeatedly coming up as a priority.
“It’s definitely something we should be able to do because that’s where everybody is,” said Fidler-Carey, who currently serves as Head of Before/After School Programs in Medford. “We talk about trying to engage and bring the community into the schools who aren’t feel connected, and that’s a quick and efficient way to bring a lot of people in.”
Nazzaro, who is a Town Meeting member, project manager and director of Peoplefit at Home, a Woburn-based physical therapist service for seniors, added that she’d recently had a conversation with a local woman whose kids weren’t in school anymore about how she might want to stay connected with the school community.
“When I asked her, ‘what would you like to see done?’ She said why can’t I get on an email list, why can’t I be part of the same email lists that grade school parents get?” Nazzaro said. “I said that’s a great idea, you can opt in to get emails from the school system and we should be able to better use our social media policies for that.”
On the issue of user fees for athletics and other extracurricular activities, all four candidates indicated that they do not support eliminating fees, primarily because they don’t believe it’s practical to do so. Brandt added that he would support evaluating how much is charged for each program and if different family caps might be warranted, and Fidler-Carey said there should be financial resources available to students in need.
“We should be able to find scholarship money for them to be able to participate as well,” she said.
With special education remaining one of the biggest challenges facing the school district, the candidates each said they support working to build capacity within the district so that fewer students need to be placed out-of-district, both improving the student experience and saving the district money.
The candidates also indicated that they’d like to invest in efforts to improve early diagnosis and evaluation, which would help the student and save money in the long run as well, and that by being proactive the town can meet its needs both legally and morally.
“The amount that we spend on special education is not only legally mandated but it’s also ethically and morally the right thing to do, to make sure all of our students are getting the educational support that they need,” said Brandt, a Town Meeting and Finance Committee member. “We need to evaluate our in-district vs. out-of-district programs to think about bringing more things in district, which is more cost effective.”
The final question of the night dealt with substance abuse and behavioral challenges facing the students. The candidates each expressed support for increased investment in staffing and programs to better fit the needs of students, both at the earliest levels to help prevent substance abuse issues from developing in the first place and to make sure there is staff prepared to help older students who are most at risk.
“Our schools don’t have enough school psychologists and counselors currently and I would agree with adding a substance abuse counselor to the high school,” Gaffen said. “Those are some positions that we need to seriously consider for the safety and overall health of our students.”
The full candidate forum can be viewed on RCTV’s YouTube page. The election will be held on Tuesday, March 3.