Wareham School Committee candidates address budget problems, bullying

Mar 23, 2018

The three candidates for two seats on the School Committee faced questions about closing Minot Forest Elementary School, keeping students and staff in the district and preventing bullying on Thursday.

Candidates Mike Flaherty, Rebekah Pratt and current Vice Chair Geoff Swett, who has served on the committee for 12 years, fielded questions from the members of the roughly 70 people attending the Onset Protective League’s Candidate’s Night

Flaherty previously served on the School Committee three years ago, but took a break to spend time with family. He noted that his experience left him prepared to easily get back to work on the committee. Pratt has a daughter in the high school and is director of Urgent Care for Compass Medical, a medical practice in East Bridgewater. Swett is heavily involved with the YMCA Southcoast, serving as chair of its board of directors. He also volunteers for a variety of town boards and organizations and is the longtime coach of the high school girls tennis team.

The school district’s bleak fiscal situation was brought up. Last month, school officials announced that staff cuts and consolidating the elementary schools will be on the table to bridge a $2 million gap between what the district needs and what the town can afford to spend.

Candidates were asked what they thought of closing Minot Forest Elementary. If that happens, students will be moved to Decas Elementary and portable classrooms would be used until a new school is built.

Flaherty argued against closing the school.

“If we close Minot it will be catastrophic,” said Flaherty. “I feel like we have to move heaven and earth to keep Minot open right now.”

He noted that a rough estimate would cost the town $800,000 to fund the portable classrooms. He said there is no guarantee voters would approve spending money for a new, consolidated school, but did support the project.

Pratt agreed that a new school is sorely needed.

“I think it is absolutely a requirement, it’s not a want,” said Pratt, who noted teachers she’s spoken to said they are currently working in “archaic conditions.”

Swett noted that the “social contract” between generations – where adults ensure that children receive an education – has eroded due to budget constraints. However, Swett said he had faith that voters would approve funding for a new school. The alternative, he said, would be unacceptable.

“The alternative is laying off dozens more teachers and class sizes would skyrocket,” said Swett. “I have to believe in this community. I don’t think it’s misplaced faith.”

How to fund education was raised, with candidates asked if they would support an override if one was placed before residents during a town wide vote. If an override were approved, property taxes would be raised. A similar question was placed before voters in 2014 to fund a variety of town services, and it was overwhelmingly rejected.

Swett said he supported an override four years ago, but would not now. He said a better option is to challenge the state on how it allocates education funds. Swett said a lawsuit is currently being considered by cities and towns across the state.

“I don’t think this community should be asked to spend extra money for a new school,” said Swett. “I believe the state Supreme Judicial Court will find the actions of the governor and the legislature are unconstitutional. That’s better than asking for an override.”

Pratt and Flaherty both said they would support an override.

Candidates were asked how they would keep students from opting out of the district via School Choice, a state program that allows students to attend districts in towns where they don’t live. They said changing the negative perception of Wareham schools and addressing bullying were key factors.

“I’d say focus on addressing the bullying and obviously being a cheerleader for Wareham schools whenever you can,” said Flaherty. “We need to tell people to give Wareham a shot, but it’s not going to happen if the bullying isn’t addressed.”

Pratt said changing the negative perception of Wareham schools was a key issue.

“I think we’ve got to get the word out about what amazing programs we have,” said Pratt. “We’re not doing enough to promote the positive things happening in our schools.”

Swett said one highlight is a new literacy program at Decas Elementary. After being launched a year ago, the literacy rates for the youngest students has skyrocketed.

“We’re seeing extraordinary results with our kindergarten and first grade students,” said Swett.

He noted that addressing bullying, from a legal standpoint, would be more challenging.

“Discipline is an extremely difficult thing to tackle,” said Swett, noting that state and federal laws prohibit School Committees and administrators from taking action in certain areas.

“The law says we can’t do too much,” he said, noting that some progress has been made. Swett pointed to a new program that focuses on positive reinforcement, which has encouraged better behavior.

The Town Election is set for April 3.