The four candidates for two vacancies on the School Committee displayed what they feel are their strengths Thursday during their first opportunity to share the same virtual stage.
The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Bedford, featured questions answered and asked by Brad Morrison, incumbent; Eleanor Gorsey; Kelly Horton; and Sheila Mehta-Green.
Morrison emphasized his experience on the committee, and his business training. Horton stressed her role as a leading advocate of a return to the classroom during the pandemic. Mehta-Green pointed to her years of wide-ranging volunteer involvement in the schools.
Gorsey referenced the institution she once led, Bedford Learning School, which accepted students with learning needs. But what people will remember from her participation Thursday was her assertion that the school district goals focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, student-centered learning, and social-emotional learning, should be scrapped.
Asked by the League about areas of the schools’ curriculum that should be strengthened or revised, Morrison cited social-emotional learning and science, particularly among the youngest students. Mehta-Green called for additional social-emotional learning resources across all grades, elementary school literacy, and the arts. Horton said she is echoing concerns she hears from parents and other residents, such as literacy at Davis School and more innovative science.
Gorsey began her response by saying, “I think a little bit differently.” First, she called for attracting more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, as well as volunteers from industry and the community.
Then she lit into district goals. “We don’t need money for a diversity coordinator,” she said, claiming the schools are “33 percent minority already.” She contended that students are complaining about negative portrayals of society in classrooms. “Why don’t we foster pride in the things we have accomplished? Our kids come home ashamed of who they are.”
The candidates also responded to a variety of other questions:
The League wanted to know if the candidates would support an analysis of the schools’ response to the pandemic.
Mehta-Green said a comprehensive outreach would include focus groups and surveys, involving all major constituencies, starting with students. Gorsey, called upon to answer, said “I don’t know what more I could add.”
Morrison, noting that this kind of analysis is his academic area, said he would assemble a cross-section of stakeholders to set up the process and then gather the information. Horton pointed out that the pandemic affected everyone, but not in the same way. She said she would suggest separate analysis from decision-makers and “those who weren’t part of the process.” She added, “Everyone was truly doing the best they could.”
Gorsey asked fellow candidates how they would get parents more involved in the curriculum.
“The answer is informing parents what we are teaching and getting them to be part of the conversations that take place in the household,” said Morrison. “The role of the parent is to provide continuity from the time the student is in school through the rest of that child’s day. For that to be done effectively we have to be sure to inform our parents.”
“The first step is around transparency,” said Horton, and “in some areas, we have a ways to go.” Specifically, she said, many teachers send weekly messages to parents providing “consistent transparency” on what’s happening in the classrooms. “Then parents should have the opportunity to provide feedback,” she said. Horton added that with the pandemic waning, more parents can get involved as in-school volunteers.
Mehta-Green stated that “I inherently trust the professionals to set the curriculum guidelines. There is a great opportunity to continue parent involvement so the lessons being learned in school can bridge their way home and into the community.” She agreed with Horton that parents can return to the schools “to share all kinds of experiences.”
Horton’s question to fellow candidates was what they would prioritize during their first 90 days on the School Committee.
Mehta-Green said she would undertake a “listening tour,” targeting all stakeholders from students to community members “to understand what we are doing really well and what are areas we can improve.” Morrison said his emphasis would be on assessing and identifying Covid-related “learning gaps” as well as “teacher burnout.” He added that he hopes “summer will be an opportunity for regrouping and recharging.”
Gorsey repeated her assault on the district goals. She focused on social-emotional learning and said parents are telling her “that what is being taught is a lot of gender identity and non-conformity.” She quoted “national standards” about teaching middle school students specific sexual practices and subjects that counter religious beliefs.
The League asked about budgetary challenges, particularly any that result from reduced federal emergency funding.
The town supports the schools very well, Gorsey said, and “we won’t be in trouble.” Horton said she hears from parents that “we have a lot of mental health challenges and counselors are overloaded and overwhelmed. We need to think when we have finite resources how we can shift things when we have a need at a specific time.”
Mehta-Green noted that the town took advantage of federal money to expand its technology inventory. “That’s one thing we’ll have to keep an eye on, to make sure teachers can get the most out of the investment.” She also noted the need to use “all available resources” to ensure that students with learning needs also benefit from socialization.
Morrison noted that for the past few years the town has segregated money in reserve – this year $450,000 – for unexpected out-of-district special-education expenses. This is unsustainable, he said. He also cited the impact of declining enrollment on state aid, and said, “The most fiscally responsible thing we could do is find ways to keep special education students in the district.”
Morrison’s question to the others was about ”experience working with budget and understanding school and town financing.”
Horton acknowledged that her primary financial experience is in the private sector. She added that the School Committee doesn’t need “five people who have experience and background in town finances. I would look to fellow members to provide insight and contribute to these discussions.” She cited her “willingness and desire to learn more and challenge myself and my ability to get up to speed quickly.”
Gorsey noted her membership on non-profit and for-profit boards. “I’m sure I don’t know everything about it but I agree we need people who have different strengths.”
Mehta-Green said she has attended many School Committee meetings and learned how the budget is assembled “as a spectator.” She observed, “I think it’s really important to understand what that the approval process looks like. If elected I would invest the time to make sure I understand.” She also noted her volunteer leadership at Bedford Elementary Schools Together and the Special Education Parent Advisory Council included budgetary responsibilities.
Candidates were allowed up to two minutes for an opening statement and the same time to close.
Gorsey declared that “parents have the right to know what is being taught to their children. Curriculum is under local control, she said. She also wants to launch a “mentoring system” using local residents and industry representatives. “STEM education is desperately needed,” Gorsey maintained.
Horton said, “During my campaign, I have tried to get much input from people so others’ views can inform my thinking. I want to focus my time and efforts on meeting the academic needs of every child.” Horton noted that she will have one child in three of the four Bedford schools for the next several years.
Mehta-Green emphasized her “proven record for collaboration within our school district” over 12 years as a volunteer. She said she has taught as an adjunct professor at Middlesex Community College for two decades.
Morrison cracked, “I really want to do this job when we don’t have a pandemic. I feel like I got 10 years of experience in two years.” Morrison said that during that time “we navigated many of the challenges of managing a school system and doing things to keep the district running,” such as recruiting a superintendent, approving budgets, and expanding non-voting membership.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763