School Committee Candidates Debate The Issues (with VIDEO)

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington School Committee candidates Steve Bjork (incumbent), Jenn Bryson, Sabrina Hewitt, Amy Largenton, Rhonda Musikar-Rosner, and Kathi O’Donoghue participated in a spirited debate on Tuesday night.  The six candidates are competing for two seats up for grabs during the April 22 Town Election.

Opening Statements

“I grew up in Wilmington, went through the Wilmington school system, and am fortunate enough to raise my family here in town…. Last 3 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on the Wilmington School Committee,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork, who also took a moment to wish former Interim Superintendent Joanne Benton a speedy recovery and express confidence in Paul Ruggiero as the new Interim Superintendent.

“I’m running to make a difference in the community I’ve come to be a part of for the last 10 years…. I have three children that all attend Wilmington Public Schools… As my children move up in the grades, I see more of their peers leaving to attend private school.  I’d like to see that trend change,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner.

“I’ve decided to run because of my deep investment in providing exemplary education to all students and my commitment to Wilmington,” said candidate Jenn Bryson.  “I’ve dedicated my career teaching and learning both as a classroom teacher and preparer of teachers at BU.  I work on issues at the state, prepare professional development across my districts in Massachusetts, service on a school advisory council and the PAC, and truly believe I can provide a service to the School Committee of our town.”

“I want to see each child in the school system to have an equal opportunity to learn,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt, who went to Wilmington Public Schools and have several friends with children currently in the district.

“I have dedicated my life to education. I’m from a family of educators… I’ve [taught] for 20 years in the classroom and [been in education] for 30 years, off and on,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue. “I’m a SPED inclusion teacher the last 8 years… I’m a licensed middle school and high school principal… I’m an experienced mentor coordinator, overseeing 60 new teachers…. I’m an adjunct professor… I’m a professional curriculum developer. I have 17 years as a building representative [for my teacher’s union].  I’d like to take my experience and [help] my town.”

“The reason I’m running for School Committee is because I feel strongly that it’s time for some new thoughts, new ideas, and fresh energy to be brought to our board,” said candidate Amy Largenton, who has two children.  “I’ve been actively involved in the schools as a volunteer and substitute teacher for the last two years… I’ve served on school advisory council and parent advisory councils… For the last 3 years, I helped run the Northside Pumpkin Fair.”

Settlement Agreement with Mary DeLai (What could have been done differently?)

“We can do more thorough background checks on the superintendent candidates,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner.  “I’m not privy since I’m not a School Committee member, so I don’t know what the deal was behind closed doors.  In the future, I think we should put stuff in the superintendent’s contract to prevent us from paying them for a full year after they resign. We can learn from our past mistakes.”

“We would have benefited from having some sort of out clause at the beginning,” said candidate Jenn Bryson. “We need to think more strategically moving forward, including at the onset of the contract… The teachers and school leaders did a really fantastic job keeping the schools moving along.”

“I think there was a lot of mistakes made, but the committee did what they could at the time,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt.  “Transparency is needed so people know what’s happening.  There shouldn’t be secret back-door dealings… Everything should know what’s going on.”

“This is a better example than anything that proves we really need people on the School Committee that we trust… and that will advocate best for our needs,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue, who touted her 17 years experience as a union rep and her familiarity with school law and executive sessions.  If similar situations arise in the future, O’Donoghue would like to see more cohesion between the school committee and Town Counsel.

“I agree there should have been something in the contract of her buyout that if she received a position anywhere else, we’d be released of any payments,” said candidate Amy Largenton. “There should have been more transparency. And we should have been notified who was there for legal counsel… We use this a learning tool and move forward and make better choices.

“I have a unique perspective since I was actually there,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork.  “Regarding her original hiring, she had an impeccable background.  She was selected as a finalist by a committee of 13 community stakeholders. Regarding her resignation, when we found out about her OUI, we called an Executive Session as soon as legally possible.  We were in Executive Session for 3.5 hours. I promise you, we were not having a dinner party. The entire time, our legal counsel was there, and we sought and followed his advice. That is all I can legally say about what took place in the Executive Session.”

Superintendent Search (What is one trait a Superintendent candidate would need to get your vote?)

“We are definitely looking for someone who has teaching and leadership experience,” said candidate Jenn Bryson.  “Someone who knows the preparation that teachers go through and about the work they do in the classrooms, so they can really think carefully about how they’re supporting teachers when rolling out new programs.”

“It’s important that the next Superintendent sees that all students have an equal right to learn,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt, who also wants a strong leader with an educational background.

“I would like to see someone come to us with an education background,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue. “There’s a new trend in education to want to follow a business model, but [schools] and [businesses] are apples and oranges… I’d like to see someone who comes from a community that is similar to ours and that has proven themselves to be a transformational leader…. I’d like to see someone who is more aggressive in pursuing grants.”

“I’d like to see someone who has been in the classroom, can understand finances, someone who is from a community similar to Wilmington, and someone who grant write grants,” said candidate Amy Largenton.  “I’d like to see that person be able to communicate well with the public and be very open.”

“As far as one defining aspect… we need someone who has classroom experience,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork, who agreed with O’Donoghue’s assessment that schools shouldn’t be run like businesses. “Financial acumen and the ability to work well with the town” are some additional important aspects.

“We want a superintendent who leaves by example,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner.  “One that can wear my hats…. One that has experience in the classroom and as an administrator.  I’d also like to see a candidate who is moving towards the social-emotional needs of the children.”

Does Someone Who Has Worked As An Educator Make For Better School Committee member?

“I agree that it’s very important,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt, who has worked with troubled teens in group homes.  “Someone who has been an educator [or worked with children in some way] will better understand the needs of the children that they’re working for.”

“Yes, I 100% agree,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue. “I’ve been born into education and lived it for 30 years.” O’Donoghue says having an educational background would make a member more astute and informed about the many complex aspects of education.

“I disagree,” said candidate Amy Largenton.  “You need some knowledge of the schools…, but having a different background can make your more observant. Being a teacher, you might be biased towards certain things and can’t separate yourself and be open to new ideas.”

“I think it’s very important to have members on the committee with educational background, but there are seven members of the committee, and I also think it’s important to have diversity,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork.  “People without an educational background can see things from a different perspective and bring fresh ideas.”

“I think what’s most important is that we want what’s best for the kids,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner, who noted she has 25 years of experience as a school counselor.  “It’s OK if someone runs for School Committee who is not an educator…”

“I think it’s important to have balance on the School Committee,” said candidate Jenn Bryson. “I don’t think everyone needs an education experience, but I do think it’s important to have some balance. I think right now, with the year the schools have had, I think it’s very important to have someone who has looked at school budgets, school improvement plans, been involved in lots of hiring, and knows the role of teachers… Having an educator will provide greater depth to the School Committee.”

Special Education — What areas are working well and what needs work?

“I will be quite frank. I was very concerned last year when I saw the Special Education Director also in charge of guidance, nursing, and ordering food for the cafeteria,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue.  “That’s was a huge red flag for me as a Special Education teacher…. The Special Education population is a growing population that we must make sure we accommodate legally, morally and professionally.”

“The Special Education Department is trying.  They have people set up for resources,” said candidate Amy Largenton.  “We’re struggling in consistency.  IEPs are behind. Inadequate staffing.  This is all stuff that needs to be addressed… We have some work to do.”

“Special Education needs a lot of focus right now.  There have been some instances where services have not been delivered and that was addressed very quickly,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork. “We have an Interim SPED Director at the moment.  We’re searching for a permanent director at the moment.  Improving special education deliveries has been a focus and will continue to be a focus.”

“I was quite surprised when I learned there was an interim special ed director.  I did not get any notification that the prior one had left,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner. “Wilmington is moving forward to being co-taught classrooms, which involves a lot more teacher training….  I’d like to see more training.  I’d like to see more diverse special ed programs to meed the diverse needs of students.”

“In speaking with residents, it definitely seems that consistency and communication are a big concern with students with IEPs,” said candidate Jenn Bryson, who would like to see more imbedded professional development to SPED teachers, which could potentially lead to more students staying in district.

“A few of my friends with children with special needs have come to me and have told me they’re not getting their needs met. That’s something we really need to work on,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt.

Opioid Abuse — What role does the School Department have in combatting opioid abuse and what more should it be doing?

All candidates agreed that age-appropriate substance abuse education is necessary beginning at a young age.

School Committee member Steve Bjork mentioned the School Committee’s Policy Subcommittee recently met with the district’s Nurse Leader Doreen Crowe to begin to formulate a policy on interviewing students in Grades 7 and 10 about any risky behaviors they’re engaging in.

“Providing students with more extracurricular activities that will peak their interest and give them other things to do with their time is important,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner, pointing especially to the Middle School.

Candidate Jenn Bryson noted the work of the town’s Substance Abuse Coalition, which has representation from the school department.  “They’re looking for an agency to provide PD to teachers three times a week,” added Bryson, who stressed the importance of funding the existing substance abuse programs.

Candidate Sabrina Hewitt added that it’s important for Narcan and properly trained administrators to be in the schools.  She also wants to ensure that students have a support system in place at school and can’t talk to teachers or guidance counselors about any substance abuse issues that they may be witnessing at home.

Candidate Kathi O’Donoghue praised the recent work of the Wilmington Police Department in breaking down the barriers and removing shame for seeking help for a substance abuse problem.  “I’d like to see more cohesion between all the groups [in town combatting substance abuse].  I’m a big believer in that it takes a village.”

Facility Master Plan — Thoughts On Proposed School Reconfiguration Plans (2 PreK-Grade 2 schools and 2 Grades 3-5 schools)

“I think it’s a fantastic option,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork.  “It will reduce the number of transitions students need to make.”

“I was happy to see they’re reducing the number of transitions,”said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner. “It will probably save Wilmington some money in school bus transportation… Teachers will be able to communicate a lot more easily.  I’m totally for the new plan”

“I agree the option is a good one.  Less transitions will be good for children.  I like having PreK-2 together as they build early literacy,” said candidate Jenn Bryson.  “It will make a big difference on student achievement.”

“I can’t imaging going from one school in Kindergarten to another school in Grade 1 and not being frightened,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt.  “The less change, the better.”

“I’m in agreement with the option,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue, who also expressed interest in Option #4 (having 4 elementary schools).  “I’ve met with Planning Director Valerie Gingrich about the options. I’m glad we’re looking into and respecting the taxpayers dollars.  But two of the schools definitely need to go. They’re antiquated.”

“Like my fellow candidates, I agree with the plan.  I’m in full of agreement with less transitions,” added candidate Amy Largenton.  “It will also cut down on busing.”

13.5% of Wilmington students are minorities, while only 2.8% of the teaching staff are minorities.  How important is it for the teaching staff to reflect the students? What steps should be taken?

“If we can get more minority teachers, that would be a bonus, but I just think we need teachers who are qualified,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner. “It’s more important to get teachers who are enthusiastic, innovtative, connect with the children, and that the children can see as mentors.”

“This isn’t a Wilmington issue or a Boston issue.  It’s an issue nationwide,” said candidate Jenn Bryson, noting a lack of minorities expressing an interest in the teaching profession.  “I don’t have an answer for you, but can tell you that teacher prep institutions across the state are working very hard to increase the diversity in their teaching pools.”

“I know that it’s important for minority students to have diverse teachers.  It’s easier for minority students to look up to them,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt.

“There’s more colleges around us than anywhere else in the country.  I can’t see why our administration can’t reach out to some of the colleges in the area and try to set up some type of practicum program in our schools and encourage minority and younger students to participate,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue.  “[Minority teachers] would provide insight and a perspective, and provide role models to the growing minority population in the classroom.”

School Committee candidate Amy Largenton agrees that having more minorities teachers would be “nice,” but feels having qualified teachers — regardless of race — is most important.  “Wilmington is one of the lowest paid towns for teachers” and the school district needs to do more to attract qualified teachers.

“Diversity is certainly valued within the school system and is encouraged. We follow Massachusetts Fair Hiring laws,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork.  “I don’t know if we’ve done any outreach to increase diversity [among teachers], but it’s certainly something to look into.  I’m sure the staff that we have… is taking very good care of the minority students.”

In a lightning round, candidates briefly discussed school start times, homework, and Tom Brady.

All support later start times at the high school and middle school levels.

There seemed to be a general consensus that the district must be more sensitive to the amount of homework it assigns, homework assignments must be more consistent, and that homework must be meaningful.

Closing Statements

“There are many qualified candidates to choose from.  I hope I’ve earned one of your votes,” said School Committee member Steve Bjork.   I’ve committed to putting in the hours and the effort to bring longterm stability back to Wilmington Schools.  I will continue to do my homework and educate myself on all sides of an issue, solicit input from parents, and do my part to ensure that all of our children have the necessary tools for a successful future.”

“I’m a parent. I’m a public school employee for 25 years. I’m a firm believer in teamwork.  I will work [with all the stakeholders] to make Wilmington a great school district,” said candidate Rhonda Musikar-Rosner.

“I hope you’ll consider me for one of your votes on April 22.  I’m confident my experience  in education as a classroom teacher, a faculty member, and director of education prep at the School of Education at Boston University, and my deep investment in providing equitable access to the curriculum for all all students will be a strong addition to the School Committee,” said candidate Jenn Bryson. “I hope to be a voice for all families in Wilmington as a member of the School Committee.”

“I want all children to have an equal access to be able to learn in Wilmington Public Schools,” said candidate Sabrina Hewitt.  “Special education is really important…. Bullying should be taken very seriously and issue I want to work on. LGBT students should all get treated equally.”

“I come to you with a unique perspective as a parent, teacher, trained administrator, etc. And I’m invested in this community,” said candidate Kathi O’Donoghue. “I will give my heart and soul to this…. I see the community changing.  I see the face of education changing. And my experience, knowledge and networking would be a major asset to the already wonderful existing School Committee.

“My time in the schools have opened my eyes to many positive and negative issues,” said candidate Amy Largenton.  “If elected, I would like to see consistency on both sides of town with curriculum and less observations in the classroom… Many of my opponents have impressive backgrounds in the field of education, but I feel it would be beneficial to incorporate someone with a different background.  I’d focus on communication with parents and the public, and bring a fresh perspective.  If elected, I’m confident my skill set with complement the other members well.”

The debate was moderated by Town Moderator Rob Peterson Jr.  Panelists included Tom Zuppa of the Lowell Sun and Krista Bresnahan of the Wilmington Town CrierWilmington Apple served as the debate’s ‘web partner’ and provide a few questions as well.

Candidates Night was sponsored by the Wilmington-Tewksbury Chamber of Commerce, Reading Cooperative Bank, WCTV, and the Wilmington Town Crier.

Watch the full debate, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, below:

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