SCHOOL COMMITTEE RACE Q&A: Byrnes, Fennelly & Ragsdale Discuss Their Differences

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Apple is asking School Committee candidates MJ Byrnes, Jesse Fenelley, and David Ragsdale questions each week leading up to the April 28 Town Election.

This week’s question asks the candidates to differentiate themselves from each other. Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:

MJ Byrnes

MJ Byrnes

What qualities and experiences do you possess that make you different than your two opponents and better suited to serve on the School Committee?

I think the biggest experience I bring that sets me apart from the other candidates is that I have served my community in this role for 6 years. Should I earn back my seat, there will be no lag time of coming up to speed or transitioning of any kind, and I can continue my work without any disruption. Knowing there will be at least one new member, who will need to be brought up to speed on the work of the District, along with a new superintendent about to transition into the District, I feel this would also have the least impact to the current work of the Board and allow a new member the time to get up to speed.

Being familiar with the perimeters of the seat, I’ve learned, and my actions support, how and where I can have the biggest impact in supporting our District. Having served on a variety of sub committees in my two terms, these experiences has also afforded me a broader perspective of where we’ve been and the direction we need to go. Having that history is key in ensuring we continue to make progress towards our goals within the District with little disruptions.

In addition, through my own personal experiences with my children, I bring a strong knowledge of Special Education and the importance of meeting the needs of all differentiated learners within our District. This has allowed me to ensure the decisions the Board makes encompasses this population of students to drive inclusionary practices, and the supports that will allow opportunities for these students to succeed in our schools. This continues to be a passionate direction for me and I’m committed in supporting and strengthening our programs so that our children can get a strong education and be active participants within their own school communities. Having spent the past 25 years at MGH in Internal Medicine, my position has only added to and strengthened my knowledge in understanding how the initiatives put forth by our district, especially in the areas of social, emotional and behavioral health, can truly have a positive effect in student development and achievement.

In seeing how essential professional development is to our staff in driving student achievement, I recognize the importance for School Committee Members to also have similar learning resources. Since first being elected, I’ve attended the MASC’s annual Conference, which has allowed me to access a variety of work shops on topics that range from learning parliamentary procedures to learning how and what other districts have done in addressing those same issues we are facing within our own District. This experience has been invaluable to me as I continue to grow within my seat.

I would like to think that through my involvement and actions as a Board member has lent insight to the qualities I possess, and of which, speaks to what stakeholders want to see in their community leaders. I feel I continue to show my dedication, sincerity and passion in the position I’ve been elected to do. I am honest and genuine in my approach to my seat, and support transparency and accountability.

For those who have reached out to me in addressing concerns or seeking guidance, I have been timely and responsive in following through or gathering information to support them and their needs. I am approachable and have been humbled by those constituents who have placed their trust in me.  I am known for my responsiveness to constituents concerns, and have a reputation for turning no one away who requires help.

As an active participant at School Committee meetings, my actions have shown that I can contribute as apart of a Team, as well as, independently in addressing the needs of our schools. I have shown that I approach discussion with an open minded, and have no fear in ‘agreeing to disagree’ with colleagues. I continue to show my loyalty to schools and community.

Qualities I possess: integrity, approachability, timely responsiveness and follow through to concerns, problem solving, honesty and transparency, accountability, a passion for the position which is seen through my activism, sincerity, genuine, the ability to work as a team and individually, open minded, able to agree to disagree , loyalty with an element of objectivity, humility and humbleness and dedication

Having served 6 years in this position, it has afforded me valuable insight on the current needs of school community. I have been a strong and active advocate for public school funding and initiatives that will not only promote learning and student achievement, but will also support the emotional and social needs of our student body. I currently serve as the Board’s Secretary, Legislative Representative, WEF representative and School Representative for the Nurses Contract Negotiations. Previously, I have been an active participant on the Policy Sub-Committee, Representative to the WPS Wellness Advisory Committee, Superintendent Search Committee and subsequent Superintendent and the last two Teacher Contract Negotiation sub committees . In addition, through my work on the Board, I have also been fortunate to establish strong working ties with not only our School Leaders, but with the community at large. It’s through these actions and responsiveness to concerns that I’ve shown and continue to show integrity and approachability. I’m genuine in my passion and sincerity in ensuring all our children are prepared for their futures, and can continue to learn in a safe and secure learning environment.

Jesse Fennelly

Jesse Fennelly

What qualities and experiences do you possess that make you different than your two opponents and better suited to serve on the School Committee?

When the Wilmington School Committee meets this May for the first time following the town election, there will be at least one new member present on the committee.  It will also be a time of transition for the school department as our new superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand will be joining us in early July, and we will be losing a talented, innovative leader in assistant superintendent Sean Gallagher.  These transitions, along with other issues, make it imperative that the school committee continue to operate at the highest possible level.  I believe I am the candidate with the qualities, skills and experiences to help guide these evolutions.

First, there must be a smooth transition to the new superintendent.  Dr. Brand will have a number of challenges ahead and it is important that he be informed before stepping into his new role.  I have spent most of my career establishing and maintaining relationships at all levels of an organization.  From local and state elected officials while working at the State House to the senior staff of my current employer, I have the ability to work with and relate to all kinds of individuals.  I look forward to being able to collaborate with my colleagues on the school committee to establish the appropriate relationship with Dr. Brand to enable him to be up-to-speed regarding our district on his first day in Wilmington.

Next, we must be mindful of the past issues surrounding the school department.  There have been a number of bumps along the way recently, including the tragic and untimely passing of Superintendent Benton.  But the past is the past, and it is time for our community to begin to heal.  I have a great respect and appreciation for the current members of the school committee.  From my conversations with them I can tell they are all compassionate, involved and engaged members of the community who care deeply about the success of our schools and our students.  The board as a whole, however, has had what might be considered a public relations issue in recent years.  I believe the school committee, to an extent, must reposition itself as a leader in the community.  Having worked in marketing/external/public relations for a number of years, I am uniquely qualified to help the school committee bridge that gap.

Lastly, the school committee must continue to work, to the extent possible, to engage the residents of Wilmington in ongoing, meaningful dialogue regarding the success and direction of the schools.  There are, of course, limitations to this.  Some things that are overseen by the school committee cannot be discussed with the public at large.  Some residents of the town are happy with the state of the schools and are not interested in engaging the process.  But for those that are, the school committee must be willing to participate in the dialogue.  In my 5 years working at the State House, I had the great pleasure of working with constituents on all manner of topics.  For 3 ½ years, I worked with former state representative Charley Murphy who represented precinct 3 of Wilmington.  I understand the voters and residents of Wilmington, and as a member of the school committee I will continue to reach out to residents of this town to involve them in this dialogue.

I was at an event not long ago and was speaking with someone about the upcoming election.  They asked me “do you think you should need to be a teacher to serve on the school committee?”  That is an excellent question, but the answer is no.  It is very important to have educators on the school committee.  You need individuals who understand students, and curriculum, and faculty issues.  But you also need individuals with more diverse backgrounds to provide a balance of ideas, input and thoughts on the issues at hand.  Not only do I have the skills, experiences and qualities necessary to provide stability during a time of change, but I will approach every decision made by the school committee in two very important ways: I will always seek feedback before making decisions, and I will always make a decisions as a parent first.


David Ragsdale

David Ragsdale

What qualities and experiences do you possess that make you different than your two opponents and better suited to serve on the School Committee?

I think the biggest thing that distinguishes me from the other candidates is my background and experience in education, both on the teaching side, and on the policy side.

I taught for 16 years for The Princeton Review, teaching, tutoring, training new teachers, and developing course content. As a teacher, I know what it’s like to be in front of a class of students who are counting on you. I know the frustration of seeing students struggle, and the satisfaction of seeing them gain new confidence when a concept finally clicks. I know the challenge of having kids in front of me with a range of abilities, and having to pitch my teaching in that golden zone where the stronger students don’t get bored and the weaker students don’t get lost.

When I started training new teachers, it brought my understanding of teaching to a new level because I had to think not only about the how of teaching, but the why.  When modeling a lesson for trainees I had to be able to answer their questions and explain the reasons that I did the things I did.

I also have experience in curriculum development, writing course materials and contributing to several books and in-class manuals. I particularly enjoyed writing grammar lessons and math lessons.

In 2011, I began working at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the agency that oversees K–12 education in Massachusetts. Over the past six-and-a-half years I have been able to see public education from the policy side — the Foundation budget and Chapter 70 school funding, the Circuit Breaker reimbursement for special education costs, the revisions to the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks, the next-generation MCAS, changes to the educator evaluation system — and many other parts of the public education system. This experience has helped me understand education trends affecting districts across Massachusetts and will be an asset to the school committee if I am elected.

I believe that I bring other things to the table as well for this position — a demonstrated commitment to the district, a desire to listen to the residents of Wilmington and be a voice for them on the school committee — but I think it is my background and experience in education that most differentiates me from the other candidates.

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