SCHOOL COMMITTEE CANDIDATES DEBATE: Byrnes, Fennelly & Ragsdale Debate The Issues (with VIDEO)

WILMINGTON, MA — School Committee member MJ Byrnes and challengers Jesse Fennelly and David Ragsdale recently took part in a debate as part of the WCTV and Chamber of Commerce’s Candidates Night. Below are some highlights:

Opening Statements

“It has been a privilege and honor to serve my community in my role as School Committee member,” said incumbent MJ Byrnes, who has served as the Committee’s legislative representative and delegate to the annual Massachusetts Association of School Committees Conference. “Over the last six years, I have been – and continue to be – an active and engaged member of the board.”

“I’m running for School Committee because I want great schools for my kids and for all the kids of Wilmington,” said David Rasgdale, a father of three who recently served on the Superintendent Search Screening Committee.  “My education, background and experience will be an asset to the School Committee.  I taught for the Princeton Review for 16 years, teaching, tutoring and training new teachers. For the past 6.5 years, I’ve worked for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, where I’ve gained expertise in assessment and the state curriculum frameworks, while being immersed in education policy on a daily basis.”

“The reason I’m running is for my two boys at home,” said Jesse Fennelly. “I want to ensure that the Wilmington school system continues to provide the best education possible to all of the students in the district.  I want our kids to be prepared for whatever life brings them when they leave our schools… I believe a vibrant school system is indicative of a successful school community.”

Two Goals You’d Like To See In Superintendent Brand’s Entry Plan?

“Building and forming relationships with our staff and administrators is going to be key after the transitions we’ve had over the past couple of years,” said MJ Byrnes. “And then start meeting with the municipal leadership – Town Manager, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Public Grounds, Public Works. [Building these relationships] will provide a foundation to step off and begin addressing the needs of our district.”

“I think having a solid entry plan is going to be very important. He needs some time to get to know the district, but we also can’t wait too long before we start moving on certain initiatives,” said David Ragsdale. “I’d like to see him outline some strategic priorities for the first few months and first year… The second thing for him to focus on would be to shore up the district leadership team. There are some positions that will need to be filled (e.g., Assistant Superintendent, Director of Technology) to stabilize our district leadership team.”

“It’s really important that Dr. Brand come in and establish his leadership team and administration, starting with the Assistant Superintendent. There’s been positions left interim or vacant that need to be filled so the district can continue to move forward,” said Jesse Fennelly. “I also think public relations is going to be big. The district has had some bumps as of late… It’s really important that Dr. Brand establish and develop that trust with the community.”

How Can School Committee Ensure A Smooth Superintendent Transition & District’s Leadership Stability Is Restored?

“One of the things that needs to be coming up on the agenda is how Dr. Brand intends on recruiting and filling leadership team positions, and making sure the type of person he’s looking for is someone the School Committee is also on board with,” said David Ragsdale, who pointed out that the School Committee has limited authority over most of Brand’s hiring decisions. “We need to be supportive and give him the freedom to select people he thinks he can work well.”

“Know that Dr. Brand is paying attention to the district and making himself involved now is going to make the transition a little bit smoother,” said Jesse Fennelly. “I was happy to see that the School Committee appointed a transition subcommittee so that in the lead up to Dr. Brand starting, there is some established lines of communication so he’s kept in the loop and is up to speed when he starts.”

“Supporting him and his transition into the district and showing him what the community values in a school leader will be a key piece,” said MJ Byrnes. “Regarding hiring interim and vacant positions, there’s not a lot of say the School Committee has… It’s outside of our purview other than supporting him and his decisions.”

Do You Agree With The Facility Master Plan’s Recommendation to close the Boutwell & Wildwood, the Shawsheen & Woburn Street receive renovations and become PreK-Grade 2 schools and the North & West receive renovations and become Grades 3-5 schools?

“I agree with the plan. It’s the plan that makes the most sense,” said Jesse Fennelly. “It eliminates the amount of transitions our kids go through at different grade levels.”

“I’m fully in support of the plan. It was under the recommendation of former Superintendent Joanne Benton,” said MJ Byrnes. “It minimizes the transitions. It’s fiscally prudent to house the students in less buildings. Most importantly,  the buildings are an aging infrastructure… We’re going to hit a wall in terms of how much technological upgrades we can do within the existing structures.”

“I tentatively support this plan. I’d like to look a little bit more at some of the other options and what the cost considerations are,” said David Ragsdale. “I fully support the fundamental goal of this plan, which is to consolidate some of these schools and cut down on some of these transitions. It’s not good for the kids to be changing buildings so many times. It’s also hard on the staff. We lose economies of scale.”

How Can The District Better Incorporate Technology Into The Classroom?

“We’ve introduced the 1:1 Chromebook initiative into our Middle School,” said MJ Byrnes. “Technology is pushing teachers to think outside the box of ways to reach students.”

“You have to make incremental, steady [technological] improvements when dealing with older buildings. You just can’t wait for them to fall into such a state of disrepair that major renovations and enormous projects are necessary. Just because they’re old buildings doesn’t mean they can’t have modern infrastructures,” said David Ragsdale. “A Chromebook is just a laptop. Giving one to every student doesn’t ensure learning occurs. Teachers need tools and strategies. They need to adapt the curriculum so you can actually make use of the technology in the classroom, or we won’t see any benefit from it.”

“It’s really important that students learn and adapt to technology early on,” said Jesse Fennelly. “I caution that there’s too much screen time. There needs to be a balance between technology and traditional classroom learning… Giving the teachers the tools and resources they need is more important than the facility the students are taught in.”

What More Can The District Be Doing Relative To School Safety? Metal Detectors? More School Resource Officers?

“I think Wilmington has been a very forward-looking district when it comes to school safety. We were an early adopter of the ALICE protocols… We have a lot of the best practices already in place… We’ve been doing a good job of keeping our students safe,” said David Ragsdale. “I am open to increasing the use of school resource officers…  I would not be comfortable with hired armed guards. And I’m completely opposed to arming teachers in classrooms.  I do not support metal detectors – they don’t enhance the learning environment and, unless you control every entrance to the school, they aren’t effective.”

“We’re very fortunate in this town to have such cooperation between the school department and police and fire departments,” said Jesse Fennelly. “I’m not in favor of permanent metal detectors in schools. I’m not in favor of arming teachers. If the Chief were on board, and the funding was there, I’d be in favor of school resource officers in every facility.”

“Wilmington is doing everything it can to secure our schools,” said MJ Byrnes. “The Safety Committee continues to come up with ways to ensure our schools are secure. The video cameras, locking mechanisms at each schools, and protocols and procedures speak to that, but it can always be improved upon. I don’t think metal detectors are a good use of money. I am very much open to the idea of [more] school resource officers to instill a sense of calmness. I would not want to contract out armed guards… And I’m very much against armed teachers. Teachers teach.”

How Can The School System Combat The Opioid Epidemic?

“It’s important that we address the opioid epidemic early,” said Jesse Fennelly. “The solution is a combination of a number of things — education in the schools, making sure we have adequate behavioral health counselors and resources available to our kids, and it starts at home – making sure parents are talking to their kids about these dangers.”

“We really conducted our second risk behavior survey at the Middle School and High School. The numbers of students engaging in high risk behaviors are still very alarming. We need to do more, and do it collaboratively between the schools and the parents to give our children the supports and direct them down the right path,” said MJ Byrnes. “I’ll continue to support the mental health initiatives and social-emotional well-being initiatives for our students. I would also like to see these extended to our staff. There’s a lot of mental and emotional fatigue on our staff…”

“The YBRS data was very alarming. It has been for years and it’s not just Wilmington. We’ve made some good steps towards safety by, for example, having Narcan available, but this isn’t just a school issue, it’s a town issue, community issue and family issue,” said David Rasgdale. “We need to work hand-in-hand with the town. I very much agreed with the town hiring a Substance Abuse Coordinator.  The School Department needs to work with her on educational programming. We can also take advantage of the ROOTS Coalition, which intends to do programming round mental health and substance abuse.”

If You Had To Decrease One Area Of The Budget, What Would It Be? If You Had To Increase One Area Of The Budget, What Would It Be? What Do You Say To Those Who Think Dr. Brand’s $190K Starting Salary Is Too High?

Byrnes would cut funds from the paper supply line up and add funds to the social emotional and mental health initiatives and supports.

“[Regarding Dr. Brand’s salary,] you get what you pay for,” said MJ Byres. “I was very impressed by his resume and experience. He has a doctorate – a first for a Wilmington superintendent. Looking at other communities with similar demographics, and superintendents with his credentials, his salary is a little lower, actually.”

Ragsdale would like to eventually see a decreased reliance on textbooks at the higher levels at technology becomes more utilized. Ragsdale would like to add funds for professional development.

“Dr. Brand’s salary is fair. It was less than he was making in Acton-Boxborough. It’s comparable to his experience. And this was someone who was superintendent finalist in at least three other districts, so he was absolutely in demand,” said David Ragsdale.

Fennelly would add funding for special education programs.

“This may not be a popular opinion, but I would maybe take some of the starting salary from Dr. Brand, if I had to cut something,” said Jesse Fennelly. “He’s an excellent candidate. I’m thrilled he’s joining us. He’ll do great things. I would have preferred for the contract to start lower and have some incentives to be met. He is deserving of the salary he’s making, but I would have liked us to start him a little lower.”

In What Ways Can The District Improve Its Special Education Services?

“We’ve made some progress, but there’s definitely a lot to do.  Wilmington has a large special education population. Nearly 20% of the district receives special education services. It’s really important to use our resources wisely,” said David Ragsdale. “We recently received a grant… through the SEEM Collaborative to study resource allocation. We need more training not just for our Special Education teachers, but our regular education teachers, because the law require the least restrictive environment for special education students, which often means an inclusion model…. I also have some concern over how many things we have under the umbrella of the Director of Student Services.”

“I think it’s important that everyone in the district get the training and the resources they need to make the programs successful,” said Jesse Fennelly. “We need to give [the Director of Student Services] more time to turn things around. She’s done a good job of righting the ship and having the district go in the direction it needs to be going in.”

“I would like to invest in creating more tools for our educators. Training and professional development needs to continue,” said MJ Byrnes. “I’d like to see the creation of my inclusive classrooms and strengthening supports within them. My overarching goal is to strengthen the special education program to allow for out-of-district students to be brought back in to their community.”

Lightening Round

Do Wilmington students have the proper amount of homework?

“There’s a disparity of homework amongst grades and buildings. I wouldn’t be able to answer that appropriately,” said MJ Byrnes.

“I don’t know. I don’t know how you’d even [gather that data]. I approve of the goldilocks approach – just the right amount,” said David Ragsdale.

“My first grader gets the appropriate amount of homework. I’ll reserve my overall judgements until the district’s homework research committee puts out its findings,” said Jesse Fennelly.

Should schools start later in the day?

“Yes. There’s a growing body of research that everything is better for kids with later school start times,” said David Ragsdale. “If we move in that direction, we definitely need to consider the cost and impact on parents’ work schedules. We shouldn’t do it quickly, but we should move in that direction. And Dr. Brand has already led that effort in his previous district.”

“We need to be mindful of parents’ work commitments and student after school commitments, but – overall – the easy answer is yes,” said Jesse Fennelly.

“I do agree. Research has shown how important sleep is for the development of the brain,” said MJ Byrnes. “We need to take a thoughtful, methodical approach as there are financial costs, transportation/scheduling costs, and the need to balance amongst the start times among schools in the district.”

Closing Statements

“It takes a village to raise a child and, after 16 years as a Wilmington resident, I couldn’t ask for a better village to raise my children in,” said MJ Byrnes. “I’m committed to ensuring all our children have the appropriate facilities, tools and technology to reach their fullest potential… I hope I’ve displayed to you tonight my integrity, dedication and commitment to my family and my community, along with my strong desire to continue to serve as your representative on the School Committee.”

“I want to talk about some commitments I’ll make if elected to the School Committee,” said David Ragsdale. “First, I will always keep the needs and interests of Wilmington students front-most in mind with every issue that comes before the School Committee and every decision that needs to be made. Next, I will give all my energy to this and put in the work. Attending the meetings over the past two years, I’ve seen how much work serving on the committee involves.  I know what I’m getting into. Lastly, I always promise to listen to the residents of Wilmington and to represent you as your voice.”

“At the end of the day, I want to represent you on the Wilmington School Committee because I believe it’s important that the Wilmington Public Schools continue to prepare all of our students for what awaits them after high school,” said Jesse Fennelly. “Our school system should appropriately prepare [students] for whichever dreams each chooses to pursue, whether it’s a 2 or 4-year college, military service, a trade school, or straight to the workforce, we must ensure that our kids are well-prepared for post-high school life. With your vote, I’ll work hard every day to make sure that’s a reality.”

Watch the 50-minute debate, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, below:

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