BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — At the start of Monday night’s School Committee meeting, during a segment reserved for members of the public, board member Brendan Walsh asked if he could make a statement.
His brief statement is now the talk of the town.
Although only a handful of people attended, Walsh’s comments were carried on SATV, the local cable channel. By yesterday, the video clip had — at least locally — gone viral.
Walsh, who survived a heated campaign this fall to win re-election to a third term, spoke for only about a minute, but used those few seconds to blast the Salem Education Foundation as a “political action committee ... led by elitist snobs.”
Founded in 1994, the Salem Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization, made up largely of parents, that has raised more than $500,000 for the public schools.
Walsh, 73, a retired Salem school administrator from a family with deep roots in the public schools, has been on the School Committee since 2006.
Walsh said he was spurred to speak by comments made by an officer in the foundation, Alexa Ogno, at the start of the Jan. 27 School Committee meeting.
At that meeting, Ogno, the foundation’s board clerk, told the School Committee about a new initiative by the foundation to purchase books for Salem teachers and staff. Before discussing the new program, she welcomed the two newest members of the school board, who were attending their first meeting.
“I’d like to welcome Patrick Schultz and Rachel Hunt,” Ogno said. “I think this is your first official School Committee meeting, so congratulations and welcome to help leading the schools.”
After those few words, Ogno went on to discuss the new program to buy books.
Hunt, the head of school at Salem Academy Charter School, and Schultz, a former vice president of the Salem Education Foundation, were first-time candidates who finished first and third respectively in the November election. Walsh came in second, while two fellow incumbents lost.
The foundation, which hosted candidate forums, did not endorse candidates. But it was generally perceived that many of its members favored Schultz and Hunt over Walsh, who had become a lightning rod for some parents due to his stands on several issues, including his opposition to continuing the extended-year program at the Saltonstall School.
At an emotional meeting on the Saltonstall issue, the current and former head of the foundation spoke in favor of keeping the extended-year program. Two former presidents of the group wrote a letter to The Salem News before the election urging residents to “vote for change.”
In his statement Monday night, Walsh said: “At the School Committee meeting of Jan. 27, I was somewhat taken aback by the comments of Ms. Alexa Ogno, speaking (as she said) as the clerk or secretary of the Salem Education Foundation.
“Ms. Ogno came to that meeting to congratulate two of my colleagues on their success in last November’s election and to express the foundation’s delight in their presence on this committee.
“As the first and, perhaps, only person ever honored as a ‘distinguished educator’ by the then-named Foundation for Salem Public Education, I was simultaneously appalled and happy.
“I was appalled that a supposedly apolitical, nonprofit organization would do something so political and inappropriate. But I was happy that Ms. Ogno’s actions have revealed said foundation for the political action committee into which it has devolved.
“The original Foundation for Salem Public Education was primarily an effort to assist creative teachers by providing grants for project materials, etc. The current Salem Education Foundation is a political action committee led by elitist snobs who wish to influence school policy and practices without putting in the time and effort or taking the electoral risk of those who actually make policy and approve practices.”
In response, the foundation posted the following notice on its Facebook page: “The Salem Education Foundation is a non-political organization with a clear vision and mission to help improve Salem Public Schools.”
The brief statement was followed by its vision and mission statements.
Asked for a comment, Mayor Kim Driscoll, the school board chairwoman, issued the following statement:
“The Salem Education Foundation is a strong partner to our public school district and they have played a positive and meaningful role in our schools. They represent parents, support teachers and help drive quality education for all of our students. We are fortunate to have this diverse and largely volunteer organization assisting our school improvement efforts.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.