BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The dramatic change going on in the public schools was reflected in yesterday’s stunning election for School Committee.
Newcomers Rachel Hunt and Patrick Schultz, making their first runs for elective office, knocked off two incumbents, Janet Crane and Lisa Lavoie.
Hunt, the head of school at Salem Academy Charter School, topped the ticket with 3,205 votes.
Schultz, a former school teacher and administrator who owns the Howling Wolf restaurant, came in third, about 200 votes behind incumbent Brendan Walsh, who captured the second spot while being elected to his third term. Walsh had finished first in September’s preliminary.
“I’m psyched,” said Schultz. “I think across the board it was a vote for change.”
Hunt’s win was impressive not only because she finished first. A decade ago, when she helped found the charter school, there were hard feelings by many at the Salem School Department. A member of the Salem School Committee even passed out leaflets protesting the new charter school.
But over the past 10 years, as the charter school has earned academic accolades, attitudes have changed.
“The charter school debate is over,” said Schultz.
Hunt said she was “surprised” to finish first and “excited” to be able to serve on the school board.
Walsh probably worked harder than any other candidate, going door-to-door across the city.
“I think we did pretty well given the fact we were up against a well-coordinated machine orchestrated from the highest levels of Salem government,” said Walsh. He was referring to Mayor Kim Driscoll, chairwoman of the school board.
This is the first city election since November 2011, when the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education designated Salem a Level 4, under-performing district based on the Bentley Elementary School’s consistently low scores on the state MCAS exams. Salem was given three years to improve the 350-student elementary school’s performance or face a possible state takeover.
Since then, the School Department has adopted an Accelerated Improvement Plan and made a number of changes at schools across the city, even adding an hour to the school day at Bentley. While there are signs of progress at several schools, Bentley, so far, has shown little improvement in MCAS scores.
Against that backdrop, a strong field of candidates, arguably the strongest in several years, stepped forward to challenge the three incumbents.
The most surprising entry was Hunt, 40, a former teacher at Collins Middle School who founded the Salem Academy Charter school 10 years ago and has served ever since as head of school. She even checked out her candidacy with the state Ethics Commission to make sure it was not a conflict for the head of an independent public charter school, which has its own board of trustees, to serve as a School Committee member for the district school system.
This election also comes only months after the school board voted to end the extended-year schedule at the Saltonstall School, a controversial move that put a spotlight — some might say a target — on Walsh, 65, and Crane, 69, two incumbents who voted to eliminate the additional 10 days from Saltonstall’s schedule at a time when the school system was looking to expand student learning time.
Two Saltonstall parents, Rick Johnson, 41, and Katie Casiglia, 37, entered the race. Casiglia lost in the preliminary election in September. Johnson came in fourth in yesterday’s voting. Both said the Saltonstall vote was not their primary reason for running.
Schultz, 50, also was seen as a strong candidate, having taught at Salem High, served as a department chairman and assistant principal at Chelsea High, and spent three years at Mass Insight, a nonprofit that worked to increase the number of students taking challenging Advanced Placement courses.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.