SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 15, 2013

Charter school head is running for Salem School Committee

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — In a first for this city — or maybe any city in Massachusetts — a top administrator in the public schools is running for School Committee.

Rachel Hunt, head of school at Salem Academy Charter School, has taken out papers to run for the Salem School Committee.

She joins a crowded field for three open seats that includes three incumbents — Brendan Walsh, Janet Crane and Lisa Lavoie — and newcomer Patrick Schultz, a former Salem High teacher.

Her entry in the race is expected to raise a lot of questions — and a few eyebrows.

Hunt taught at Collins Middle School for two years before founding the charter school nine years ago. Although a public school, the 340-student, grade 6-12 Salem Academy Charter School is independent and is overseen by its own board of trustees. It has a separate budget and hires its own staff.

Hunt said she checked out her potential candidacy with the state and was given initial approval.

“I called the state Ethics Commission to talk through the potential conflict with them and they didn’t believe there would be a conflict,” she said. “I think I would get additional follow-up if I am elected, just to make sure what kinds of things I would need to recuse myself from.”

Although Hunt would not be able to participate in anything that involved a conflict, the Ethics Commission has said in the past that traditional charter schools are state agencies, not municipal agencies.

In a 1997 advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission said a trustee at a charter school, with some restrictions, could serve on the school board of a city or town.

Hunt not only is head of a charter school in the city, but she runs a school that some see as a competitor to the district schools, from which it draws many students.

Salem Academy Charter School, located in Shetland Park, is also a school that faced opposition, bordering on hostility, when it opened nearly a decade ago. At the time, some Salem School Committee members not only spoke out against the charter school, which they saw as draining funds and resources from the Salem public schools, but campaigned openly against it.

Hunt feels, or at least hopes, times have changed.

She said she doesn’t believe there is “the same distrust and animosity ... about Salem Academy that there was when we opened. The school has gained a really positive reputation in the community.”

Hunt said her involvement in the charter school has made her “interested in the education of all the city’s students, and I want to be involved in any way I can.”

Her candidacy, she said, might be a way to help the city schools and charter school work together more and close any rift, perceived or actual, that still exists.

“For me, it’s a nice way of closing the gap,” she said, “for one person to be involved in both the public schools and charter school.”

Hunt, 40, said she started thinking about running for the school board as her children approached school age. She has a daughter who will enter kindergarten next year and a 2-year-old son.

“I’m obviously deeply invested in my job, but having my kids and being a year away from (my daughter) entering school really caused me to think about my role, and I really want to be more invested in education as a whole,” she said.

Hunt conceded that some will see her candidacy as both unusual and unexpected.

“I guess, for me, it’s a unique position to be in — somebody who has the educational experience and is still actively involved in the public schools, but able to run in your own city. ... We tell our students here that they should be involved in their communities and help out in the way that is best suited for them. I suppose (I’m) modeling what we preach to our kids every day.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.