SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 17, 2013

Saltonstall change could sway votes in election

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — The School Committee meeting had just broken for a brief recess Monday night when Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel approached a reporter.

“Time to replace all of them,” said Turiel, who was clearly upset after a 4-3 vote by the School Committee to end the 190-day, extended-year schedule at Saltonstall School.

Yesterday, Turiel, a Saltonstall parent, continued his criticism of a majority of the school board in a post on his Facebook page: “There are three serious, credible challengers to the (School Committee) seats that are up this year, and I will, personally, give them all my enthusiastic support.”

If there is fallout from Monday night’s vote, it could be felt this election year. There is a preliminary election Sept. 17, followed by a final election Nov. 5.

Three school board members are running for re-election, including two who were leaders in the move to end the longer year at Saltonstall — Brendan Walsh and Janet Crane.

The third incumbent, Lisa Lavoie, voted to keep the 190-day schedule.

The three so-called credible challengers — Patrick Schultz, Katie Casiglia and Rachel Hunt — all spoke Monday night in favor of keeping the extended-year program at Saltonstall, so it’s hard to imagine that won’t be an issue in the upcoming election.

Politics aside, the most immediate impact of Monday’s vote is on the Salem Teachers Union, which must sit down with school administrators in the next few weeks to begin negotiating new contract language for Saltonstall teachers, who are paid a 16 percent stipend for working longer days and a longer school year. Saltonstall is in session an hour longer every school day.

“At this point, there are more questions than answers,” Teachers Union President Joyce Harrington said yesterday.

At an earlier school board meeting, Harrington warned about taking this action so late in the year, saying the decision raises contract issues for teachers that will take awhile to resolve.

“Their working conditions, their compensation — that all has to be bargained,” she said.

With the 10 extra days and the 11-month schedule gone for next school year, Saltonstall Principal Julie Carter said they are already adjusting the school calendar. The K-8 school, which normally runs through July, is now looking at ending school before the July 4 holiday.

Carter attended Monday night’s meeting at Salem High but chose not to speak. She said it was difficult to sit and listen to what she considered negative comments by some school board members, who were critical of her school’s performance on MCAS tests, the attendance of some students and staff during the summer schedule, and other issues. The comments, she felt, were divisive and unfair.

“The vote aside, people felt like this is not the way to go about building a strong school community,” she said. “The criticism and scrutiny of a school that is actually performing well is not encouraging to anybody. In that way, the (School Committee’s) performance is demoralizing. ... Their willingness to just malign their own school — it just doesn’t make any sense. ...

“My personal feeling is that for this School Committee to make this decision in the middle of a turnaround, where (the school system) is already under scrutiny ... This invites more scrutiny. Why would you take away a resource, no matter who benefits, in a district already identified as Level 4?”

Carter also referred to a letter circulated last week and signed by more than 250 people, including a number of past and present community leaders, calling on the school board to postpone any action on Saltonstall while it focuses on the three-year turnaround effort for this Level 4, under-performing district. Ignoring that broad-based appeal, Carter said, was an “affront to the community.”

Despite the vote, Carter said she was upbeat about Saltonstall’s future. In fact, she said they were holding a school council meeting yesterday at which they would “start to re-energize.”

“I don’t want this to bring us down, and I don’t think it will,” she said. “I think the Saltonstall spirit is really strong and the commitment to the culture won’t be impacted.”

While acknowledging the role of the state MCAS exams, Carter said she feared that the overemphasis on test scores was harmful.

“I honestly feel 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and realize this was the worst thing we’ve done to kids,” she said. “I just think we’re learning a really hard lesson. ... I hope we can sustain a focus on children and have the test scores be secondary.”

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