BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Rick Johnson, a candidate for School Committee, wrote a blog on his campaign website last week under the headline: “Should We Stay Or Should We Go?”
It described an encounter with a neighbor who was undecided about whether to enroll a young child in the Salem public schools or move to another community.
“He wasn’t aware that I’m running for School Committee when he asked me what school my kids attended and what I thought about it,” Johnson wrote. “We talked for a little bit about my family’s experience. Then, he said to me with a shrug, ‘We’re like everyone else. We’re trying to figure out whether we should stay or go.’”
Since the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education relegated the Salem public schools to Level 4 status nearly two years ago due to low scores on the statewide MCAS exam and gave Salem three years to turn the schools around, the level of concern among parents has spiked. It’s hard to measure how much since most accounts, like Johnson’s, are anecdotal.
One possible indicator came this winter when the parents of more than one-third of Salem fifth-graders applied for admission to the Salem Academy Charter School, the independent grade 6-12 public school in Shetland Park. That could be a positive sign about the charter school, a negative sign about the public schools or a combination of both.
Another indicator came last week when four school parents were officially certified as candidates for three open seats on the School Committee. That’s a lot of people running for elective seats that, in recent years, have gone begging for occupants. The interest this year appears to have been sparked by the high level of concern about the school system and, to some extent, the performance of the School Committee.
There are eight candidates, in total, for the three seats.
The incumbents running for re-election are Lisa Lavoie, who was selected to fill a vacancy almost two years ago, along with Brendan Walsh and Janet Crane, who have served since 2006.
They are being challenged by Katie Casiglia and Johnson, both of whom have children at Saltonstall School (and formerly Bentley); Patrick Schultz, whose children have graduated from Salem High; and Rachel Hunt, who is the head of school at Salem Academy Charter School with a daughter about to enter kindergarten.
Perennial candidate Kenneth Sawicki is also running.
Hunt was away and could not be reached.
For both Johnson and Schultz, one of the issues in this election is the seven-member school board. They feel it has not provided effective leadership and, to some extent, must bear responsibility for the poor performance of the schools.
“I think we too often see bickering and dysfunction and running off-topic, and not focusing on the important stuff,” said Johnson, who has a communications background and is an editor with a federal agency.
“I know they care deeply about students,” said Schultz, a former school teacher and administrator who now owns and operates Howling Wolf, a Mexican restaurant in Salem. “I just don’t think they have a vision for change that’s going to lead us in the right direction.”
This crisis has happened on the school board’s watch, they said, and the current members bear some ownership.
“I don’t remember any of them saying, ‘Man, we blew this; this is on us as much as anyone else,’” Schultz said. “I heard the mayor say it, but I never heard any members say it.”
“I don’t think we ever had the adult conversation about what the problems are ...” said Johnson. “How do you expect people to get behind the solution if you don’t have that adult conversation about what the problems are?”
Casiglia feels the school system is on the “right track,” but she is concerned that the school board has made decisions without doing the proper research and without ensuring their decisions are in line with the turnaround plan. As examples, she cited a vote to end a college preparatory program at Salem High and the recent — and controversial — vote to end the extended-year program at Saltonstall.
“To me, that wasn’t thoughtful, that wasn’t good planning,” said Casiglia, a dental hygienist and active school parent. “Where do we go from here?”
In general, the challengers appear to feel the city needs a School Committee that sets high goals for the superintendent and system, provides stronger leadership and oversight, creates a culture where parents and teachers can become excited and committed to turnaround, and sees the current situation not as a crisis, but an opportunity.
With many parents watching and worried, a lot is at stake, they said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.