By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The Salem Public Schools’ past, present and future was topic of debate last night at the Salem Education Foundation’s School Committee candidate forum.
Salem’s eight School Committee hopefuls were grilled with questions submitted by the public, on everything from the challenges of staff and student demographics to attendance problems and student achievement gaps.
Not surprisingly, a central topic was the district’s “accelerated improvement plan,” or roadmap to turn around the city’s schools after last year’s designation as Level 4 “underperforming.”
Eight people are running for three School Committee positions: incumbents Janet Crane, Lisa Lavoie and Brendan Walsh and challengers Katie Casiglia, Rachel Hunt, Rick Johnson, Ken Sawicki and Patrick Schultz.
The field will be whittled down to six people in a Sept. 17 preliminary election; the municipal election will be Nov. 5.
Last night, the incumbents found themselves playing defense several times as their challengers questioned past failures of the schools, and where the responsibility lies.
When Johnson was asked how the schools could improve staff retention, he quickly replied, “step one, bring in some new School Committee members.”
Schultz also laced a few barbs into his responses.
“There is a clear choice here between outdated complaints and new ideas,” he said in his closing remarks.
Last night’s two-hour forum was organized by the Salem Education Foundation and held at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem.
SEF President Janine Matho said organizers originally set out 100 chairs, but soon set out more as a crowd arrived for the 7 p.m. forum.
The foundation plans to host a second School Committee candidate forum sometime after the Sept. 17 preliminary election, Matho said.
Residents had submitted questions for the candidates to SEF prior to last night, as well as at the forum itself. The foundation will post all of the questions it received on the SEF Facebook page, Matho said.
The most commonly submitted question — and the first to be asked of the candidates last night — was how long is long enough to wait for district improvement, and who should be held responsible?
Numerous candidates said everyone is responsible — parents, teachers, administrators and the community.
“Yes, we are all responsible, but ultimately it comes back to the School Committee,” said Casiglia.
Lavoie and Casiglia both said district turnaround should take two to three years, but signs of improvement should be evident along the way.
Hunt said this year’s MCAS scores will show the district is “laying the foundation” for improvement.
Schultz followed Crane, who discounted district MCAS scores, saying the standardized test is “a moving target.” Crane also said she sees a need for after-school and summer programming and diverting more resources to Salem’s “at-risk” students.
Schultz responded by saying the district has been in long-term decline, and the School Committee and administration did not pay attention to the data that served as a warning sign.
“(Crane’s answers) represent an old way of thinking, and this way of thinking needs to be overthrown,” Schultz said. “Responsibility rests with the School Committee and leadership.”
Walsh turned the question around and asked the audience a rhetorical question: “how is your child doing in the public schools?”
When Walsh did this a second time, on a different question, Johnson bristled.
“My kid was at Bentley (the first Salem school to be designated as Level 4) a few years ago and it was a disaster,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of active, engaged parents that are involved and are not getting the response they need.”
Karen Andreas, regional publisher of North of Boston Media Group, which includes The Salem News, served as moderator of last night’s forum.
The event was recorded by Salem’s local access cable television; it is scheduled to air Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and Friday at 7 p.m.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.