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“There is a clear choice here between outdated complaints and new ideas,” he said in his closing remarks.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.