, Salem, MA

September 16, 2013

At lot at stake in Salem school race


---- — SALEM — The crisis in the Salem public schools has sent ripples in many directions.

Inside the schools, there are a number of initiatives and new programs underway aimed at turning around an underperforming system.

On the outside, tomorrow’s preliminary election to fill three seats on the School Committee has produced one of the largest and, it could be argued, strongest fields of candidates in a long time.

One of the challengers is a communications specialist (Rick Johnson); another heads the local charter school (Rachel Hunt); another worked at Mass Insight, a nonprofit focused on transforming public schools (Patrick Schultz); and still another is a parent activist (Katie Casiglia).

The three incumbents — Janet Crane, Lisa Lavoie and Brendan Walsh — all have experience on the board and doctoral degrees.

Perennial candidate Ken Sawicki is also on the ballot.

This interest in the School Committee couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

The School Department is in the crucial Year 2 of a turnaround plan aimed at raising MCAS scores and making other improvements in a small urban system with many children who are poor or from homes where English is not spoken.

Salem, given low Level 4 status by the state two years ago, laid the foundation for its turnaround efforts last year, working with staff from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and teams of consultants.

This current year is a crucial one, officials say, when the programs and initiatives put in place are expected to start producing results, which will be measured by improved scores on the state MCAS exams.

Although Salem and other cities and town will get MCAS results in a few weeks, those are from tests taken last spring. The real measure, or beginning of that measure, will come a year from now, officials say, when the city sees the results from its 2014 MCAS tests.

“I think this is a big year for us because we have put enough of the pieces in place and we’ve invested a great deal of time and energy helping to build our capacity,” said Superintendent Stephen Russell.

“So, as a result, I do think we’re going to see more and more payoffs.”

The three people elected to the School Committee this fall will play a big role in overseeing those turnaround efforts.

Tomorrow’s preliminary election will pare the field of candidates from eight to six. Those six finalists will be on the ballot for the Nov. 5 final election, which will decide the three winners.

Tom Dalton can be reached at