, Salem, MA

June 19, 2013

A surprising candidate for Salem School Committee

The Salem News

---- — In one sense, it seems like the manager of the Yankees offering to help the Red Sox run their team.

There has always been a sense of competition between the Salem Public Schools and the Salem Academy Charter School. So, the news that Rachel Hunt, head of school at Salem Academy, is running for School Committee, hoping to help oversee the public schools, is, to say the least, surprising.

It is not a match made in heaven.

Competition between the two school systems is there by design. After all, charter schools were formed in part to provide competition for the traditional public schools. The theory was that charters, freed from the constraints of teachers unions and local administration, could model new ways to educate kids — and that public schools would have to do the same if they wanted to hang onto their students and their state education dollars. (For each student they lose to a charter school, the public school gets a corresponding cut in state education aid.) So, they do compete in a real way for state money and for students and families in the same city. The fact that Hunt once worked as a teacher at Collins Middle School, then left to form a rival charter middle school, did not endear her to former colleagues.

But everyone may have gotten a little more rivalry than anticipated over the years, particularly in Salem. Relations were downright hostile for a while, and both sides bear responsibility for that. So what to make of Hunt’s campaign for School Committee?

It’s unusual, if not unprecedented in the state, but state officials do not see a conflict of interest. Charter schools are public schools, but they are funded by state education aid and not local tax dollars — so they are considered state agencies. That means, for example, that Hunt should be able to vote on a school budget without a conflict of interest.

That’s not to say it wouldn’t feel awkward at times.

But her run also serves as a reminder that time has passed since Salem Academy was founded — nine years, in fact — and times have changed. Whether public school officials like them or not, charter schools are here to stay, and they’re here because parents want them. Enrollment has grown at the Salem Academy, which now has a high school program, as well, and it’s grown because parents like the education their kids get there.

That being the case, it is well past time for the two systems to work together, without trying to “prove” that one system is better or worse than another. Salem Academy students don’t get the kind of comprehensive education offered at Salem High, with its myriad offerings, and Salem High students don’t get the kind of small-school focus that Academy students do. Both systems have strengths, and both can learn from each other.

Could a charter school administrator serving on the School Committee help foster cooperation? Perhaps.

In fact, a former assistant superintendent and principal in the Salem Public Schools, Alyce Davis, serves on the charter school’s board of trustees — although, curiously, no mention is made on the school’s website that Davis had any connection to the Salem Public Schools where she spent so much of her career.

Perhaps inviting a current administrator to serve as an Academy trustee could foster cross-pollination between the systems, in the same way that Hunt’s candidacy might serve the public schools.