, Salem, MA

September 24, 2013

Our view: A disappointing election in Salem

The Salem News

---- — Apparently, the state of Salem’s schools is just fine by most residents.

Last Tuesday, their message was loud and clear: They couldn’t care less.

Only about 3,600 of the city’s nearly 26,000 registered voters bothered to vote last week in the preliminary election, which narrowed the field of School Committee candidates from eight to six — two candidates for each of the three seats up for election. Those six candidates now move on to the final election in November.

Normally, of course, you wouldn’t expect a big voter turnout for a preliminary election, particularly where the most significant race is for School Committee. But this is not just any year.

Salem is a Level 4 school district, meaning it is one of the lowest-performing districts in the state. That designation is based on poor MCAS scores at Bentley Elementary School, which has two years left to turn things around before facing a possible state takeover. And Bentley isn’t the only problem. Four other schools — Carlton Elementary, Nathaniel Bowditch (K-8), Collins Middle School and Salem High School — are designated Level 3, meaning they’ve also got seriously low MCAS scores.

Beyond that, there’s been a controversial issue that divided many parents in the school system, when a majority of the current school board decided to dismantle the extended-year program that has been a hallmark of Saltonstall School. It came at a time when schools throughout the country are being encouraged to increase, not shorten, the school year — and, ironically, just as the district was preparing to accept state grants to study increasing learning time at several other schools.

That helped to spark an unprecedented lineup of candidates willing and eager to serve on the School Committee. And, by all accounts, it is a singularly impressive list.

So, whether you support the Saltonstall program or not, whether you think the schools are progressing adequately or not, this election was an opportunity to send a message, not only from parents but from others in the community. We are all, of course, impacted by substandard schools.

The result? The vote totals are so low that it’s clear not even a majority of parents turned out.

And you have to wonder about some of those who did. More than 300 voters actually checked off the name of Ken Sawicki, a perennial candidate who’s had a variety of brushes with the law and who runs for every available office at the same time, apparently unable to decide how he’d like to serve. Either voters sincerely thought this was a man who should help chart the future course for more than 4,000 schoolchildren, or they didn’t know who the heck they were voting for — and didn’t care.

In any case, with such low turnout, it’s hard to glean any message from this election, except that Salem is in for some tough days ahead if those most affected don’t care enough to educate themselves about the issues and the candidates, and then get out and vote.