School Committee Candidates Sound Off on Superintendent
Two of the four candidates vying for three available seats on the New Bedford School Committee spoke with WBSM's Brian Thomas on Wednesday, addressing what they feel are the biggest issues going forward for the city's school department.
Both seem to agree that Superintendent Dr. Pia Durkin is one of those issues.
Josh Amaral, the only incumbent running for re-election after both Dr. Larry Finnerty and Joaquim "Jack" Nobrega decided not to run again, was first elected to the school committee just a short time after Dr. Durkin came on board.
"I think she would admit that first year was a very difficult period, because she was trying to build teams up," he said. "The approach at the time was that I respect this person's credentials and often, superintendents haven't been given a fair shake here in New Bedford, so let's give see where it goes. Three or four years later, I'm happy that we've avoided the state takeover. I'm happy that we've professionalized the district. And I think Dr. Durkin deserves credit for that, but I have grave concerns."
He said teacher retention and professionalism are chief among those concerns.
"Frankly I don't know that the community is all that confident in our schools. I think we could do a better job at building that sense of community and building that consensus," he said. "We'll be doing the (superintendent) evaluation process again in the next month, and I'm very curious to see what my colleagues say as well, but I would require the superintendent to make some major, major adjustments before considering continuing her tenure here in the city."
Fellow candidate Colleen Dawicki was a little more blunt in her assessment of Dr. Durkin's performance.
"I don't believe the school committee would be extending the superintendent's contract," Dawicki said. "Right now, my position is we need to look for a new person who will come in in 2019 to mend the broken relationships, mend the many issues I've been hearing about from teachers and parents, and move us forward."
Dawicki said she's happy that New Bedford Schools have avoided a state takeover under Dr. Durkin, but she wonders what has been lost in doing so.
"I think one issue that has been sacrificed in the process of stepping back from the cliff of takeover is the importance of process," she said. "We need to be engaging every level of stakeholder in the decisions we make, to ensure we're not doing any harm to people, that we're really doing the best thing for the kids. Often times, doing the best thing for kids involves asking people what they need to do."
"I'm hearing from parents that, particularly at this moment of crisis where the district was approaching the potential for state takeover, a lot of parents stepped up and said to the administration and city leadership, 'How can we help?'" she said. "We've got a lot of talented parents that have assets, that have skills to contribute, and they were not brought to the table to help. The same goes for the teachers. I think a lot of teachers have felt left out of the conversation about what turnaround looks like. And the teachers know our kids best."
Dawicki said she doesn't want to fire the superintendent, though, but rather let her contract run out while looking for a replacement, which she says it at least a one-year process.
"I'm not going to say 'fire the superintendent,' and here's why: we have gone through a number of superintendents in New Bedford, and that is a hugely damaging and costly process," she said. "We need stability, and we also need time to plan for the next leader."
Part of that stability, Amaral believes, is keeping good teachers in the district and not seeing them go elsewhere.
"We have to do a better job at retaining our staff and that's hugely problematic, because in New Bedford, we have a population in this city that occasionally has more needs than other communities," he said. "Which means we need to have the best teachers in the world, and to some extent we do, but some of our best have left."
Amaral said teachers want to teach in New Bedford because they love the kids, they love the environment, and they're up for the challenge that comes with it.
"Those things are easy to do when you feel supported," he said. "When you feel like you don't have the resources you need to provide for your students, you feel like you're on an island, and that kind of isolation makes you leave for greater pastures. We have to make sure all of our teachers are treated as professionals, they're all encouraged and given the opportunity to grow. You know, the simple phrase is 'let the teacher teach'. I think we'd do better sometimes to let a teacher run their classroom without as much administrative intervention."
Amaral also said that with ever-increasing school budges and the inevitable need to make cuts, he doesn't want to see class sizes grow, or things such as art or band programs get cut to make the numbers work.
"I don't want to increase class sizes. I want to keep class sizes small, particularly at the elementary level, because 28 kids running around in a classroom, 28 first graders who need to tie their shoes, that need to go to the bathroom and need that individual attention is too much," he said. "Those classrooms need to stay under 25 (students), ideally under 20."
Dawicki also said she's "not a huge fan of the level system," which uses a rating of 1-5 to critique school performance.
"The level system correlates almost exactly with our socioeconomic demographic factors," she said. "If we're a low-income school district, half our kids aren't even going to preschool. We're never going to be performing at the same level where there are kids who have gone to preschool programs, or even reading tutors before even stepping into kindergarten."
Dawicki said she wants to see children begin attending preschool as early as three years old, to help narrow what she calls the "opportunity gap" that others refer to as an "achievement gap," because she feels the level of achievement is a direct correlation to what opportunities a child has to learn and grow.
"Preschool expansion is a huge piece of what I'm talking about," she said.
Both Amaral and Dawicki will square off, along with fellow candidates Richard Porter III and John Oliveira, for three open seats on the School Committee on November 7. Porter and Oliveira will be guests on Thomas' show on Wednesday, November 1.