Williamstown School Committee candidates Huff Templeton, left, and Valerie Hall; moderator Anne Skinner; McCann School Committee candidates James R. Gazzaniga Sr. and Daniel H. Collyer.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Candidates hoping to represent voters on two school boards pledged to do their best to maintain their school's excellence and listen the community.
Four of the candidates spoke at Wednesday's forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters; the fifth, Williamstown School Committee incumbent Margaret A. McComish, was represented by her husband, Magnus Bernhardsson.
McComish is running for re-election to one of two three-year seats on the Williamstown School Committee against newcomers Huff T. Templeton III and Valerie A. Hall.
McComish, who works in the Williams College Development Office, was away at a conference she'd committed to sometime before. Bernhardsson read a statement from her that expressed her desire to run for a second term and some of major events that had occurred during her past term, such as allowing the Youth Center to build on school land and the merger of Williamstown and Lanesborough into a new school union.
Daniel H. Collyer
James R. Gazzaniga
She has two children in the school, a third-grader and a sixth-grader, is currently vice chairman of the committee and served on the supervisory union, endowment and long-range planning committees. She and her family moved to Williamstown in 2003.
As former financial attorney, she stated, "I believe I am well equipped to continue to plan strategically for the future and to tackle the current challenges facing the school, such as declining revenues, declining enrollment and increasing costs."
Bernhardsson said McComish was looking forward to the opportunity of serving three more years. Any questions on her stance on issues can be sent to email@example.com.
Templeton is a local entrepreneur and owner of Ephporium on Spring Street and a health club in Bennington, Vt. He has two children in the school, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader and moved to Williamstown in 2002. He has served on the long-range planning committee and as president of the Parental Advisory Council.
He said his two degrees in business and background in creating a volunteer organization and his two years developing computer-based training in the 1990s would be valuable to the committee.
"I've grown to really love Williamstown Elementary School and I've been impressed with everyone I've met there," he said. "My motivation for running is really to help improve it from where we are and have an opportunity to not only be a great elementary, which we already are, but be a world class elementary school."
Valerie Hall is currently a stay-at-home mom, also with two children in the school, who moved here with her family in 2001. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering and formerly designed communications satellites.
A member of the PTO, she served as president and vice president. She has volunteered with a number of school activities, including the sixth-grade yearbook, and regularly volunteers in her children's classrooms.
"I am devoted to keeping our school on the right track while facing these tough budget times. Our enrollment has been declining, our budget is level-funded, while fixed costs are increasing," she said. "The school as a community needs to be flexible and work together to control expenditures but hold the high standards and the essential character of our school."
Running for a 11th three-year term on the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School Committee (McCann Technical School) is James R. Gazzinaga Sr. He is being challenged by Daniel H. Collyer.
Gazzaniga is a retired Mount Greylock Regional High School guidance counselor who has resided in Williamstown for 51 years. He began his teaching career in the Williamstown schools in 1953, spent two years active duty in the Navy, then became a guidance counselor in 1961. He retired in 1990.
He's long been a strong believer in the opportunities offered by McCann's combined academic and technical curriculum and ran successfully for one of the town's two seats on the 14-person board in 1980.
"My greatest concern over the years has been the disappointing number of enrolled students from Williamstown. Currently we have 14 students attending McCann," he said. "There is one major factor contributing to this lack of interest: there is a serious misperception among adults and students regarding the strength of the academic and technical course offerings."
Collyer was on the McCann faculty for 19 years. He holds two postgraduate degrees and was special education director for the former School Union 69 and taught vocational teachers how to create programs for students with special needs. Semi-retired, he currently is a learning specialist at Berkshire Community College.
He agreed with Gazzaniga that McCann's academic strength is too often underrated. He is running to "keep an eye on these austere times of the budget and how it affects Williamstown residents."
As special education director, he said he was active in working with the school committee and the superintendent. "I believe that experience has more weight ... not only with parents but with community members in preserving what I call one of the jewels of Berkshire County."
In response to questions, the Williamstown candidates had no answers on how to stem declining enrollment.
"In my opinion, this is going to be a natural phase and will level out," Hall said, noting the reduction of teachers from four a grade to three had also meant a drop in the number of school-choice slots. "I don't think there's anything the School Committee can do about it."
Templeton thought that because of the decline, school choice should be looked at for more revenue. "We could always introduce a fourth teacher."
All the candidates agreed that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is here to stay.
MCAS is a very good tool, said Gazzaniga, "we shouldn't fear evaluation." Collyer said it had its uses but should not be the only measure of learning. Hall and Templeton said the concern was that too much pressure was being put on the younger children. Templeton also said there was a need to ensure that all the kids were progressing and not just passing.
In terms of curriculum, Hall thought the elementary school offers a broad curriculum but math should be reviewed, as well as continuity going into the middle grades. "We need better integration of languages," she said. "A school of the future should be offering language during the day."
Templeton said he was not convinced that high-achieving pupils were being challenged enough, and that language and technology were lacking.
"They should be exposed to comptuers every day not every third day," he said. "Multicultural communications should be added into the curriculum. That can be taught at a young age."
All four said they would listen to their constituents but noted in some cases, their and their committees' ability to effect change was limited.
"The only role [we have] is to hire and fire the superintendent, but we can give suggestions, said Gazzaniga. "But our role is greatly diminished."
"If I am on the School Committee I'd certainly be open to suggestions," said Templeton. "The climate is a bit contentious ... We're a community. We have to think like a commmunity, have to put the ideas forward no matter whose they are."
"I'm willing to listen to all sorts of opinions," said Hall, adding Facebook would be one way she'd communicate with residents. However, she said, "the board could be better articulating the answers they give."
"I think it's the job of the representative, the role of the school committee member, to get that input and give it to the whole committee body," said Collyer.
The election is set for Monday, May 11, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School.
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The state is holding a special election to fill the seat vacated by John F. Kerry, who has been confirmed as U.S. secretary of state.
The state primary is Tuesday, April 30. The last day to register to vote or to change party affiliation for the primary is Wednesday, April 10. Enrolled voters may only vote in their party primary; unenrolled voters may select a primary to vote in without changing their status.
The special election is scheduled for Tuesday, June 25. The last day to register to vote in the election is Wednesday, June 5.
To register to vote, one must be at least age 18 by the date of the election, a U.S. citizen and a resident of the municipality in which you are voting.