SCHOOL COMMITTEE CANDIDATES participated in a pre-election forum at WCAT this week. From left, Gregory E. Spry (participating via Zoom), Eileen P. Colleran, Kevin Fontanella, Alexandra Langes Makarewicz, Thomas F. Markham III and Carmen A. Sorrentino. Incumbent Ami Ruehrwein Wall was not able to participate live but did provide a pre-recorded closing statement. (Mark Sardella Photo)

 

 

By MARK SARDELLA

WAKEFIELD — Candidates for the Wakefield School Committee participated in a pre-election debate Monday night that covered issues ranging from the schools’ handling of religious holidays to mask mandates and political ideology in the classroom curriculum.

Five of the seven School Committee candidates on the April 26 election ballot were in the WCAT studio for the televised debate including incumbent Thomas F. Markham, Eileen P. Colleran, Kevin Fontanella, Alexandra Langes Makarewicz and Carmen A. Sorrentino. Candidate Gregory E. Spry participated live via Zoom. Incumbent Ami Ruehrwein Wall was not able to attend the debate but provided a video closing statement.

Town Moderator William Carroll served as the moderator for the debate with Daily Item staff members posing questions to the candidates.

In light of the recent issues with Good Friday, candidates were asked about religious holidays on the school calendar.

Makarewicz said that there needs to be a clear plan for religious holidays like Good Friday. Either schools should be closed or teachers should be allowed to request it as a religious holiday, she said. “Being clear and consistent across the board is the way to go,” she added.

Markham maintained that the School Calendar should not include any religious holidays. He said that accommodations should be made for all faiths, but if every religious holiday closed the schools, “We’d be in school in July.” He admitted that the Good Friday situation could have been handled better this year.

Sorrentino said that as a Christian, he was upset that Good Friday was removed from the School Calendar. He said that all religious holidays should be recognized.

Spry said that in an overwhelmingly Christian community, Good Friday should be a school holiday. He maintained that the country has gotten away from God and is dealing with many problems as a result.

Colleran said that she agreed with the School Committee decision several years ago to eliminate Good Friday from the School Calendar, although she agreed that this year’s planning around Good Friday should have been looked at more closely.

Fontanella said that if a student is observing a religious holiday, the schools should allow it, “no questions asked.” He said that due to diversity, recognizing all of them on the school calendar would result in a lot of religious holidays.

Asked what areas Wakefield schools need to improve, Spry cited “taking parental input.” He maintained that when parents have brought feedback to the schools, they have often be met with resistance. He said that the schools should be more receptive to parents and even seek out parental input.

Makarewicz agreed, saying that one place that schools could look to improve is in the area of “family engagement.”

Sorrentino said that the schools need to be more cognizant of individual student differences in skills and learning styles.

Colleran said that she would like to see earlier intervention in special education in order to reduce the number of out-of-district placements.

Fontanella said that the schools have been focused for the past year on the social-emotional needs of students. He said that the schools need to focus on academic rigor and higher expectations for students.

Markham said that the schools should continue to improve in terms of inclusion and welcoming students to learn and grow. He said that the schools need to offer students a trusted adult outside of their parents. He said schools also need to offer competitive salaries to teachers.

Asked if political ideology has infiltrated public schools, Fontanella admitted that there “has been an edge” in the classroom lately due to the national polarization. But he insisted that teachers need to allow students to debate ideas in an environment where all viewpoints are given equal weight.

Makarewicz said that it is obvious that political ideology has infiltrated the schools but maintained that it starts higher than the district level and that is why it’s in the schools more than ever.

Markham responded by saying that politics is embedded too much in society as a whole. He said that there needs to be more of a “50-yard-line” approach and people need to be more understanding of things they don’t agree with.

Sorrentino said that political ideology is present at all levels of education. He called for an environment where students are taught how to think rather than what to think.

Spry said that political ideology in public education is embedded at such a high level that it will need to be addressed by voters and parents. He said that schools should be more focused on teaching critical thinking.

Former teacher Colleran denied the presence of ideology in the schools, adding, “I trust teachers. We learned to teach objectively, not subjectively.”

 

None of the candidates would support a new mask mandate in the schools.

Makarewicz said that she would not agree to a new mask mandate unless some “extreme situation” arose. Otherwise, it should be parental choice, she said.

Markham agreed. “Absent a state mandate,” he said, “I can’t think of a time that I would support universal masking.”

Sorrentino said that mask mandates did more harm than good. “Give each person the right to decide,” he said.

Spry said that there was no circumstance under which he would support a new mask mandate. He said that masks were ineffective against COVID and he witnessed the detrimental effects of masks on learning and emotional issues. “I would never vote for them,” he said.

Colleran said that barring a state mandate, she would not vote to bring masks back, but said that she supports families still wearing masks.

Fontanella said the he was “glad masks are gone.” He said that he would not support a return to masking without a state mandate.

All candidates also agreed on the need to build a new Wakefield Memorial High School.

Spry said that he was excited at the prospect of working as a School Committee member toward getting a new high school, adding that the community needs to invest in its schools.

Colleran noted that the elementary schools and the middle school have been updated. She said that students also need a 21st century high school and called it an “economic investment for the entire town.”

Fontanella, Saugus teacher, cited the benefits of a new high school in that town, including state-of-the art science classrooms. He said that a new high school will be expensive and School Committee members will need to “educate the public” to marshal community support.

Makarewicz said that a new high school would make Wakefield competitive with other communities. “Our children deserve the best,” she said, although she also called for better planning to “maintain the buildings we have.”

Markham took issue with Makarewicz’s suggestion that local school buildings are not well maintained. He said that he does support a new high school, noting that a lot of work is needed to provide staff and students with a quality workplace.

Sorrentino said that a new school would bring many economic benefits to the town as well as to the teachers and students.

Incumbent School Committee member Ami Wall led off closing statements with a pre-recorded video.

“I remain committed to listening to parents and teachers,” Wall said, adding that she would continue to be a voice that questions the status quo. She said that she would also continue to advocate for mental health services for students.

Colleran said that she wants to provide schools with enough support and wants to represent and protect all students. She added that she would advocate for the best and most current technology for students and for policies that represent today’s world.

Fontanella said that his background as an educator would be an asset to the School Committee. He said that learning loss from COVID must be addressed and he would like to help the administration and staff improve the instructional quality in the schools and build trust between the School Committee and citizens.

Makarewicz said that with three young children of her own she wants the best possible education for all students. She said that she would like to ensure that policies and the budget address educational needs, especially with regard to special education and the social-emotional health of students.

Markham said that his experience would be an asset in dealing with complex issues as well as the prospect of a new high school, post-pandemic recovery, union contracts and relations with teachers and staff.

Sorrentino said that “parents have been undermined and ignored.” He said that he would work to create an environment where all teachers and students can look forward to going to school every morning.

Spry said that voters need to elect School Committee members who have a strong moral compass, common sense and conviction. He said that since salaries are by far the greatest part of the school budget, his experience in private sector union negotiations would be an asset in creating fiscally responsible union contracts.

The School Committee debate will be repeated on WCAT’s government cable TV channels and is available for viewing on WCAT’s Facebook page, website and YouTube channel.

The producer of the televised debate was Ally Houghton. Camera operators were Rosey Mongeau and Tom Stapleton. Joie Gerrish served as a studio assistant.

WCAT staff included Executive Director Ryan Boyd, Adam Nestle, Ian McDermott, Amy Couture and Barbara Worley.