Warren school committee hopefuls debate the issues

Online forum Thursday will be last before election on Tuesday, Nov. 3

By Ted Hayes
Posted 10/23/20

The four Warren candidates for two seats on the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee "met" for the only time this election cycle, when they answered question and debated the issues during a live …

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Warren school committee hopefuls debate the issues

Online forum Thursday will be last before election on Tuesday, Nov. 3


The four Warren candidates for two seats on the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee "met" for the only time this election cycle, when they answered question and debated the issues during a live Zoom-based debate held by East Bay Media Group, the publisher of the Warren Times-Gazette, Thursday evening.

The candidates — Daryl Gould, David Matheson, Nicky Piper and Tara Thibaudeau — were moderated by the media group's Scott Pickering, and answered questions posed by readers.

Ms. Thibaudeau, a lifelong resident of Warren, former school committee member, PTO member and Mt. Hope Huskies booster, said she wants to serve again to better prepare students for life after high school. While only about 50 percent of Mt. Hope go on to earn a four-year degree, she said, the district has lost touch with its mission to prepare all students for life after high school.

Mr. Matheson, a political newcomer, works as a software engineer and believes his background in technology could be a boon to the district, especially now as teachers and students grapple with the difficulties of distance and hybrid learning.

"I thought that bringing a software engineer's perspective to the school committee was something that was needed in today's climate," he said. "I thought I could bring a perspective and a level of experience that maybe is lacking."

Mr. Gould, a member of a student advisory council made up of families across the district, has been active in politics for several years. Like Ms. Thibaudeau, he said the district is in need of change: "I'm running because I recognize that we are a failed district, he said. I know that might be difficult for people to hear, but it's evidenced by what we see. It's missing the mark."

Ms. Piper, who became a US citizen last year, has children in the district, served on the district's diversity group over the summer and works professionally in education consulting.

Through her years of work studying education and educators, and efforts to include diversity issues in education, she said, "I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and work."

Question 1: How do you assess the district’s response to the pandemic?
Starting off the debate, Ms. Thibaudeau, Warren's Recreation Director, spoke of her experiences running Warren's summer camp at Burr's Hill over the summer, contrasting it with how the district prepared:

"Would I have done it differently? Probably," she said.

"I think, overall, the district has done a commendable job," added Mr. Matheson. They were faced with an impossible task (but) bringing us back in a measured and staged fashion has been the right approach. "

While he agreed with Ms. Thibaudeau that things could have been done differently by administration, "it's not lost on me that the CDC, RIDE and the Department of Health really moved the goalposts over the summer."

"It's a difficult environment to work in. That said, there were certainly things that could have been done differently; a lack of planning for contingencies, hoping that things would happen and turning a blind eye to what the reality is."

"Every single person here wants to have their kids in school full time," added Ms. Piper. "But that's only possible if we can absolutely guarantee that everyone will be safe. Is there a perfect answer? Absolutely not. Have the schools done a good job? The fact that we have had a couple of cases (and) they have not led to further spread ... to me it says we're doing a good job."

Question 2: Is the district doing the right things to support all distance learners, whether they are in the hybrid model or in the full distancing-learning model?
This question generated considerable agreement, especially in regard to students with IEPS, 504s or who otherwise need additional help with learning.

"Digital equity" is very important, Mr. Matheson said. "A lot of our students are left behind when it comes to IEPS and 504s. I think that following up and making sure all of our students have access to the right technology platforms, making sure that parents who are struggling to afford the increased costs of internet service" and other forms of digital equity are paramount.

"I think that from the technology sector, we could bring a lot of interesting technologies to bear."

"They're certainly trying," Mr. Gould said of administrators. "Whether that is coming to fruition, that's really a case by case basis."

As for students with IEPs and 504s, "these are the most vulnerable kids in our district," he said. "They're just not getting the services that legally our district is obligated to provide."

"I would agree," Ms. Piper said. "I'm also concerned with kids who are living with housing insecurity or food insecurity," as well as studetns who come from households where English is not the main language.

"I know that the schools have been trying to assist with these issues," she said.

"I've heard much more positives than negatives (for) the full distance model," Ms. Thibaudeau said. "Parents who chose that model seem to have a clearer vision. This hybrid model I think is more work for everyone than the full distance that we did in the spring. Anyone with a 504 or IEP really should be in school right now. Everyone is doing the best that they can but some of these kids ... their parents are going to work and they're on their own. And that's troubling."

Question 3:
We know that “discipline” issues were at the forefront of problems that bubbled to the surface not too long ago. Has the district taken the right steps to respond? And is “discipline” still a concern, in your opinion?
"Discipline is always going to be a concern," Mr. Gould said. "I will give credit to the district; one of the great things that happened when Dr. Brice took over was a very clear discipline policy. There's no ambiguity to it. It is my hope that one of the concerns in the past has been the enforcement of these policies. A policy is only as good as your ability to enforce it and use it as intended."

"I think it's an oversimplification to discuss discipline in isolation," Ms. Piper said. "To my mind it is a reflection of a culture problem at a school.

The past issues at Kickemuit Middle and Hugh Cole schools she said, grew out of culture issues.

"Those I believe have changed," she said. "We have a complete shift of atmospheres in those school buildings" and that may be "a sign of an improved culture of trust."

"I agree with Nicky," Ms. Thibaudeau said. As a member of Warren's Juvenile Hearing Board, she said, "the cases that have come before us are decreasing from the schools."

"Especially at Hugh Cole, the administration has done a very good job (and) I hear very good things about the administration at the middle school. I'm not really sure if the discipline problems have been solved because of Covid, or if people have just calmed down a little bit."

"I think culture is the thing to really focus on," Mr. Matheson said. "A culture where students come ready to learn (is going to impact) a lot of your discipline issues in my view. Once we're beyond the Covid environment, we'll see if it's truly a product of better culture."

Question 4: The district has made significant effort to diversify the curriculum by working with "students, community members, and staff to strengthen English Language Arts curriculum by incorporating diverse authors, building a high school course that focuses on Diversify and Social Justice, and developing an inclusive social emotional learning framework for our students" (taken from Back to School Letter for Families 2020-2021 from Dr. Brice). How do you feel about these changes, and if you should be elected to the School Committee how would you support these diversification efforts?
"I feel great about these changes," Ms. Piper said. "Every single piece of research shows that the number one way to close the achievement gap ... is to create trust within the bulding. That is trust between students, that is trust between students and adults. And I woiuld go so far as to say that we need to ask adults to do the same work to develop trust among themselves."

Social topics explored through literature and other topics can help students develop their own ideas, including "Who are we? How do I see the world? How does the world see me? It's only when we have those conversations that we can start to have the difficult conversations about what are our implicit biases."

She said that if she were elected to the committee, she would work to preserve those types of curriculum.

"Everyone is at a social disadvantage in some way or form," Ms. Thibaudeau said. "We should be focusing on the three Rs: Respect, responsibility and resourcefulness. I'm more concerned with the core fundamentals (including) math, personal finance, respect and work ethic."

"I think it's really appropriate," Mr. Matheson said of such diversification efforts.

"I think it creates a culture where students can improve in those fundamental areas. They think about these issues, diversity and inclusion, inherently, just given their age demographic. They're seeing the news about George Floyd. To invite those kinds of hard conversations, I think, it's going to put them in a better position."

"First and foremost ... if a student is behaving outside of what the disciple policy is" and uses racially insensitive terms, "that shold be handled through policy," Mr. Gould said.

"How it's done, the devil is in the details. I think it's a really slippery slope when you start allowing teachers to introduce their social and political values into the classroom. We have teachers that fly BLM flags ... that kneel at the National Anthem. Our schools aren't the place for that. That isn't diversity, that's indoctrination. We need to focus on the core function of the district."

"I am fascinated to hear people say we think we are failing our kids, but we do not think we should try something different," Ms. Piper added after Mr. Gould spoke. "We should never stop looking, testing, and seeing if what we have is not working for our kids."

Question 5: Would you like to see more career and technical programs at Mt. Hope, or do you feel the high school is pointed in the right direction?
"I could go on for days" about this topic, Ms. Thibaudeau said.  "I do not feel that our district does any justice to our kids who are going into the trades," she said. "Only 50 percent of our students graduate from college. What are we doing for the other 50 percent?"

She said CTE and other vocational programs can and should be expanded.

"We can start small ... shed building, reaching out to MTTI. There are so many opportunities that we can give these kids to expose them to other opportunities, that the district should be focusing on."

As a whole, she said, "college is a very big mistake to make" for many students, especially at today's costs.

"I think that the district is doing a great job with CTE programs," Mr. Matheson said. "We need to focus on education that will benefit all students. Focusing on STEM areas is important, regardless of what career pathways students are on. I think that we can develop (a) curriculum (for) a broad base of our kids, whether they're four year, community, or other vocational training."

"I don't know how someone could say we're doing well" in this area, Mr. Gould said.

"A lot of people in these towns talk about our old house building program. Our (advisory) group has actually proposed a scaled replacement for that. Kids wold get vocational learning with framing and roofing and electrical work. Let's bring them together in a real world scenario."

Responding to Ms. Thibaudeau college graduate numbers, Ms. Piper said, "that number is pretty on par with other high schools. So taken out of context it doesn't mean a lot. There are many, many reasons for kids to drop out of college. It's a leap to presume that that 50 percent (is because) we don't have enough trades in our schools. It's a leap I'm not comfortable making."

She added that a recent Mt. Hope student survey showed that 76 percent of students noted wanting to go to college.

"So I think we're doing our students a disservice if we don't try to support them on that path. "Yes, we need CTEs (and) we need to better serve kids who want to go into the trades, and also those who want to go to college, in parallel."

Question 6: Would you like to see more career and technical programs at Mt. Hope, or do you feel the high school is pointed in the right direction?
"In between," Mr. Matheson said. "There's a lot of moving parts. There's definitely some aspects where I'd like to make sweeping changes (including) the budgeting and transparency process. It's been hard to wrap my head around how we spend our money."

Other areas include technology to help distance learners, he said, as "nobody seems completely happy" with that model.

"As for other things, I'd like to listen and learn."

"It's a little unrealistic to expect any one member to introduce sweeping change," Mr. Gould said. "What I would like to see is kind of a different attitude or approach. A lot of times the school committee acts as its own entity .. it's not really representative of what the townspeople want, so I hope to see some change there."

One high priority is budgetary discretion and oversight, he said. "We spend $17,000 (per student, per year). How much of that money is trickling down to the student level?

He said he would also like to see changes in the coursework.

"I think it's imperative to have equity through our district. To circle back, it's difficult for one person to bring any real change. My hope is that if I got elected, people would recognize that I have been an advocate."

"Sweeping change is real slow in this world, unfortunately," Ms. Piper said, adding that changes to the budget process, transparency, and a "laser focus on efficiency" are priorities.

"A major effort that I would like to make is supporting (teachers' and students') social and emotional health." And "I would also like to focus on those families who have not felt that they have a voice in our district. I would like to increase the real world learning opportunities through pathways, internships (and) work programs."

"As a previous school committee member, the job of the school committee is to create measurable and obtainable goals," Ms. Thibaudeau said. "The school committee needs to be on the same page and have the same goals so they can let the superintendent know what they are looking for. Then they oversee and look at the budget and make sure that the budget is going with those goals and visions."

"When I left the school committee in 2002 our district was at its best," she said. "We had trust. There (was) fiscal accountability; morale was at an all time high. It's a collaboration and a partnership and it can be done again."

Closing statements
Ms. Thibaudeau closed by talking of her deep roots in the community, and her knowledge, integrity and fairness.

"Education needs to be affordable and representative to those who live here," she said. "I give back not to get something, but to invest. I have no hidden agenda."

"I think that as someone whose kids have been in the district, I'm really invested in this community," added

Mr. Matheson, who considers himself someone who "strongly believes in helping kids learn more about computer science and STEM in general."

"This is a very important race for our district," Mr. Gould said. Despite national politics, "95 percent of our interaction with government happens at the hyper-local level. Really, what's happening at the local level is going to have far more impact."

He believes his critical eye can help improve the schools:

"We're talking about the education of our kids," he said. "I know we have a strong infrastructure, especially with these added CTE programs coming," Ms. Piper said in closing. "We have creative and dedicated teachers and we have a community dedicated to pulling together for all our students.

"If elected, I will approach the work with humility, and a great sense of responsibility and openness."

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