NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 19, 2013

Gray stakes out mayoral plan

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY – After posting the first portion of his plan online earlier this week, mayoral candidate Ken Gray laid out the remainder of his plan yesterday afternoon, detailing how he hopes to increase revenue and improve Amesbury’s schools.

Gray, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Thatcher Kezer in the Nov. 5 election, said he would post the full plan for the public to view in a series of posts on his Facebook page over several days. The piece on controlling spending has been up since Monday, and he said the remaining three will go up in sequence soon.

Gray’s plan -- or more precisely, the lack of a published and publicly available plan -- has stirred some controversy in the race for mayor. Gray, who beat Kezer in the Sept. 17 preliminary election, has long promised that he would release a comprehensive management plan. Kezer and his supporters have frequently called on Gray put it out to the public.

Gray’s plan is broken down into four parts: controlling spending, increasing revenue, improving the schools and bringing the community together.

To increase revenue, Gray agreed with Kezer that building the commercial/industrial tax base is the way to go, but whatever strategy the city has employed in the past hasn’t worked, and over the past seven years Amesbury has seen its annual new growth drop by over 76 percent.

Specifically, he pointed to the Golden Triangle, which was long Amesbury’s top development priority but has remained undeveloped for decades. He added that in recent years, Kezer’s focus has shifted from the Golden Triangle to the Lower Millyard, yet the core strategy has remained essentially unchanged.

Gray said if elected, he would be Amesbury’s top salesman and place a higher emphasis on reaching out to prospective businesses and developers to bring them in and sell them the city of Amesbury. He said whether people realize it or not, Amesbury is competing with surrounding communities for business, and putting out a “for sale” sign and waiting for the buyers to come isn’t a winning strategy.

“Once you’ve got your product developed or your service defined, that’s where it starts, and then you have to go out and make it happen,” Gray said. “You have to identify customers, understand their business and their needs, and you match it with what they have to offer. That’s what we need to do.”

On the issue of improving the schools, Gray acknowledged that he isn’t an expert in school administration, but as a private sector CEO one of the main keys to success is making sure your goals align with the issues your company faces, and right now he doesn’t believe that the school’s goals are in line with its challenges.

For instance, he said many of the most cited problems facing the schools are the funding gap, class sizes, course offerings, fees, MCAS and SAT scores, and graduation and drop out rates. Superintendent Michele Robinson’s 2013-14 goals, however, revolve around using data to improve instruction and realize greater student achievement, which doesn’t address many of key issues that parents and teachers want fixed, Gray said.

“I’m not an expert in education, and neither is the mayor, but the role of the mayor is to lead, it’s to lead a discussion, set priorities and its to bring people together,” Gray said. “If you talk to anyone in the school administration, they’ll tell you that the biggest problem is money. Well, where is that in the goals? What are we doing to address that?”

Gray said successfully building the commercial/industrial tax base would be the best way to address most of the funding related issues, but until that money is available, the schools will also have to make better use of the money that it already has by benchmarking other communities and reducing costs where appropriate.

He added emphatically that he believes Amesbury’s teachers are great, but it’s the upper management that needs to show improvement, and as mayor he would take responsibility for leading them down a better path.

“I think they have to be led,” he said. “The mayor’s role as the head of the school committee is to lead, to assist in setting their strategic objectives, to drive them towards common goals, to align the requirements of the schools with the strategic objectives.”

Gray’s plan ends with a statement about bringing the community together, and he argues that despite much of the tension that currently exists between the “school people” and the “anti-tax people,” everybody has much more in common than they realize.

“What I say at my meet and greets is that we have more in common than we have separating us,” Gray said. “The so-called tax people have children in the school system, so they want good schools, and the so-called school people own homes, so they want low taxes.”

Gray expressed frustration with some of the divisive rhetoric he said has been leveled by Kezer and some of his supporters, who have criticized Gray for being a renter and for chalking up his primary win to people living in the “waterfront districts” that were fed up with their taxes.

He blamed the division on lingering bad blood over past issues like the library building project and split tax rate, and said if elected he hopes to help move the city past all of that.

“We’re splitting the community, and I think we need to bring people together,” Gray said. “I was not a participant in the battle over the library or split tax rate, and I don’t carry any of that baggage. Those battles are fought, those battles are over, but this kind of talk drives a wedge between us, and that troubles me.”

When reached for comment, Kezer said he hasn’t seen the full plan and can’t comment on it as a whole, but on the issue of divisiveness, he said he wasn’t trying to divide up the community with his “water districts” remark, but rather was observing a trend that likely played into Gray’s performance in the primary. He also said he intended to emphasize his own status as a homeowner who fully understands the challenges facing residents.

“All I said is I’m a homeowner, which means I pay taxes like other people, and I have a child in the school system, so I want the best education for my kid just like everyone else,” Kezer said. “So I understand the balance between the two, and how he takes that [remark] is up to him.”

As for Gray’s criticism of Amesbury’s annual new growth, Kezer said most of the decline was due to the economic downturn of 2008, and on the issue of schools, Kezer said the school’s goals to improve student performance are in line with its challenges. Since Amesbury has a lot of high need students, focusing on those students will help bring up Amesbury’s MCAS and SAT scores, and eventually its graduation rate.

“Our specific goals that we set are targeted to those issues that help to improve the learning of high need students,” Kezer said. “The goals are in line, they just focus on the structural issues that we’re trying to address and focus on.”