Candidates weigh in on quality of education in Newburyport schools

RICHARD K. LODGE/Staff photoAt-large council candidate Charles Tontar answers a question during Saturday’s Local pulse forum, while candidates, from left, Afroz Khan, Robert Germinara, Paul O’Brien and Bruce Vogel, listen, check their notes and wait their turns. Not pictured: Barry Connell and Joe Devlin.

NEWBURYPORT – The seven candidates seeking at-large City Council seats addressed the quality of education in the city, citing their views of successes and challenges, during the live Local Pulse radio forum Saturday morning.

When asked by host Joe DiBiase about school funding and the quality of education, incumbent Joe Devlin said he feels residents face high taxes and fees and taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth. 

“I think we can do better. I think the superintendent and the School Committee are doing their best but I made it clear to them, as did some other councilors, that next year they should ask for an aspirational budget,” not staying within the “confines of 3 to 5%, but ask for what they really need to give us the best school system in the Cape Ann League, then let us debate it in open session, in the committee and council so that people hear what the issues are and where people stand on it.”

Robert Germinara said he believed “the schools are always top heavy, and I was disappointed to see them cut some programs at the bottom. I always thought they should be pushing from the bottom up.”

Taxpayers and residents are looking to councilors to seek accountability for what happens in the schools.

“It just seems like everything gets pushed through every time it’s budget season through the City Council and they have no say in it and there’s got to be more accountability,” Germinara said.

Afroz Khan, an incumbent councilor, said there are many things in the schools that are “very beneficial” and noted that, besides tax money, there are things that supplement the school system, including fundraising efforts by the Newburyport Education Foundation. NEF support  “has been a tremendous help for technology,” she said.

If money were available, Khan said she thinks world languages and some aspects of science education could be enhanced.

Challenger Paul O’Brien said “we need to use our political muscle to increase our Chapter 70 (school) funding. That formula needs to be reworked.” He cited the STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – program as one success that helps students become successful.

“We are lucky to have a group like the NEF, but I don’t always want to be relying on them for help. The state needs to step up and improve their Chapter 70 funding and the legislative body of the city of Newburyport needs to demand they do that.”

Charles Tontar, the current Ward 4 councilor now running for an at-large council seat, noted that once a month he and Khan, who were both appointed by council President Barry Connell to the Joint Education Committee, meet with the School Committee and superintendent.

“I feel in the last two years we’ve had a much better grasp of what goes on with the school budget,” he said. Like O’Brien, he cited the STEM program as a successful area for the schools. He also said he has met many families who have moved to town because of the school system.

Incumbent Bruce Vogel said improved collaboration in the last two years between the council and School Committee “has been clearly apparent.”

To help the schools, he said “we should get away from the yo-yo budget that’s happened over the years. I think that’s been quite a handicap. Programs come and programs go based on where the budget might be.” 

Now that the Legislature has committed to looking at the school funding formula, local schools should benefit,Vogel said.

“Supporting our schools obviously is No. 1. We need to continue to work at it and continue to work together to find a collaborative and interesting, and exceptional path to success for everybody,” he said.

Connell, an incumbent, noted that he recently retired from teaching. He said he was proud the city has rebuilt its schools, but that inside the classrooms “we are deficient in terms of curriculum, deficient in terms of some areas not having the range of staff who are trained properly to do the things that our kids need.”

When he first met Gallagher, Connell said he told him he should “zero this budget out, work from the ground up and tell us what you need. Not what’s happened before, but what you need moving forward, and I think we’re making some headway in that regard.”  

To listen to the full 1½-hour at-large candidate forum, click on the Local Pulse logo at www. newburyportnews.com, then click on “Show 274.” 

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