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School Committee candidates offer experience and new perspective

This year’s School Committee election is uncontested, with two candidates for the two open seats. On the ballot is veteran SusanMary Redinger, who has served on the School Committee since 2011 and also currently chairs the School Building Committee. The other candidate, running a write-in campaign, is Abby Besse, who grew up in Harvard and has served on the school councils of both Hildreth Elementary and the Bromfield School. Both candidates spoke with the Press in telephone interviews.

Besse aims for balance, continuity

Abby Besse. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Running for School Committee “has always been on my radar,” Besse said, explaining she had taught middle school social studies for 15 years, but then decided to take a break from teaching when her youngest child was born. Serving on the school councils, she said, gave her a feel for the issues the two schools face.

She saw current School Committee Chair John Ruark’s decision not to run again as an opportunity. “I was never going to run against anyone, because I think that the people who are on the board are stellar, and I wouldn’t want to disrupt the apple cart that way,” she said. Then, between the pandemic and caring for her four out-of-school children, Besse missed the filing deadline to get on the ballot and so is running as a write-in candidate.

Besse acknowledged that the School Committee may face very difficult budget choices if state aid to the town is cut back severely. Asked how she would decide what cuts to make, she said: “I do not believe in cutting entire programs. I see some districts who are already cutting art entirely K to 12. And music.” She said taking steps like that would violate the school’s mission statement, which calls for balance. “Cutting entire programs is not a way that you achieve balance.”

Instead, Besse praised Superintendent Linda Dwight’s “creative problem solving” in finding other teachers who will take on some of the drama program, should Bromfield be unable for financial reasons to fill the position left vacant by longtime drama teacher Martha Brooks’ retirement.

Besse said she looks forward to seeing all the kids back in the classroom as soon as possible. “I think the best type of education is face to face, in the classroom with the teacher and classmates.” But she said the state education commissioner will set the timing for any full return to school. “So it certainly sounds like the hybrid system of some class time and some online learning time will be it [the plan for fall].”

Asked what she thinks is the most important thing that Harvard schools can offer their students, Besse answered unhesitatingly: “The most important thing is an excellent education, which we’re currently doing. And I look forward to supporting and helping the school district maintain this excellent education.”

Redinger offers institutional memory, long-term perspective

SusanMary Redinger said one reason she decided to run for another term was a desire to see the elementary school building project through to a successful conclusion. A second reason was to ensure continuity. With nine years on the board, she is by far the most senior member. After Ruark’s decision to step down, the other members have only one or two years’ experience. Redinger hopes she can provide historical perspective and mentoring for others on the committee. And a third reason, she said, was simply, “This is a tough time for the schools with the override pending and budget pressures coming.”

SusanMary Redinger.

Redinger noted that the School Committee serves a wide range of families and children, and an important aspect of the job is “understanding different constituencies, … why things were done and how different groups feel about issues. It’s important to have that perspective,” she said, “as you’re making decisions about policies and budgets.”

“It looks like we’ll be doing a hybrid model in the fall,” Redinger said, referring to a mix of classroom time and distance learning. Like Besse, Redinger foresees a lot of direction from the state education commissioner: “Commissioner [Jeffrey C.] Riley has really stepped up and said that [the state] will mandate pretty much 85% of what school would look like in the fall.” Redinger said the hybrid model would be particularly demanding for teachers. “It’s so hard for teachers to put together a full curriculum [for remote-learning classes] and implement it at the same time, and then they also have to be doing actual [in-person] classes as well.”

Asked how she would evaluate cuts that the schools might be asked to make, Redinger said: “Well, certainly we would rely on the administration to provide suggestions on where cuts could be made. I think the school committee is interested in protecting things that would impact student learning, in any way, shape, or form. There’s also the question of how can we use the Devens Fund to tide us over.”

Redinger said Town Administrator Tim Bragan has predicted the town might not get back to normal funding levels for four years. “And yet,” she said, “the town is sitting on $4.6 million in the capital stabilization fund, and the schools have some money in the Devens fund. You know, if ever there was a rainy day, this is it.”

“There’s a structural deficit problem in the school budget,” Redinger said, “when you have the teachers’ step-and-column [pay scale] outpacing the 2 1/2% levy. Fortunately, the School Committee only voted in a one-year contract. And that would be one lever for addressing the fiscal crisis that we’re in.”

Asked what had been learned from the school closure in the COVID-19 pandemic, Redinger said in-person learning is definitely best for students, especially in the younger grades. But Zoom has turned out to be a very good way to connect with parents. Zoom meetings with the school principals or the superintendent have gathered 80 or 100 parents—far more than usually come out to an evening meeting at school. “You know, we never get that kind of response on a regular basis,” Redinger said, “so one [success] is engaging the community.” She added that many people at the virtual meetings submitted good questions using the program’s chat feature.

Returning to the town’s financial situation, Redinger suggested the problem is deeper than the immediate crisis: “You know, I’m a Yankee. My mom was Scottish, and my dad was a kid during the Depression. You didn’t spend what you didn’t have—and that’s a great mentality for the most part. … But again, people have decided that they want to live in a bucolic, undeveloped town with a first-rate educational system. And there’s the crux. It’s hard to have both of those without having a personal hit to your taxes.”

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