NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There are five candidates running for three four-year seats on the North Adams School Committee. The incumbents running for re-election are Karen Bond and Tara Jacobs; they are being challenged by Emily Daunis, Robert J. Moulton Jr. and David Sookey III. Another incumbent, Nicholas Fahey, is not standing for re-election.
Below are interviews with four candidates who were interviewed and/or attended candidate forums.
We were unable to connect with Bond but she is running for a second term, is a graduate of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and holds a master's degree in clinical laboratory science from the Medical University of South Carolina. She is director of laboratory services at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt. She is currently the committee secretary.
Daunis is running for School Committee for the first time. She holds a degree in art history that she says has been helpful in her work as a professional fundraiser over the past 15 years working for small nonprofits like historic houses, health care centers and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. She's currently working for the Clark Art Institute.
"We have lived in the area a few years now, and my husband I are both really interested in the success of the city," she said. "And personally, I really feel that that relates directly to the success of the schools. We do have three kids now and that's a big push for me to get involved both as a parent and, of course, as a community member."
She says her background offers a variety of experience that would benefit the School Committee.
"Fundraising gives me skills in the strategic planning, the marketing, the budgeting, the sort of big-picture thinking, as well as just
being able to listen to people and move that into action if that makes sense," she said.
Daunis said she realizes the issues surrounding education and the number of stakeholders is many so there would be learning curve. However, one of her focuses at first is ensuring the basics are being covered.
"The biggest thing to me first off is, of course, making sure that the schools are really taking care of everybody in the building, that they're safe, they're comfortable, that they're -- which kind of gets into well-being -- healthiness and the nutrition of the food that we serve," she said. "Also, edging into the recyclability of the school system."
She said she was shocked to see the schools were using disposable plastic silverware -- hundreds of kids every single day. "I'm sure there's good reasons for this but sometimes it takes one questioning the reasons," she said, adding that it's a matter of cost, maybe there's places that could be trimmed to reallocate resources.
She also thinks it's important that the school system's technology is updated.
"Once again, I understand this is a budget and a big picture question, but I think that the schools need to be ready in themselves to move into better technology, not what the kids are using necessarily but it what the administration is using," she said.
Another thing she's interested in pursuing is elevating communications to parents about the great job the schools are doing and marketing the school system more effectively. The city schools now have to compete with school choice options plus McCann Technical School and Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School, she noted.
"Even if I don't get on the School Committee, I will probably work to assist what I can within the schools because we have some friends who are parents who were thinking of using the North Adams schools but just didn't get the attention that maybe they needed," Daunis said. "The schools are busy -- maybe that's a parent-volunteer group that kind of steps up and helps show new parents around, and really boost up the the communication."
She knows there's larger topics out there, like possibly school consolidation, but says those "need real careful consideration and I don't want to jump to any conclusions about the pros or cons of anything." What she would like to bring up is more discussion about after-school programs and what can be done to improve accessibility.
"There are bigger budget topic issues that I'd love to learn more about and to contribute advice as I can," she said.
As for cell phone or dress codes, she'd like to hear from teachers first.
"I would just question what the teachers think of both of those topics. If they're in support, of the teachers themselves ... or the administration, then I would be, sure," Daunis said. "But I'm really leaving that up to them to kind of determine what's the priority, or are those priority topics? I'm not sure. ...
"I'd rather make sure everybody gets to school safely. And, you know, has the best education they possibly can."
Jacobs is running for a second term on the School Committee. She also served on the North Adams Public Library's board of trustees and on the Community and Economic Development Advisory Board.
She and her husband moved the area just over a decade ago. She holds degrees from Bard College at Simon's Rock and Tufts University and a master's of business in management and marketing from New York University's Stern School of business. She was worked as a brand strategist for a number of national companies and is now a marketing consultant liaison.
"All the reasons I ran for the first time [in 2015] are still true. I have a daughter in the system and I care a lot about the quality of the school that she attends, but also, beyond her, the city, the quality of the schools that we have," Jacobs said. "So all the first reasons that motivated me are still reasons they haven't changed."
But other things have come up over the last four years that she wants to see through.
"There's things like the Greylock School building project that I want to see through, the Drury turnaround plan that I want to be a part of," she said. "There's ongoing improvements and processes that I've been a part of that we're seeing momentum on and I feel like there's still work to do."
She said had it occurred to her that when she had joined the committee, there had been members with decades of experience. The only way to continue that institutional knowledge is to be committed, Jacobs said. So she's been attending the Massachusetts Association of School Committees' annual conferences and workshop on topics ranging from finance to social/emotional health.
"I've been learning as much as I can learn about how to be the most effective I can be in this role and at the state level," she said. "Sometimes it's tedious, like the tax thing on budgeting and laws and legislation and advocacy ... Now starting to apply that and to not run, seems like such a waste of all this effort."
She said she hopes to continue as one of those dedicated committee members who can provide that experience. The learning experience never really stops, she said, because there are allows new regulations being put into practice.
"We're doing a good job on on updating our curricula area by area so I want us to continue to do that," Jacobs said. "Science was the next area and I pushed for it and just as I pushing for it, they're like, 'haha, we're ahead of you.'"
The district itself has been in turnaround since Superintendent Barbara Malkas began, she said, with the development of a new leadership team and the implementation of a data plan. But she's found as she pushed for things to happen, the administration has tended to be a few steps ahead.
"Almost always where I'm coming from is there's already a plan in place for that," she laughed. "You don't it want to come from the School Committee, you want the administration to be ahead of the curve ...
"I try and have far more patience because things in the school system takes far longer to implement and to see results, but realistically, also, when I look back, it's kind of amazing how much change has happened in such a short amount of time."
During this time, the district has been reorganized, resources reallocated, collaborative services put in place and new policies and procedures implemented.
"Now we're seeing payoffs happen," Jacobs said, noting the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has called out North Adams as "one of three in the state that have jumped up and achieve their rates over the course of a year."
She would like to see the Drury's hybridized shop program that combined computer assisted drawing and wood working be revived. It was shutdown after the instructor retired.
"I very strongly advocated that we replace him with someone of exactly his type of background and engineer-type background," she said. "He was truly creating this sort of melded-together program that inspired kids to want to go engineering in a way that I thought was fabulous. It was really fantastic. ...
"For some kids, the thing that really keeps them motivated and engaged in school is going to be the art and the drama. For some, it's going to be the sports. And for some, it's going to be something like that, you know, where you can connect to their passion."
Jacobs said she is also in favor of a dress code -- one that's nonrestrictive as possible and "empowers all learners." Children shouldn't be called out or shamed for their clothing, she said, especially girls, who tend to have the most restrictions.
"I absolutely have an issue with these antiquated dress codes," she said, adding that she was able to get a vote on reviewing the dress code policy. "There's many examples across the country right now of these newer ways of approaching dress code that are far more empowerment oriented."
Robert R. Moulton Jr.
Moulton, a six-time city councilor is seeking a seat on the School Committee this election as well as return to the City Council.
The local businessman -- his family has operated Moulton's Spectacle Shoppe for three generations -- says he has the time and the ability to fill both posts. And he feels he is well-versed in the ways of the School Committee because his brother, Mark, spent a dozen years on the committee.
"It was a lot of issues he brought up to me, we could bounce back and forth and I could go to the council with those issues, even though it's a whole separate different area," he said, adding "I have a lot of issues with the School Committee, with the way the School Committee was run."
Moulton said he would not like to see standards reduced, referring to a proposal a couple years ago about athlete academic standards that went nowhere. He also wants more transparency by broadcasting the committee that are now held in City Hall, and instituting a tougher codes for dress and cell phone use.
"I've always advocated for having the School Committee meetings televised and brought that up into the council and had my brother bring it up and that that was never done," he said. "There's very little coverage on School Committee meetings as a whole so people have no idea what's going on."
His brother had also brought up the dress code two years ago, citing parent complaints, but the other committee members and the administration pushed back saying the policy follows state guidelines.
Moulton said other schools have successfully implemented dress codes and that hoodies, baggy pants showing underwear and inappropriate dress in girls is not conducive to learning.
"I called it the gangster look, I don't think you should have hoodies," he said. "I think you're in a school and everyone should be on an equal basis. Some of the ways some of the girls -- I've heard it from teachers, I've heard it from other parents -- I mean, very, very provocative.
Moulton also pointed to his prior experience on the City Council and his familiarity in going over school budgets as a member of the Finance Committee. Plus, he said, he has more time devote to civic activities.
"I'd like to try it for four years and see what I can do," he said. "I can make a difference and bring some different ideas."
David Sookey III
Sookey is a native of Adams making his first run for office. He holds a master's degree in education and taught for a time at a private school in Pennsylvania before returning to the Berkshires. He is currently the training and safety coordinator for DuFour Tours, which provides bus transportation for the North Adams schools.
Sookey has a 2-year-old daughter who will be entering preschool next year and believes that younger parents should become involved in the school systems. He gave kudos to committee members who have served for a time but believes that new perspectives are always needed.
"You see all these things that are happening as far as the community itself and the education, the kids, and the needs are getting greater," he said. "And I think we're doing an OK job meeting those needs but I think there's always better things to be done."
He points to his experience in private school, as a substitute in local school systems and in transporting children.
"I see the behavior side of all the kids and then we service from Lenox all the way to Vermont," Sookey said. "I think I can see the student side of it, not just the academic teacher side and having somebody who is in it a little bit in can relate to those kids versus somebody who's been out of school now, for say 30 years."
Among his concerns are teacher retention, saying that although some are retirements, he's heard that the atmosphere "isn't to the greatest."
"Sometimes I think the vetting of these people, the candidates for these positions should be a little better," he said.
He also thinks that although the system has been doing a better job in meeting the needs of children, it could be providing more opportunities in outreach and collaborating with local social service programs.
"It feels very intimidating to go to a teacher and say, 'I need help.' Even as adults, we don't like to say we need help. And there's a lot of kids struggling out there. I mean, drug addiction, violence. ... You've got to educate the kids on how they can get help, right? That it's going to be OK. ... Either we need to create a position or we need to adapt the staffing that we have to be more approachable for these kids and look to other programs that we could find funding for."
He would advocate for more vocational training, saying shop and life skills are not only important in bridging class learning to real-life situations, they can also provide an outlet for teens adrift.
"You know, they're probably not going to go to college afterward, but at least it shows them that they come out with some knowledge and the ability to go somewhere else, whether it's post-secondary at McCann or they go work for a trade tradesmen somewhere," Sookey said. "Just because one group is excelling doesn't mean we're excelling as a whole. We need to try to figure out what works for ... a lot of kids that are just not into it. But if you gave them something, I believe that they'll be great with it."
He also thinks a stricter cell phone policy is appropriate and is not against tightening up the school system's dress code. He acknowledged that nobody wants to pat down a kid to see if they have a phone and that the use of phones is pretty ubiquitous, even by teachers.
There's an element of role modeling and keeping more of an eye on students to educate them in the proper use of phones, keep them out of trouble in terms of hacking and websites, and showing them appropriate wear. That, he said, is a "fine line to walk" and that appropriate should mean no underwear hanging out, no cleavage and no pants at your knees.
"So I substituted in the early 2000s. When I was taught brought on, they told me that you needed to wear nice dress slacks, shirt and a tie. Right? Now you walk you walk the halls and look at them," he said. "Guys are wearing whatever they feel like and I've seen teachers in shorts during the summer."
But he also doesn't want to kick kids off the bus for behavioral issues because then they won't come to school, he tells them.
"I want you to go to school. I want you to succeed in life. Because I want you to have a job," Sookey said. "because sitting home and doing nothing isn't going to help. ... what we got to go for is just trying to meet their needs better and better."
The election is Tuesday, Nov. 5, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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