CNS thanks the 4 candidates running for School Committee -- Joe Barnes, Connie Barr, Marianne Cooley and David Ecsedy -- for providing thoughtful responses to the following 4 questions:
- What skills and/or experience would you bring to the Needham School Committee?
- Most prospective School Committee members have several areas in which they are particularly interested and for which they have some ideas for improvement. What are yours?
- As a School Committee member, you will have to make some tough budgetary decisions. How do you define your priorities?
- In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the Needham Public Schools over the next three years?
Please read below for their responses.
Q1. What skills and/or experience would you bring to the Needham School Committee?
Joe Barnes: I have devoted my 40+ year professional career to public education. As both a high school teacher and building principal, my experiences span the urban and suburban settings. I spent 7 of those years as the principal at Pollard. I believe I have a solid understanding of teaching and learning, an understanding of what schools need in order to be successful. I also believe I am a good listener; one who considers all viewpoints and then is able to build consensus within the group.
Connie Barr: Two terms (six years) on the School Committee with one year as Chair. Previously active member of Citizens for Needham Schools, on the Board of the NEF, active in PTCs all levels, seven years as Co-President NHS PTC. Practice Internal Medicine at Dedham Medical Associates. Active in Needham community activities, including Board of Directors of Needham Community Council and Needham Historical Society. My children are K-12 graduates of Needham Public Schools.
Marianne Cooley: I have been involved in education related activities serving Needham for nearly 20 years beginning with PTC involvement, the Needham Education Foundation, Citizens for Needham Schools, chairing the override for Needham High School, and nine years on the School Committee. I bring a deep understanding of the school budget, familiarity with our building process, an appreciation for how the Town works together to solve problems, and gratitude for the daily work of our teachers and staff to produce the best learning environment and challenges we can for our children.
David Ecsedy: I am a 25-year Needham resident. During this time my daughter Annie and my son Tobe have completed all grades in the Needham public schools. Annie has been accepted to medical school! I have always participated in a wide variety of academic-related pursuits. I have earned degrees in law, engineering, and physics. I have held responsible engineering positions throughout my working career, often dealing with financial matters. In Needham I work as a substitute teacher. I have taught in all 8 Needham schools, so I am aware of recent conditions throughout the system. I have also served Needham as an election worker, a town meeting member, a New Year's Needham volunteer, and as a member of the Needham Cultural Council (I am currently its treasurer). In addition to the above, I bring ability as a good listener and reputation for being a "nice guy."
Q2. Most prospective School Committee members have several areas in which they are particularly interested and for which they have some ideas for improvement. What are yours?
Connie Barr: I believe my job as a School Committee member is not to focus on my own agenda, but to take interest in all aspects of our work with the Superintendent and Needham Public Schools to promote the teaching/learning/ success of all of our staff, students, schools and programs. I am dedicated to improvements in our school physical plants, in classroom teacher/student ratios, in competitive contracts to recompense our teachers and administrators and in continued transparency and communication with parents and the residents of Needham. That being said, as a practicing physician, I do take considerable interest in the K - 12 Wellness and Health Education and Social and Emotional Learning programs.
Marianne Cooley: The role of the School Committee member is to be a part of a (hopefully) high-functioning team. A personal agenda is not necessarily helpful - common sense and the ability to listen carefully are. In addition, the School Committee is responsible for overall policy and direction - not for implementation. That said, with two children who attended the Hillside School and the youngest also spent two years at Mitchell, finishing the School Committee's job to re-build these schools is a high priority for me. Determining which proposal makes the most sense for the town considering all factors is not so straightforward. And gaining the Town's agreement will be critical. The MSBA's insights about the schools will be valuable.
David Ecsedy: My employment experience makes me uniquely qualified to work on all budgetary and financial school-related issues. My interest in and knowledge of sports would make me a natural contributor to the questions about student sports participation in Needham High School and in the other Needham public schools. I am also interested in the expansion of foreign languages in the schools. In addition to formal classes perhaps courses could be offered by resident volunteers?
Joe Barnes: Our schools are only as good as the teachers and administrators we hire to work with our students. I am very interested in maintaing a professional development program to support our staff. I also was a member of the PPBC during the design and construction of the High Rock School. I want to play a similar role as the Hillside School faces the same reconstruction/renovation.
Q3. As a School Committee member, you will have to make some tough budgetary decisions. How do you define your priorities?
Marianne Cooley: From the School Committee's perspective, we have met mandates first, then held on to everything we can that directly impacts children in the classroom, then we evaluate support areas around the classroom and students. For the past two years, we have also focused on efforts to increase teachers and decrease class size at the secondary level as our enrollments have grown there. Those efforts will all continue for the next several years.
David Ecsedy: Of course the successful education of Needham children in a safe and healthy environment is the obvious priority. The trick is how best to do this without unlimited funds. I think that there has to be a finely balanced approach with consideration for staff, curriculum, buildings, etc. Imagination and flexibility are needed because of limited resources and future uncertainties.
Joe Barnes: My goal has always been to minimize cuts in the budget that directly impact classroom services to our students. Maintaing reasonable class sizes and providing the professional training and support for our teachers is of paramount importance.
Connie Barr: I believe my individual priorities to be less important than our collective need to support the stated goals of the Needham Public Schools, to optimize the teaching and learning at the classroom level, and to create and support other school related activities which develop students' abilities and success engaging in the community and wider world. In order to accomplish this we need a thoughtful, School Committee-wide, and public process of reviewing and revising our large and complicated budget after it has been worked and reworked by our hardworking Superintendent and his Leadership Team. Some priorities: diversity of our staff, improved teacher collaboration and professional development time, increased time for Physical Education, return to elementary World Languages, full day kindergarten, increased use of technology in our classrooms, improved Guidance Counselor/student ratios, and additional curriculum leaders and literacy and math coaches.
Q4. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the Needham Public Schools over the next three years?
David Ecsedy: Of course I can not be sure. Unanticipated challenges are likely - meaning that it is important that the most highly qualified people should be on the School Committee. However, based on what we know now:
- Budget Gap - The town's overall budget can not support even what is regarded as essential by the School Administration and the School Committee.
- Overcrowded Conditions - There is overcrowding especially at Hillside, Mitchell, and Pollard. The proposed solutions and choosing among them will require difficult decisions.
- Expanding the Foreign Language Program - The addition of Spanish (or another foreign language) to the elementary school program should be seriously considered.
By the way each of these three items was the subject of feature articles in the Needham Times recently.
Joe Barnes: I believe the challenges are:
- To partner with the MSBA in securing the funding for the reconstruction/ renovation of the Hillside School.
- To advocate for and receive the necessary financial support for our operational budgets. We are one of a number of departments in the town with continuing fiscal needs. We must remember that we are part of a larger community. It is vital that we present a transparent budget that clearly reflects our needs.
- To recruit, hire, and train the best and brightest educators. In addition to this, we must continue to negotiate fair and competitive salaries in an effort to retain our professional and paraprofessional staff.
Connie Barr: The broad categories of challenges remain the same as they were when I first ran six years ago: budget, enrollments and buildings. The schools' budget already struggles to cover the "basic" needs of our schools and students, making it a huge challenge to include innovative/new programs and to meet unfunded mandates, e.g. teacher evaluation. Enrollments have steadily increased, with our largest classes now moving to the high school where more resources are required. We have the need to continue to replace and renovate our buildings, including the outdated and overcrowded Hillside, Mitchell and Pollard schools and the crumbling Emery Grover. In addition to these "Big Three" we have the work of implementing the new teacher evaluation program, the need to remain up to date in technology infrastructure and the use of technology in the classroom, the important work of reviewing curricula on a rotating basis, the challenge of continuing to hire and retain excellent teachers and staff and of increasing diversity in our staff, the negotiation of fair and competitive contracts and the optimization of our Special Education programs for the benefit of our students who require additional supports in their learning and development.
Marianne Cooley: The unsustainable areas of transportation and technology will need continued focus. A sustained level of commitment from the State for education funding and particularly circuit breaker funding for special education will be helpful. It is unlikely to happen if past history is any indication, however. The budget in each year will continue to be a careful discussion. Salary increases alone, given the number of younger teachers in the system, will continue to consume all or nearly all of our available new funding each year. The School Committee would like to introduce or re-introduce some new items such as an elementary world language or increased time for teacher preparation and group work time, but these will not be able to occur within the "normal" budget process.