Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM Last Wednesday the School Committee debate was the subtle opening act for the more theatrical mayoral debate at Agawam Middle School.
Six of the seven candidates participated in the debate for the six-seat School Committee: incumbents Anthony Bonavita, Roberta Doering, Linda Galarneau and Diane Juzba, challengers Shelley Borgatti-Reed and John Burns. Challenger John Cesan was not present.
Each candidate welcomed audience members and opened the debates with their minute and a half opening remarks.
Bonavita was the first to present opening statements. He noted his experience as vice chair of the School Committee and two terms as a City Councilor. He asked voters to consider his record when considering his candidacy.
Burns said his over 40 years of experience as a math and technology education teacher makes him uniquely qualified. He said he wants to find ways to address the needs of the students of the future and to maintain "excellence" within Agawam's school system.
Doering said it is the responsibility of the School Committee members to make sure tax dollars for education are "wisely spent" and to "provide local leadership for our schools." She added that she wants to address quality of life needs as well as the educational needs of each individual child.
In her opening remarks, Borgatti-Reed said she believes that as an "active parent" with two children in the Agawam school system and member of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) she has a "better insight into the needs of students."
Juzba noted her qualifications as a special education teacher and member of the School Committee for the past four years. She said she has an "honest and dedicated interest in the schools and for the children of Agawam."
Galarneau said in her opening remarks that over her past 17 years serving on the School Committee she has worked hard to provide a "great education" for those within the Agawam school system. She added that she will work to maintain small class sizes to ensure quality education and attention for all students.
The candidates were then asked the same few questions by a three-person panel and moderator. The candidates had the option to answer, or not to answer, with a one-minute response.
The first question asked each of the candidates about current school safety procedures and what improvements, if any, should be made.
"We are doing everything we can," Doering said. She added that the installation of surveillance cameras, requiring locked doors and speaking to the students about safety precautions has been beneficial to insuring school safety.
Bonavita assured audience members that that School Committee is "constantly looking at ways to keep the schools safe."
Borgatti-Reed said improvements must be made such as fixing doors that do not close properly and possibly requiring identification badges for students, faculty and staff.
The second question asked the candidates about what efforts should be taken by the School Committee to ensure that special education teachers receive the proper training.
Bonavita noted the formation of the Special Education Subcommittee and their mission to meet the needs of special education teachers as well as students in order to "solve problems before they happen."
Juzba stressed the need for proper special education teacher certification and professional development training that will make teachers "proficient in their children's diverse needs."
Galarneau said the 10-minute addition onto each school day for scheduling will provide five extra school days per year. She added that this extra time will be beneficial for teachers who are striving to meet the needs of special education students.
The next question asked whether the most important job of a School Committee member is fiscal responsibility or educational advocacy.
Juzba said both were equally important because fiscal responsibility is needed in order to be able to implement educational programs.
Bonavita noted that fiscal responsibility within the School Committee has allowed the appropriation of $100,000 for middle school improvements and $40,000 for new textbooks.
Doering said Agawam has been "very fortunate to have the support of the community and the taxpayers." She added that the school system has been able to hire new teachers to replace retiring personnel.
The fourth question asked candidates how the School Committee should address and prevent impropriety among teachers and students.
Bonavita said the first step is to have a "great superintendent who will set the tone for the administration."
Galarneau said thorough background checks must be completed when hiring new teachers. She added that "when a teacher is fired for inappropriate behavior it must be documented and not covered up."
Borgatti-Reed responded by saying that teachers must be held to the highest standards.
The candidates were then asked about safety measures taken by staff during emergencies.
Galarneau said in the event of an emergency, teachers are required to follow the procedures outlined in the Emergency Advisory Handbook.
Burns said teachers must go by the protocols during emergencies. However he added that as soon as there are doubts or questions about the protocol "we have a problem."
Doering said the School Committee must continue to reevaluate emergency protocols. Parents must also be responsible and provide schools with the necessary emergency contact information.
Candidates were also asked if they believed the MCAS tests are working.
Juzba responded by saying the MCAS tests are not the perfect assessment tool for students and that they "should not be the only assessment tool."
Burns said he has participated in the MCAS Development Committee and believes that despite the MCAS tests there are still "underperforming students."
Borgatti-Reed said the MCAS tests put too much pressure on teachers and students.
Doering agreed with the other candidates by saying that one "can't judge a student by one test." She added that other schools in Massachusetts are cutting arts courses in order to spend money on MCAS preparation.
However, Galarneau said she disagreed. She said the MCAS tests "bring accountability" to teachers and students.
Each candidate was then granted time for their brief closing remarks. Each candidate noted their commitment and dedication to providing quality education and schools for all students.