School Committee Candidates Blog Debate – Eight Questions and Responses

Similar to what we did with Selectmen candidates last week, Educate Hopkinton posed the following eight questions to our School Commiteee Candidates, including why are you running (question #1), skills and experience (#2), ideas for improvements (#3), your experience on town committees (#4), what are your budget priorities (#5), the Center School challenge (#6), longer grade spans (#7) and thoughts on improving communication with other committees (#8). We thank them for their responses and for their commitment to Hopkinton. In addition we recommend voters watch the HCAM News Candidate Focus on the website.

School Committee Candidates – For three years – Vote for TWO
NANCY ALVAREZ BURDICK (Candidate for Re-election, Republican Caucus), 58 Greenwood Road,,, H508.435.0926
RICHARD P. DEMONT (Candidate for Re-election, Democratic Caucus), 77 North Mill Street,, H508.893.9988
SCOTT AGHABABIAN (Republican Caucus), 12 Breakneck Hill Road,, H508.544.1699

QUESTION 1: Why are you running for School Committee?

Nancy Burdick:
I have learned a great deal throughout my 6 years on the committee. I have been an integral part of the process − the successes and the consensus-building within and among committees and boards. I am proud of my role in keeping our schools strong during a period of great financial challenges. I want to be elected to the School Committee so that I can work to make the leadership of the schools more inclusive. By courting and using input from across the community we will be best positioned to make decisions that benefit the students with the support of the community as opposed to at the expense of the community. There can be a balance and we must work to achieve that.

Richard de Mont:
The Hopkinton School District is in a period of transition and there is much to be done to keep Hopkinton on track as one of the best districts in the state. We have a new Superintendent coming on board and School Committee negotiations with the HTA to complete, on whose Subcommittee I serve on. We also are just beginning to start the process to reach town wide consensus on the Center School project, as well as looking at other capital projects, particularly at Elmwood. I am actively involved in these various projects and would like to see them through to completion. Each year, the district gets its own report card in the form of our graduating Seniors and each year these students display extraordinary achievement in academics, the arts, sports and public service. 46% of our Seniors have been admitted to Barron’s Highest Rated Colleges, up from 28% in 2000. We have come along way and we have a long way to go, but to the extent my service on the Committee has facilitated a culture of learning and achievement in the schools, I couldn’t be more proud.

Scott Aghababian:
I decided to run for the School Committee this year as I watched the issue of the new Fruit Street school unfold. I believe education is one of the most important functions of the town along with public safety, however, I was not comfortable with the direction we were going through the Fruit St. school proposal. First, I am against the districting of our schools. The town is too small and too tightly knit for multiple school districts. Second, I believe the project was too expensive in the current economy, despite the state grant. Third, I believe the process did not include enough input from the people of the town. The majority votes at the Special Town Meeting and Special Town Election bore these positions out. It became clear then that a new voice was needed on the School Committee.

QUESTION 2: What skills/experiences do you have that you feel makes you qualified to serve on Hopkinton’s School Committee?

Nancy Burdick:
Since moving to Massachusetts 9-years ago, I have been active supporting the schools. I have served as a classroom volunteer, an HPTA President, HPTA Hospitality Co-Chair and Grant Writer and as an elected School Committee member. My academic background is in the field of educational psychology which is why I look to the schools to volunteer. At the University of Pennsylvania, I completed a Master’s of Science in Education, achieved a Certificate in School Psychology and completed seven years of doctoral study (all but dissertation) concentrating in parent involvement in the education of students. I worked for 4 years as a school psychologist in the Abington Pennsylvania public schools and worked as a therapist with children, families and schools at the Children’s Seashore House/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I currently hold a Massachusetts School Psychologist Educator’s license for all levels. My relevant volunteer roles coupled with my professional experience uniquely position me to be both an advocate for the students in our schools and an experienced manager and leader for the school department.

Richard de Mont:
I am an attorney by profession and much of what we do on the School Committee is controlled by state or federal law. In developing a policy or interpreting the application of a law or regulation, my legal training is an asset in interpreting the relevant law and applying it to the facts. I have also been involved in public service since moving to Hopkinton, having served on the Board of Health for three plus terms and pride myself in working collegially with a diverse group to achieve group goals, while bringing an independent perspective and voice to process. On occasion, taking an unpopular stance or minority position simply because it is the right thing to do.

Scott Aghababian:
I am a parent whose children attend Hopkinton schools and a taxpayer who supports said schools.

QUESTION 3: 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?

Nancy Burdick:
Improve Communication with the Community – The leadership of the schools should to be more inclusive. More effective and efficient communication needs to take place.
Balance the needs of the students with the needs of the community – Advocating for the appropriate financial resources to support the needs of all students is important. Demonstrating to the community how that support for the schools directly relates to student success will be paramount to restoring the School Committee’s credibility which will in turn lead to greater support for committee initiatives and decisions.
Demonstrate a cost effective budget – The Committee must do everything it can to ensure that the community is getting the most cost-effective quality services for the investment. The Committee should continue to plan for and execute budgets responsibly and realistically, considering not only the current year but the long term as well.

Richard de Mont:
Two important areas, which are of particular interest to me and where my legal and analytical skills add value to the Committee are serving as liaison to SPEAC, the parent support group for special education, and also the labor negotiation subcommittee presently working on a new contract with the HTA. Having a child who had special needs and having had a negative initial experience with the District’s Special Education department, I researched the applicable law and was able to successfully advocate for my child. However, I was angry that it took the skills of an attorney to establish our rights under the law and decided then and there, that I would work to see that all families would receive the most appropriate and effective services without needing to retain a lawyer. I am happy to say that the District has come a long way in this area and is now a very highly regarded program and constantly seeking to improve the delivery of services at the most economical cost. This turnaround would not have been possible unless we had the help and collaboration of SPEAC and the Special Education department. It more common that special education advocacy groups and special education administrators be at loggerheads, but in a typically unique Hopkinton way, these two groups work continue to work closely toward the common goal of delivering the most appropriate services to our children at the most economical manner.
I have also enjoyed my service on the HTA labor negotiation subcommittee, though it is a very challenging job. I am humbled by the enormous responsibility of representing the taxpayers of Hopkinton in negotiating a fair contract with our most valuable asset, our teachers. In order to be successful in such a task, one must fully understand and respect the position of the other side and must avoid letting ones personal agenda out of the process. To this end, my legal skills and training are have served me well in analyzing data and forming fair and equitable positions based on the facts. Our mutual interests are dependant on finding the balance of compensating the teachers in a fair and equitable manner and which reflect the realities of current economic conditions. I am happy to report that current negotiations continue in a positive climate and I fully expect an agreement in the near future.

Scott Aghababian:
Blank – Please see Scott’s responses to the other questions, which he feels address question 3.

QUESTION 4: Describe one activity, committee or subcommittee you’ve been involved with within the school or town. What it meant to you? How it shaped town/school? Impact on schools/town?

Nancy Burdick:
Throughout my two terms with the School Committee, I have most enjoyed working as an appointed member of the American with Disabilities (ADA) Compliance Committee. The charge of that committee is to advocate and plan for how Hopkinton will make its municipal buildings and spaces accessible to all citizens. We have successfully put forward a project and spending plan for accessibility compliance that has been successfully supported by the annual Town Meeting for the past 5 years. Collaborating with the schools and other town and state departments has been educational and reinforcing. Our most recent success was bringing the needed assistive listening technology devices to the Middle School for students to use during school but also for the members of Town Meeting to benefit from. Helping people participate most fully in any process is what I have been able to do as a member of that committee.

Richard de Mont:
As stated in the previous question, being on the School Committee’s labor subcommittee and dealing with the HTA is one of the most important and rewarding tasks as I have on the Committee. In order to be successful in such a task, one must fully understand and respect the position of the other side and must avoid letting ones personal agenda out of the process. To this end, my legal skills and training are have served me well in analyzing data and forming fair and equitable positions based on the facts. Another consideration in this process is in the long term, as well as the immediate impacts to the town. To this end, the School Committee and the HTA have and will continue to look at different ways we can deliver excellent educational services at lower costs. For example, we are in the forefront of many innovative programs which leverage the explosion in technology to develop online curriculum, which enable students to access a wide variety of courses previously unavailable to them.

Scott Aghababian:
I’ve spent the last 14 years educating my three children. I care deeply about their education and that of the other children in Hopkinton. I strongly and publicly disagreed with the School Committee with regard to the districting and expense associated with the proposed new school, and therefore felt it my civic duty to run and represent this viewpoint, which was shared by the majority of Hopkinton voters in March. The other committee I served on was the Hopkinton Planning Board when I was elected in 2003.

QUESTION 5: As a School Committee member, you will have to make some budgetary decisions. How do you define your priorities?

Nancy Burdick:
My budget priorities are focused on improving the classroom experience for all students. Providing students with access to content is the primary goal. That, in my opinion, starts with quality teachers – the most experienced and resourceful content deliverers we have. Technology and continued professional development are tools that must be provided to our teachers so that they can continue to stay confident and enthusiastic about teaching our children how to complete tasks and solve problems. Continuing to provide this type of excellent education for our children is my goal as a School Committee member. The guidebook for how we pursue this goal is the School Committee’s Strategic Plan. It is time to review and update that Plan to make sure that the initiatives that are pursued are balanced across the schools and grades preK-12. Soliciting input throughout the transparent drafting of the revision regarding the rational, costs and expected benefits of strategic educational initiatives will increase understanding of and support for the Plan.

Richard de Mont:
When making budgetary decisions, you must start with the premise that you are dealing with a limited amount of money and for whatever budget request you approve, another deserving request must be denied. No one ever leaves the budget process completely satisfied, but we need to balance priorities and also evaluate both short and long term effects of any budget decisions we make. I believe that during my term, we have delivered relatively flat budgets which have maintained services without overburdening the taxpayer. In fact, Hopkinton’s per student cost per year is approximately $1,500.00 lower than the state average, while being amongst the highest performing districts in the state. But we must always be looking for ways to do things more efficiently.
My personal priorities in approaching the budget are, First, to preserve those programs we have in place, which are consistent with 21st Century learning and our strategic plan. This means maintaining class size and breadth and scope of curriculum. Next would be, when possible, is to invest in programs that will enhance the educational experience of our children such as adding a critical language such Mandarin Chinese. In this case, through the initiative of the administration, Hopkinton is pleased that we have received a grant for a second year, covering the expenses of a visiting Chinese teacher. When we do absorb the expense into our budget, we will have had two years into a program that has established roots in our community.
I also look at the maintenance of building and grounds as a priority. Again, there is never enough money available in any town department in to do what is believed is necessary. We continue to do more with less and have done a good job of maintaining our buildings and grounds.
In the area of Special Education, services are mandated to a certain level, but we have been very innovative in achieving economies of scale in reducing out-of-district placements by developing in-district that on one hand saves the District money, but more importantly, enhances the educational experience of our students. Accordingly, our investment in services, especially early intervention services, achieve savings when we are able to help a child achieve his or her maximum academic and social potential.

Scott Aghababian:
The primary responsibility of the Town, after providing for public safety, is to provide a high quality education to Hopkinton’s students in a fiscally responsible manner. Proficiency in the core disciplines of English, math, science and history will do much to enable our students to compete on the state, country and international stage.

QUESTION 6: How do you suggest the town to move forward with the Center School challenge? What process would you suggest to gain consensus among community members?

Nancy Burdick:
In my opinion, we need to move forward with any future solution to the facility challenges that the current Center School imposes on the educational program for our students, by engaging the Town in the following BIG process:

  1. Ask some questions.
  2. Listen.
  3. Repeat back some understanding of what was heard.
  4. Listen.
  5. Ask for brainstormed ideas (without critique) on another solution to the Center School facility – as well as thoughts on how this facility fits in with the context of the MS and Elmwood School.
  6. Listen.
  7. Develop solution priorities and criteria for alternatives to be measured against
  8. Report back to the community and collect feedback on those priorities and criteria
  9. Collect grant funding information for any and all building/renovation projects
  10. Prioritize the list of needed municipal building/repair/renovation initiatives
  11. Report back
  12. Plan to pursue prioritized projects through the use of state grants and Town appropriated funds

Richard de Mont:
I believe that in order to move forward, we need the direction of the townspeople. We have made a good start with the recent forum but have a long way to go. I believe we need all interested parties to get together to explore alternatives to the project that was recently voted down. Some voted against districting, some against the cost and many others for various reasons. I would be in favor of a town wide referendum on several alternatives that will come out of the anticipated process, so that those working on the project will be confident their efforts will have the support of the town. A referendum with the attendant information on the benefits and challenges of each proposal provided to the citizens before the vote would help the voters make the informed decision that was lacking in the recent vote.

Scott Aghababian:
The Center School will be needed for the next five years or more. The first order of business should be to address the repairs that are necessary to protect that asset and make it a serviceable learning environment for the kids and working environment for the teachers and staff.

QUESTION 7: What are your thoughts on a longer grade span model (districting)?

Nancy Burdick:
I believe that there are multiple educational and social benefits to be gained by students as a result of moving to a longer grade span model for our students.

Richard de Mont:
I do support longer grade spans, if possible, as I believe are they are more educationally beneficial to the children, especially those children with special needs and on IEP plans. Those children would particularly benefit from the continuity of having the same specialist over a longer period and avoid transitional down time for both the student and the specialists. The longer grade spans could also be achieved without districting in some configurations. However, what we end up doing will, in large part, be driven by what the people will support and I am committed to an open dialogue and finding the best solution for our children and the taxpayers. My own, uncompromising drivers in this process are value to the taxpayers and educational benefit to the students, in whatever form that takes place. I have every confidence that our teachers and administrators will, as always, make any configuration work in the best interests of the children.

Scott Aghababian:
I am not opposed to longer grade spans, but am absolutely against having separate school districts within the Town. Longer grade spans within the existing facilities may be necessary in the near term due to declining enrollment.

QUESTION 8: What can the school committee do to better collaborate and communicate with other committees?

Nancy Burdick:
It became apparent from the vote on the elementary school building project that our town leaders need to do a better job of communicating with the community. I am eager to do so. I will use my active listening and consensus-building skills to move the process forward with committee colleagues and citizens. I would also like to leverage the technology resources and volunteers in the community who work in the field of technology, communication and market research to help collect and share information and share information through electronic formats. We can do a better job of engaging people if we are mindful of tone and time. There are many more formats (e.g., surveys, blogs, cable television shows, webinars, etc.) that we could be using to engage citizens. I want to discuss these ideas and try some out sooner rather than later.

Richard de Mont:
Inter-committee relations are vital to the success of the town. I believe that we have had good communications with other boards, but that we can always do better. It is a two way street. All boards need to share information with others but sometimes there is a disconnect. I believe that liaisons to other boards need to do a better job of communicating the activities of those boards or committees that they are assigned to back to their own boards or committees. The information is more effectively received when communicated directly from a liaison back to his or her board or committee and follow-up requests for information are that more efficiently followed up on. In fairness to all who serve on the many committees and boards in Hopkinton, we are all extremely busy and benefit when information is timely, transparent and succinct. I believe that the recent experience displayed an instance where there was almost too much information, and the issues less than clearly defined, which made it very difficult for the voter to make an informed decision. We need to simplify the process and the information we disseminate must be clear and timely as to both process and substance. All interested parties are invested in the schools and the town as displayed by the passion of recent events, but just had differing views on how to best achieve our goals. Hopefully we can build on this common ground and come to a town wide consensus on how best to address our Center School needs. I supported the proposed Center School building project both on economical as well as educational grounds. However, inasmuch as this project did not receive the necessary support, I now look forward to working with all interested parties to find a solution that will receive town wide support. I would hope the divisiveness that this issue has generated be converted from personal enmity amongst those that differ in the direction we should take, to the energy and a spirit of cooperation and collaboration we need to arrive at a solution that is in the best interests of our town.

Scott Aghababian:
The School Committee may consider assigning liaisons to other Town committees, such as the Board of Selectmen, Permanent Building Committee, Planning Board, Appropriations Committee etc., as does the Board of Selectmen.

Don’t Forget To Vote Monday, May 16!
Polls are open 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM in the Middle School Gym, 88 Hayden Rowe St (enter by Grove Street). There are several offices up for election including School Committee and Selectmen as well as one ballot question. Read the full ballot at 2011 Annual Town Election Ballot.