SHIRLEY — Two political newcomers, David Baumritter and Daniel Meehan, are running for the School Committee seat held by Robert Schuler. Both candidates spoke and answered questions during a forum at the Town Offices.
Baumritter, a seven-year resident, teaches chemistry in the Acton-Boxborough school district. Meehan, who’s lived in town for 10 years, is a management consultant.
Baumritter said he’ll bring a “unique classroom perspective” and decried a “divisive view” of the schools. He said he favors a cooperative outlook in which town government and the schools work together to “build community values.”
When students attend a public school in another district, he said state aid goes with them and the community identity shifts.
“Instead of building here, it’s going somewhere else,” he said. “It’s a crucial issue.”
Meehan didn’t disagree, but questioned whether the perceived quality of the school system is the only reason parents send kids out of town. It may be a pre-emptive move toward high school — since Shirley doesn’t have one — or a geographic convenience due to where they work, he said. He described the deliberative choice he made for his youngest son to attend kindergarten in town, while his other two children go elsewhere.
“I’m very satisfied ” he said.
School Committee member Paul Wilson asked the candidates if they’d recommend layoffs or a tax override to cover the budget shortfall.
Meehan said he doesn’t have enough information to answer that, but he recognizes problems.
“We can’t cut any more from the schools They’re running thin now, losing programs and teachers,” he said. “I don’t want 30 kids in a classroom, even if it’s legal. Ultimately, it’s a town not a school problem.”
Baumritter said he wouldn’t call for an override.
“I don’t think it’s feasible when people are trying to make ends meet,” he said.
Instead, he said school administrators and town officials must “work collaboratively” to look for efficiencies, possibly combine positions to keep services. Difficult or not, he said the schools and town have to “do more with less.”
Another question is whether it’s possible to evaluate teachers’ job performances.
It’s a good idea “in theory” but not in practice, said Baumritter. Wide-ranging abilities in the classroom make it tough to use standardized tests as a measure, he said. If teachers started vying for top students to get best results, he said, it would “fracture” the staff.
Meehan asked if the question was merit pay or whether the town should vote on how teachers are evaluated. If it’s the latter, the answer is no, “we can’t do that,” he said.
That’s the job of superintendents and principals, he said.
Resident Gail Kerr asked if the committee’s structure is effective. She asked if the board keeps an eye on objectives and weighs costs versus outcomes and if there’s a way to “let the community know” what’s going on in the schools.
“I’ve never attended a meeting,” she acknowledged.
Meehan said he’s still learning how things work, but his view is the superintendent brings plans and proposals to the committee for approval, from programs to purchases.
“That’s where creative challenges come in,” he said.
“But is it responsive?” persisted Kerr.
“We’re a small town,” said Meehan. “I think everyone has a pretty good grasp of the problem. I’m not saying I don’t want to change it.”
Learning goals are set by state curriculum frameworks, said Baumritter. The schools’ success in meeting them is, in part, measured by MCAS test results, he said.
The committee’s role is to determine how to allocate resources to meet the system’s needs and goals, he said.
Frank Esielionis, who films the meetings for Shirley public access, asked how to spark public interest.
“On a good night, there are two people there both from the press,” he said.
Both candidates agreed it’s key to inform townspeople of “realities” the School Committee deals with, such as mandated special-education programs and out-of-district tuition that can hit unexpectedly, mid-year, and spike the budget out of alignment.
The event was filmed for later broadcast on Cable TV, Channel 8.