By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Angela Donahue, Peter Cronin and Marlena Gilbert say drawn-out teacher contract negotiations and last year’s major school-budget shortfall prove a lack of leadership on the part of the School Committee.
As members of Advocating for Promoting Educational Excellence (APEX), formed in the wake of the 2014 school-budget crisis, Donahue and Gilbert say they are ready to help lead the district in a new direction by serving on the committee. Cronin, whose wife is involved in APEX, also wants to do just that.
Incumbent School Committee Chairwoman Alison Manugian sees the competition she faces in her re-election bid as a welcome sign of increased public interest in committee business. Manugian and Jon Sjoberg, a former committee member seeking a return after one year on the sidelines, are both concerned, however, that APEX’s large representation on the School Committee could negatively impact the direction of the district, as well.
“A question to ask APEX is, can a school committee dominated by one group credibly represent all of the district or all of Groton and Dunstable?” Sjoberg wrote in an email.
“As a community, we need to make decisions about priorities and how to balance the many varied needs of our town,” Manugian said.
Prospective candidates have until today to pull nomination papers, and until Tuesday to return them.
The School Committee consists of seven members, five from Groton and two from Dunstable. Three seats are open in Groton’s May 19 election.
Manugian of Shepley Street, Sjoberg of Chicopee Row, Donahue of Bishop Way and Cronin of Gilson Road are running for the two, three-year seats currently held by Manugian and committee member Thomas Steinfeld, who has not pulled nomination papers.
Gilbert, of Arbor Street, is seeking the one-year seat that became available when John Giger resigned last month.
Candidates said last year’s budget crisis and the prolonged union negotiation have prompted more people to run. That Manugian said Donahue, Cronin and Gilbert have seventh-grade children in the system, shouldn’t matter, they said, as the effects of budget cuts are felt more strongly in the middle school.
The three political novices are also either directly or indirectly associated with APEX. Donahue, who is part of APEX’s research and data team, said several group members asked her to run for the committee after she criticized the committee’s handling of budgetary issues on Feb. 11 committee meeting. Donahue, Cronin and Gilbert said APEX made no concerted effort to produce its own slate of candidates and that they separately decided to run for the Committee.
Parents formed APEX last year in the wake of the district’s discovery of major accounting errors, which contributed to a $1.4 million budget shortfall that Groton and Dunstable filled by raising additional taxes.
At that Feb. 11 committee meeting, Donahue complained that the School Committee has failed to track spending cuts and program reductions over the years, and that the district should be able to release more information about the teacher contract negotiation that was going on without violating labor laws. Donahue, Cronin and Gilbert all assert that the committee has a communication problem.
“There doesn’t seem to be a communication mechanism besides attending meetings or subcommittee meetings where all the work is done,” Cronin wrote in his email to The Sun. “As a result, the community is largely unaware of the current state of the school system.”
Manugian also believes communication with residents is the biggest challenge facing the committee. Mandates are increasing and funding is declining, she said.
“Maintaining the quality of education we’ve had in the past, with rich programming and options for academics, the arts and athletics requires an understanding of these many changes and a commitment at the local level. One of the School Committee jobs is to communicate all of this effectively,” Manugian wrote.
Donahue said her and Gilbert’s candidacy isn’t about their APEX affiliation; it’s rather about “a common desire for a high performing school district and strong community.”
Cronin, Gilbert and Donahue said their backgrounds will be an asset to the committee. Cronin is vice president of insights and strategy for Papa Gino’s, Inc.; Gilbert is principal director of Apartment Connection USA of Massachusetts and owner of DJM Properties and Feeney Florist of Chelmsford; and Donahue is a paralegal and mother of three.
Cronin said funding is the biggest issue facing the district and the committee must be proactive.
But Sjoberg, a software engineer, and Manugian, project manager for Shirley-based commercial-property management company Lexvest Group, said their experience on the committee — six years each — matters.
“It’s taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop the knowledge I have, both about the current budget and future possibilities but also about the past decisions and numbers,” not to mention the experience of guiding the district through the transitions of four superintendents, Manugian said.