Saugus school board candidates speak on district’s most pressing issues

Sandy Belanger speaks as the moderator at the Saugus Election forum held in James Foster Elementary School Thursday, September 13, 2018. Eddy Martinez/The Signal.

All seven Saugus Union School District board candidates were prompted during Thursday night’s forum to explain the most pressing problems facing the district.

Candidates agreed that district funding and security are the greatest obstacles to the success of the SUSD but they believe the two problems could be easily remedied through collaboration — with each other, the government and the community.

“Often times, when we’re trying to involve people in the process but they don’t know the language, it just becomes a circle of insanity,” candidate Evan Patlian said, adding that the jargon often spoken in educational circles should be deciphered in a way that all stakeholders can understand to make sure information is given promptly to parents and teachers.

Public communication and collaboration among all stakeholders is the key to solving any problem, Patlian said before he agreed with his colleagues on the issue of school funding.

Saugus being one of the lowest-funded school districts in the state, coupled with an abysmal per-pupil spending, has got to change, he said. “We have got to continue to lobby creatively and to not accept no as an answer.”

Chris Trunkey said if the district wants kids to find success in education, then school funding must increase to address achievement gaps, which was a problem that Laura Arrowsmith touched on in her answer.

“There’s always room for growth in student achievement (and) academic achievement,” Arrowsmith said. “I would address those problems through the lens of maintaining a focus on learning, maintaining a focus on instructional excellence and looking at how teachers can have more of a say in their own professional development. Teachers know exactly what they need in the classroom to reach those kids they have.”

Until there’s more funding, Arrowsmith said board members must be creative and clever with the resources that the district already possesses, whether that be its employees or capital.

“School funding has constantly been an issue for a long time,” Trunkey said. “We need to continue our lobbying efforts at the state level to get the (Local Control Funding Formula) base grant increased and to get them to look at Prop. 98 as a floor and not a ceiling.”

However, Sharlene Duzick said, “Funding isn’t just going to come from the state,” which prompted her to ask those in attendance to consider the partnerships that are available in the private sector.

“Are we educating families on how to provide funding to bring some other things into the classroom?” Duzick asked. “That’s where I think that we could add some value.”

Jesus Henao said he was focused on the security of schools and the fences that even he could jump over despite being nearly 50 years old.

He added that he is also concerned about the increasing costs of benefits for teachers.

“Are we ready to take on all of these kids with funding going down, benefits going up (and the) teacher pool leaving?” Henao asked. “That’s what I think are the biggest concerns that we have and they need to be addressed.”

David Barlavi said he has felt school sites should be more secure ever since he’d drop his son off at Bridgeport Elementary School.

“We need to check bags of people going into schools,” Barlavi said, commendeding the new security systems available at schools, before adding, “I’ve visited a school and I’ve already found a few problems we could fix.”

Prior to the forum, a parent with a child in the district said she was interested in learning how the candidates intend to support the growing number of special education students, which was answered by Judy Umeck when she cited the district’s greatest concerns.

Umeck agreed with her fellow participants that the district’s budget is an impediment to children’s success for various reasons.

The 23-year school board member believes the budget troubles could be solved by looking at the district’s funded and unfunded mandates, “but the one thing I haven’t heard yet — that’s quite a passion of mine too — is special education,” she said.

“I hate the word encroachment so I don’t use it, but the commitment of dollars for special education…weren’t there when we were growing up,” Umeck said. “Our families face it and our teachers face it in the classroom, and we need to figure out how do we serve these children (and) how do we serve these families?”

The funding problems are never going to go away, she added. “It’ll always be an issue, but we need to look at other things going on in the classroom.”

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