Before we delve into the Grafton League of Women Voters 2017 Forum, let me just get something out of the way: I’m supporting Teri Turgeon in the School Committee election this year. I know Teri, I like her, I think she’s served this community well in her role over the past ten years, and I think she deserves another term because she has a skill set that is important on school committee. Specifically, she’s tough as nails and speaks truth to power.
That said, I wanted to recap tonight’s forum, and I want to do it as impartially as possible. I suspect that there is going to be turn-over on the school committee (and likely, a lot of town government) in the years to come, so new-comers like Melissa Mazan deserve to be taken seriously.
Ultimately, the debate between the two aspiring School Committee candidates was about aspiration versus perspiration: Melissa Mazan is a fierce (perhaps too fierce) advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, and rightfully points out that the Massachusetts economy is driven by science and technology jobs. Our entire way of life in the Commonwealth is made possible by an economy based on education and brainpower. If Grafton students are to compete, then doing enough to get by is not enough.
Teri Turgeon, on the other hand, has long been a strong advocate for special education who emphasizes a dollars-and-sense approach to her school committee role, believing that it is not a school committee member’s job to do educational programming, but to commit to a budget and adopt policies in furtherance of that budget. Teri has been in the trenches and knows the day-in-day-out reality of the Grafton Public Schools. She repeatedly referenced the school committee’s negotiations with the teacher’s union as being pivotal not only for education in Grafton, but for the ability of the entire town to continue to operate beyond 2020.
So, these are two completely different candidates with differing priorities.
Here are six take-aways from tonight’s discussion:
- It’s fine to be an advocate for STEM in schools, but to present voters with a false choice between athletics on the one hand and academia on the other, as Mazan did tonight, is not a fiscal solution, and would ultimately end up being needlessly divisive.
When asked whether Mazan favored eliminating football from Grafton public schools (due to revelations about head injuries and their lasting effects), she didn’t hesitate before belting out an enthusiastic “YES!”. And she didn’t stop there, either. She offered up the hockey program as a sacrificial lamb to the God of Balanced Budgets, as well. According to Mazan, not only do these sports cause brain injuries, they take precious resources from students who would otherwise excel at math and science.
Mazan even went so far as to complain that Grafton was putting capital money into up-keeping turf fields at the expense of teachers, appearing not to realize that capital funds come from one-time money, which you don’t spend on teachers, who are a recurring expense. It was an understandable mistake for a first-time candidate, but not for one who touts herself as an experienced administrator in secondary education.
Mazan’s tirade against athletics seemed strange considering that it can’t fairly be said that STEM education in Grafton is being hindered by football. It was particularly odd on the eve of the NFL football draft that may well see Grafton’s own Obi Melifonwu taken as high as the first round – an accomplishment that will no doubt be celebrated town-wide. But then, one gets the impression that Mazan didn’t realize that the draft is this week or that Melifonwu plays football and is from Grafton.
It came across as the narrow view of an academic divorced from the reality of parents who spend half their week shuttling their kids to and fro one practice or another, and who are legitimately proud of their kids’ athletic achievements and who just happen to like sports. These are the people who will fund the next override. This is politics 101, and Mazan came off as not ready for prime-time right there.
- The biggest fireworks of the night came when the candidates exchanged answers concerning the sustainability of the school department’s recent annual budgetary increases of 5.25%. As informed residents know, the town’s budget only can increase by 2.5%, plus new growth, every year. This year, that increase is about 2.8%. And yet the school budget increases at 5.25% yearly, 4.1% of which is salary increases. This isn’t sustainable. How do we square this circle?
Turgeon addressed the question by acknowledging that the 2014 override funds were not meant for salary increases, but rather to maintain the school system’s infrastructure. Turgeon mentioned that the school committee had recently worked strenuously to negotiate with the Grafton Teacher’s Association a pro-teacher contract, and was awaiting a response from the GTA.
Mazan, on the other hand, said that she couldn’t answer questions about teacher salaries, because she wasn’t informed enough. She added, however, that “budgets reflect priorities.” Which is fine. It’s a good line to use in a political debate, but it doesn’t mean much if you’re not telling us what part of the budget doesn’t reflect your priorities, which Mazan demurred on.
Her demure does her no favors. It’s fairly well known that she is the GTA’s candidate in this race. In the absence of specifics, we’re left to assume that Mazan’s preference would be the GTA’s preference – that not only would the hockey and football programs see the ax, but so would administrators.
Turgeon, for her part, shot back at Mazan, accusing her of being the only candidate in the race who has sat with the teacher’s union, and that she was unlikely to balance the budget by picking off low-hanging fruit. Moreover, if Mazan was going to be a serious candidate, the question deserved a serious answer, considering that FinComm and School Committee meetings are open, and the information is available to anyone.
It was an important exchange considering the budgetary implications of the next few years. And Turgeon’s point was a good one. No more candidates openly professing to know nothing of substance or consequence about a budget, please.
- The candidates were divided on how to respond to Nipmuc nation’s call to retire the Grafton “Indians” mascot. Mazan referenced an alleged “lack of consensus” in Indian Nation concerning Indian mascots for largely white school athletics (spoiler alert: there is a consensus. They don’t like it). She ultimately landed on respecting Nipmuc’s wishes if those wishes were clear. Here’s to hoping that they’re clearer than that answer.
Turgeon’s answer was more straightforward: follow Nipmuc Nation’s lead on this.
I prefer straight answers on these issues. Whether you’re for changing the mascot or against it, don’t make me feel like you have no strong opinion on it either way.
- Mazan obviously is the STEM education candidate, and her expertise and advocacy in the area shone through. I’m not voting for her, but win or lose, her ideas on STEM are absolutely correct, and her vision for Grafton schools is one we should be pursuing.
Just tell me how to pay for it. With specifics, not platitudes about budgets and priorities.
5. Turgeon, on the other hand, remains a wealth of institutional knowledge and experience in special education. In a perfect world, we’d have both candidates on the school committee.
- There was sort of a weird close to this forum, as both candidates were asked whether they supported the library expansion proposal. I have my own thoughts about the library expansion, which I support. But the project has become this weird Grafton rorscharch test at this point, and it’s really, really hard to know what to make of it. This one simple thing – build a new building to house free books – has taken on so many meanings for so many different people that I won’t do it justice to address it here. Suffice it to say, Mazan supports it for the same reasons I do. Turgeon opposes it because of issues relating to the Nelson library.
But whatever their individual positions on the library, it most certainly has nothing to do with being on school committee, which I wish one of them had said. There’s nothing wrong with reminding voters how government actually works.
Nothing in this town ever comes easy.