Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
Cloudy
53°
Cloudy
Hi 58° | Lo 32°

Five-way race for Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School trustees focuses on school’s independent status

  • Top row: incumbent Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustees John Cotton, Michael Cahillane and Thomas FitzGerald.<br/>Bottom row: challengers Dennison Wolfe and John Lind.

    Top row: incumbent Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustees John Cotton, Michael Cahillane and Thomas FitzGerald.
    Bottom row: challengers Dennison Wolfe and John Lind.

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Lind

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Dennison Wolfe

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Dennison Wolfe

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Cotton

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

  • Michael T. Cahillane, incumbent candidate for Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustee.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Michael T. Cahillane, incumbent candidate for Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustee.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Lind

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Lind

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Dennison Wolfe

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Dennison Wolfe

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Cotton

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton

    CAROL LOLLIS
    John Cotton

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

  • Top row: incumbent Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustees John Cotton, Michael Cahillane and Thomas FitzGerald.<br/>Bottom row: challengers Dennison Wolfe and John Lind.
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Dennison Wolfe
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.
  • Michael T. Cahillane, incumbent candidate for Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustee.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Lind
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Dennison Wolfe
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>John Cotton
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Tom FitzGerald is a candidate for trustee at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

NORTHAMPTON — The call by Mayor David J. Narkewicz to reorganize Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School has sparked the first competitive race for seats on the school’s Board of Trustees in the past decade.

Five candidates are vying for three trustee seats in the Nov. 5 city election. Among them are three incumbents and two challengers. All but one of the five are either former teachers or graduates of the vocational school that serves towns in the far-flung reaches of Hampshire County.

The candidates are incumbents John E. Cotton, 75, of Turkey Hill Road, Thomas M. FitzGerald, 60, of South Main Street in Florence, Michael T. Cahillane, 68, of Prospect Avenue, and challengers John V. Lind, 65, of Ryan Road, and Dennison J. Wolfe, 53, of Isabella Street.

At a public forum hosted by the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association last week, all five said they were opposed to the mayor’s proposal to make the 105-year-old vocational school part of the city school district.

Incumbent trustees say the current board is working well and is on track to resolve tensions with the mayor — and they would like their trio to maintain intact.

The two challengers say there needs to be a shift in tactics. Lind calls for greater openness about board decisions so that the community can understand important issues facing the school. Wolfe said he wants to see the trustees take a “more approachable” stance toward the mayor and proposals for reorganization if those ideas could make Smith Voke more successful.

Narkewicz, who sits on the Smith Voke board, said last spring that he intended to seek City Council backing for special state legislation to make the vocational school part of the Northampton public schools. The mayor said he wanted to reduce the expense of having two separate school systems operating in the city.

At the time, Smith Voke Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson, along with the trustees, was pushing for the city to provide 100 percent of required net school spending to the vocational school instead of the 73.4 percent the city had proposed. (The difference amounted to $80,431.)

This marked a shift from a tacit agreement in force since the late 1990s between the city and the school in which Smith Voke accepted city funding that in some years was below state minimums in recognition that Northampton provides funds for employee health insurance and capital improvements at the school.

The trustees eventually accepted the budget allocation for this year, although the state has said Northampton must pay the full amount from here on out — or change the way Smith Voke is organized.

In an interview last week, Narkewicz said he still wants to find a “more sustainable model” for Smith Voke, which is unique in being an independent vocational school that receives city funding. Other vocational schools in Massachusetts operate either as their own regional districts or as part of a municipal school district.

Narkewicz said he has been studying potential scenarios for changing Smith Voke’s status, including merging with the city schools, charter school status and an updated regional model. He said he plans to address the governance issue sometime after the Nov. 5 election.

“I’m not the first mayor to engage in this conversation,” Narkewicz said. “I want Smith Vocational to continue being the excellent school it is. We’re just looking at a governance structure that is more sustainable.”

Following are brief profiles of the candidates, beginning with the challengers.

John V. Lind

Age: 65

Address: 433 Ryan Road

Job: Retired vocational school and adult education teacher and business owner

Lind was head of the metal fabrication shop at Smith Vocational for 18 years before he retired in 2002. He said the debate over the school’s structure is the reason he decided to run for a seat on the board this fall.

A former president of the Massachusetts Vocational Association, Lind said Smith Voke is a national model for career education and should remain independent of the city schools.

“I am going to be actively involved in making it a national landmark,” he said. “I think the state also needs to start looking at Smith school (as a model) and finding a way to fund it.”

Lind, who owned the now-closed Hampshire Metalsmith in Williamsburg, also ran for a seat on the Smith Voke board in 2003. He was defeated in a four-way race with three incumbents.

Lind, who holds an undergraduate degree from Goddard College and a master’s in education from Westfield State College, said he will work to bring back adult education and technology training at Smith Voke and encourage more “transparency” about board decisions.

“What I would do as a trustee is to use that position to educate the public about what we can and can’t do” with existing resources, he said.

Lind said he also wants to promote the school “as the economic engine that has kept this community going. Hundreds of businesses have been started and thousands of people have been trained at the Smith school.”

Lind said he will also work to “open up the school’s agricultural facilities to the community,” and create other programs that can generate needed resources for the school.

Dennison J. Wolfe

Age: 53

Address: 1 Isabella St.

Job: Former assistant technology director at Smith Voke, now a freelance technology consultant

Wolfe, who was assistant technology director at Smith Voke for six years before resigning last spring to seek other opportunities, said he understands the mayor’s financial reasons for wanting to merge the two school systems — though he does not favor that strategy.

“In the 1990s, it was discussed whether we should regionalize Smith Vocational,” he said. “That makes the most sense because the school would still be an independent vocational school.”

Wolfe said independence is crucial for the school, and noted that none of the three finalists interviewed recently for superintendent of the Northampton schools had any experience in vocational education.

“We have such a complicated, unique structure,” he said. “We really need to resolve this governance issue.”

Wolfe said he hopes to offer the type of “creative” leadership he feels former Smith Voke trustee David Bourbeau brought to the board before Bourbeau died of cancer in 2009.

“I feel like the board has been in a holding pattern the past few years,” said Wolfe, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Tulane University and studied information technology at Springfield Technical Community College.

Wolfe said he wants to see more outreach to the community, more partnerships between Smith Voke and area businesses and more programs in sustainable agriculture at the school.

“I’d like to see a market garden and a CSA at Smith Vocational,” he said. “We could really raise the science profile of the school.”

Wolfe said he wonders why more people don’t run for the board. “Smith Vocational is not really on people’s minds,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity for me to continue to play a role at the school.”

John E. Cotton

Age: 75

Address: 24 Turkey Hill Road

Job: Retired vocational school teacher and department head

Cotton is the longest-serving incumbent, first elected in 2002.

He taught data processing at the school for 23 years and also headed that department before retiring in 2000. His son Timothy, 24, is a member of Smith Voke’s class of 2007.

Cotton said he is opposed to any change in the structure of the vocational school, noting that “a takeover by the city cannot happen unless you break the 100-year-old will of Oliver Smith” which established Smith Voke.

He said he would be open to partnering in other ways with the city schools, such as sharing classes. “We’re not putting Northampton aside,” Cotton said. “We are part of the community.”

Cotton said he is also opposed to making Smith Voke a regional school because that would change its “special affiliation with Northampton.”

He believes the public needs to know more about how the vocational school contributes to the city through its trade shops, including performing maintenance on city police cars and printing for city departments.

“We’ve got to show the community what the school does,” Cotton said.

He cited the recent revival of Friends of the Farm, a nonprofit fundraising arm of the school, as an example of how the trustees are addressing outreach and funding needs.

“We have (expansion) plans sitting in abeyance right now,” Cotton said. “That’s why net school spending is so important to us. It takes care of the majority of our costs.”

Thomas M. FitzGerald

Age: 60

Address: 133 South Main St., Florence

Job: Program Planner for the state Department of Transportation’s Highway Division

FitzGerald, a fifth-generation city resident who has served as a trustee since 2006, said he is seeking another term to be part of ongoing discussions about Smith Voke’s status.

“Sometimes people look at its unique structure and see it as an anomaly. But I see it as the secret to the school’s success,” FitzGerald said.

He fears that if the vocational high school became part of the city school system, “a lot of the trade issues would be left aside.”

FitzGerald said he also wants to protect the school’s agricultural fields, which are located next to the home where he grew up and still lives in Florence.

While he was first drawn to Smith Voke because of the farm, FitzGerald said he has come to appreciate its trade shops as well. “I see how important it is to fill the need for vocational education,” he said.

FitzGerald, who holds a degree in communications from Suffolk University in Boston, cited building needs as a key challenge facing the school. The main agricultural building dates from 1924, he said, and the newest buildings on campus are more than 30 years old.

Smith Voke had been in line for a state School Building Authority loan but could not secure the local match due to tight city budgets in recent years, FitzGerald said.

He said he would also like to see new training programs at the school, including a law enforcement program proposed by the superintendent and an equine program.

“I bring love for the school,” FitzGerald said. “I was a neighbor of the Smith School and grew up playing in those fields. Over the years, my respect for the school has grown.”

Michael T. Cahillane

Age: 68

Address: 157 Prospect Ave.

Job: Owner of Cahillane Motors Inc.

Cahillane, who graduated from Smith Voke in 1964, is seeking his third term on the board. He was appointed in 2009 to serve out the remainder of Bourbeau’s term, then won election as a trustee in 2010.

Cahillane’s father, James, also served on the trustees when he was mayor of Northampton from 1954 to 1960. “So I’ve been involved with the school in one way or another since the 1960s,” Cahillane said.

He believes Smith Voke should remain independent and that Narkewicz will come around to that view.

“This is the only city that has two school districts,” Cahillane said. “I have continuous meetings with the mayor on that. We have agreed to wait till after the election to address this issue.”

Cahillane said he and other trustees are making efforts to strengthen ties to the larger community, citing an open house scheduled for Sunday, recent public events at the farm and outreach by Superintendent Peterson to local colleges and universities.

The image of the school is changing, Cahillane said, noting that Smith Voke achieved a Level 1 ranking from the state based on the most recent MCAS scores for 10th graders.

That should help draw more students, he said, adding that, “with more students, we could fund our own buildings and maybe get a bigger state match” from the building authority.

Construction of a new science facility is a top priority for the school, Cahillane said, as is updating technology and creating a new program for health careers.

“I hope our board stays together,” Cahillane said. “I want to work to keep us moving forward with enrollments and making this a fun place to go.”

Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.