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Trustee candidates oppose merger of Smith Vocational with Northampton public schools (with video)

  • Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

NORTHAMPTON — The continued autonomy of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and ideas about how to expand its existing programs were the focus of a candidates’ forum Wednesday night.

The Ward 3 Neighborhood Association sponsored the event featuring the five candidates for the three available seats on the Smith board of trustees and two of the three candidates for at-large seats on the City Council.

The candidates for Smith trustees are incumbents John E. Cotton, 75, of 24 Turkey Hill Road, Thomas M. FitzGerald, 60, of 133 S. Main St., Florence, Michael T. Cahillane, 68, of 157 Prospect Ave., and challengers John V. Lind*, 65, of 433 Ryan Road, and Dennison J. Wolfe, 53, of 1 Isabella St.

Incumbent at-large councilors William H. Dwight, 58, of 39 Myrtle St., social media coordinator for the Media Education Foundation and Jesse M. Adams, 35, of 187 Main St., an attorney, participated in the forum. Challenger Anthony L. Patillo, 62, of 14 Autumn Drive, the city’s former building commissioner is recovering from hip surgery and was unable to attend.

Click here to see a Paradise City Press video of the at-large forum.

The election is Nov. 5.

All five trustee candidates said they are against merging Smith School with Northampton High School. Mayor David J. Narkewicz in April proposed seeking state legislation that would make Smith School part of the Northampton public schools.

Cotton gave an emphatic “no” to the idea, saying the school was founded on a more than 100-year-old trust and should continue to honor that and remain independent.

FitzGerald said Smith receives most of its funding through grants and tuition paid by other communities which send students. Merging the two schools could put a strain on available resources and hurt both, he added.

Lind also rejected the idea, calling Smith a “national landmark” and “living organism” that should remain on its own.

Wolfe said he would prefer to see the school expand into the hub of a regional vocational district rather than merge with local schools, but also said that is probably not a likely outcome at this point.

Cahillane said a merger would put too much financial strain on Smith and possibly prevent it from getting resources it needs for its own students.

The trustee candidates also discussed how the schools could partner short of a full merger.

FitzGerald suggested Northampton High School students attending one-day classes at Smith to introduce them to programs which are offered.

Lind said sharing programs between the schools was tried before and did not work, because time did not provide enough hands-on training for students.

Wolfe said arranging transportation and bringing in outside students on a limited basis would be too disrupting and likely would detract from studies and training.

Cahillane said Smith is already one of the highest-scoring schools on the MCAS test and has excellent trade programs and he does not believe there is much to be offered by city schools.

Lind said he hopes that Smith is able to develop an adult education and postgraduate programs to allow people in the community to develop trade skills.*

Wolfe said he would like to see an expansion of Smith’s farm program including summer students working the farm and bringing produce to market.

During their portion of the forum, Adams and Dwight were also asked their reaction to a merger of the schools.

Adams said he would support a merger only if it would not produce any noticeable decline in services.

Dwight said there may be an opportunity to look at how both schools operate and find ways to combine duplicated services between them such as human resources, but added that he wants the city to find ways to sustain and promote Smith.

Both candidates were asked to respond to recent turmoil in the city’s Police Department resulting from an investigation by the Hampden County District Attorney into alleged financial wrongdoing.

Dwight said the council, apart from contract negotiations, has no direct influence over the Police Department. He said it is “one of the finest you’ll find anywhere,” and if the investigation uncovers any policy violations or criminal activity he believes it will be dealt with appropriately.

Adams said he believes Narkewicz will handle whatever the investigation finds, and he does not believe there will be any decline in police services.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

* CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect middle initial for John V. Lind and attributed one of his statements to another candidate.

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