Two School Committee members face recall election over vax mandate in Belchertown

  • Belchertown High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2022 9:07:41 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Two incumbent School Committee members who supported a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students participating in sports and extracurricular activities last fall are facing a recall election Monday.

Michael Knapp and Diane Brown will both be on the recall ballot, while two challengers, Kristen Lech and Stephan Corbin, are seeking to replace Knapp. Brown is facing no announced opposition.

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Belchertown High School gymnasium.

The successful recall petitions that triggered the election stem from concern among some residents after the committee adopted a policy mandating that any students 16 and over on sports teams or other after-school activities would have to receive a fully authorized, FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. That has since been amended with a weekly testing option for those students.

Brown, whose term is up May 16, and Knapp, whose term runs until May 15, 2023, both opted not to resign, but to instead face voters. For Brown or Knapp to be removed from the committee, voters would have to endorse the recall and then give a plurality of votes to another person.

Knapp said in his nine years on the panel his goal has been making schools work for every child, pointing to the importance of education toward social mobility. But in the era of COVID-19 there have been new challenges.

“We’ve been listening to families and residents, but also health and education experts, to serve everyone’s interests in the best way possible,” Knapp said.

He understands there has been pushback on the sports and extracurricular activities policy, but observes that at a meeting last October the criticism came from some who argue that COVID-19 is less deadly than the seasonal flu.

“This really is an unprecedented health crisis, and the goal in all this is to keep schools open,” Knapp said. “You can’t do that if kids are sick.”

In addition to keeping children and staff safe, Knapp also traces controversy over his tenure to being a strong advocate for equity, observing there was backlash when the committee adopted an anti-racism resolution in 2020. He compares this to uproar over critical race theory in other parts of the country.

At the Jan. 11 committee meeting, Knapp became the town’s first School Committee member to be honored with the All-State School Committee award from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

In a candidate statement recorded for Belchertown community television, Knapp is blunt. “The recall is a political hit and an attempt to subvert the will of the voters of this town.”

Corbin, who has coached youth sports teams and volunteered on nonprofit boards and town committees, jumped into the race because the recall has shown that the School Committee wasn’t interested in dialogue with parents.

“I think it’s become evident that a few members of the School Committee are moving forward with decisions based on their own interests and not listening to their constituents,” Corbin said.

The committee’s vaccine mandate, he said, prompted a growing discontent with the committee for its attitude toward those with differing views.

“Residents are tired of being denigrated and berated for not thinking as others do,” Corbin said in a candidate’s statement on the community television station, adding that it is time to change the expectation about voices that are not heard or are despised.

Corbin said most important to his service will be openness and transparency, that the committee shouldn’t just be adhering to the letter of the law but getting real input on all topics.

In addition, Corbin said he wants to focus on the nearly $1 million feasibility study for a new middle school, and preparing the School Committee for discussions about a post-COVID education system. He said there should also be serious discussion about lifting mask requirements for students because young children wearing masks may be facing learning disabilities and gaps.

Lech said that she has long considered running for School Committee, deciding to jump in now for several reasons, including that she can work with families and teachers to create and sustain the best possible educational experience in Belchertown.

Lech also wants to ensure educators have the resources and support that they need to be highly effective for all student populations, and she hopes to give back to the community.

“If elected, my goals would include working collaboratively with the other members to identify and develop equitable plans to meet the needs of the district,” Lech said.

While she doesn’t address the recall specifically, Lech assures residents that she intends to work collaboratively with all members of the community.

“I will not let my views hinder my decision-making responsibilities, but rather make decisions based upon sound data and facts, as well as actively listening to all stakeholders in a respectful manner,” Lech said.

Lech has worked in education for more than 15 years, including as a special education teacher and special education administrator at the elementary and middle school levels. She is director of special education and English as a Second Language (ESL) graduate programs at Bay Path University.

“Residents should vote for me in the upcoming election because change is good,” Lech said. “I would bring a fresh and new perspective to the committee.”

Brown didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, though a group supporting her and Knapp has launched a KidsYesRecallNo.org website that includes her candidate statements.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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