Voters to decide three races on Holyoke School Committee

  • Five of the six Holyoke School Committee candidates competing in contested races. From top left moving clockwise: Faizul Sibdhanny Jr. and Irene Feliciano-Sims, who are running in Ward 4; Eleanor Wilson, who is running against Colleen Chesmore in Ward 7; and Mildred Lefebvre and Marc Hickey, who are vying for an open at-large seat. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

  • Five of the six Holyoke School Committee candidates competing in contested races. From top left moving clockwise: Faizul Sibdhanny Jr. and Irene Feliciano-Sims, who are running in Ward 4; Eleanor Wilson, who is running against Colleen Chesmore in Ward 7; and Mildred Lefebvre and Marc Hickey, who are vying for an open at-large seat. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

  • Faizul Sibdhanny Jr. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Irene Feliciano-Sims SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Eleanor Wilson SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mildred Lefebvre SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Marc Hickey SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2021 6:14:05 PM

HOLYOKE — On Nov. 2, Holyoke residents will vote to fill seven ward seats on the School Committee as well as one at-large seat. Of those races, three are contested.

Below are profiles of the candidates running in the contested races in Ward 4, Ward 7, and for an at-large seat. The candidates have been profiled in the order they appear on the ballot, which was randomly determined.

Ward 4Faizul Sibdhanny Jr.

A 2015 graduate of Holyoke Public Schools, Faizul Sibdhanny Jr. has previously served as a student representative to the School Committee and held other leadership roles as a student. He said he’s running to get more youth representation on the School Committee.

“Why not get a younger voice?” he asked. “Somebody who has been in the schools recently, who knows what’s going on today, what students are facing and what difficulties there are in the schools, and experienced these things first hand.”

Sibdhanny is currently attending Holyoke Community College and working part-time as a driver with ride-hailing and food-delivery services, in addition to work as a personal care aide.

Working to bring back local control of Holyoke’s schools is an important issue for Sibdhanny, who said he would work to get parents and students involved in the effort to work toward ending state receivership.

“Another thing would be to try to get more technology into the schools — more maybe iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, tablets,” he said. “Whatever we can use to make classrooms more modern.”

Sibdhanny said he would work to get more funding for the city’s schools and would push for greater freedom for middle- and high-school students to, for example, leave campus for classes. He said that as a young person, he would be able to dedicate himself deeply to the School Committee’s work. He said such dedication and his youth are what separate him from his opponent in the race.

“I just feel that being younger and fresher in the schools, I would have a better mindset and do things differently,” he said.

Irene Feliciano-Sims

A mother of two and a lifelong Holyoker, Irene Felciano-Sims is the director for employment and community inclusion services at the disability advocacy and support organization Viability. Growing up in a Hispanic family and becoming a teenage mother, Feliciano-Sims said she has experienced difficulties in the school system and now enjoys helping others navigate that system and advocate for themselves.

“I saw an opportunity in education to help people,” she said.

Feliciano-Sims has served on the School Committee since 2014, and said one of the biggest areas of her focus is communicating with the schools’ state-appointed superintendent-receiver. She also said she works hard to make sure parents have the information they need about special education and other services in the district.

“Giving quality education to all of our students is important,” she said. “And teacher retention. How do we encourage younger teachers of those who represent our community to stay in Holyoke?”

Teacher turnover affects the quality of the relationships teachers can create with students, Felciano-Sims said. She said this is important, especially for students looking for mentorship or counseling from their teachers, who they spend most of their days with. Felciano-Sims said that her experience and advocacy work on behalf of families is what separates her from her opponent.

“I think my maturity, and my experiences as a parent myself, are a big contributor to why I feel I’m qualified,” she said.

Ward 7Colleen Chesmore

The Gazette’s efforts to reach Colleen Chesmore for an interview throughout this week were unsuccessful.

Eleanor Wilson

Eleanor “Ellie” Wilson was raised in Ward 7 and spent 10 years working as an educator in Holyoke Public Schools. She has been a youth field hockey coach for around a decade, and started a girls lacrosse program in 2016.

“Having worked within the system, I’m keenly aware of what is going well and where there are ample opportunities to improve,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that the safety of students, staff and others in the school system is an important issue for her, and that she believes in holding students accountable for their actions. She also said it is important to make sure educators and students have the supplies they need to be successful in the classroom.

“I remember myself having limited supplies from Holyoke Public Schools and having to pay out of pocket for classroom materials such as paper, pencils, erasers,” she said.

Wilson said she is a firm believer in early childhood education, which is a good predictor for improving student outcomes. Like other candidates, she said she is very concerned with the state’s control of local schools.

“I don’t really see a clear path forward to getting out of it and I’d like to look into that further,” she said. “The numbers in the turnaround plan don’t seem even remotely attainable.”

Wilson said she would dig into the issue of how to improve school buildings in the district, and that her experience as an educator sets her apart in the race.

“I know the challenges of being a teacher, I know the challenges from being a student as well as a parent within the system,” she said.

At-LargeMildred Lefebvre

The current Ward 1 School Committee representative and vice chair of the body, Mildred Lefebvre has served as a School Committee member for the past seven years. She is the secretary treasurer of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and serves as the Northeast regional director for the National School Board Association’s National Hispanic Council.

Lefebvre said that her focus has been addressing inequalities in the education system, including helping families of students with disabilities. As a mother of five whose children also faced some of those same challenges, she said she has worked to empower families advocating for themselves at the table with school officials.

“It’s educating other parents who are also in the same boat,” she said. “Letting them know you’re just like the professionals at that table … you as a parent are also a professional at that table.”

Lefebvre, a nurse for 25 years, said that she wants to gain back local control of city schools. She said that effort is about working with the state to develop a plan to transition power back to Holyoke, and supporting staff as schools work to hit their benchmarks. She said that work requires collaboration with the state.

Highlighting the positive initiatives happening in the district will also be a priority, Lefebvre said. She added that the School Committee is taking recent safety issues at the high school seriously, and working to make students feel safe. Asked what separates herself from her opponent, Lefebvre said there are two good candidates running in the race, both of whom are parents. She said when making votes, she puts aside her own feelings and listens to the community.

“Those decisions I make, it’s not based on because that’s how I want it,” she said. “It’s what I see a consensus on.”

Marc Hickey

A 17-year resident of Holyoke, Marc Hickey is passionate about coaching youth sports. He said that it was a great experience recently coaching his daughter’s basketball team — a group that went from being unable to inbound the basketball correctly to winning a championship. He said athletics are underfunded in the city, and he would work to fix that.

Hickey’s biggest issue is state receivership of Holyoke’s schools. He said that six years into state control, schools are getting worse and Holyoke seems to be “in a pattern of doing absolutely nothing.”

“We’re complacent,” he said. “We need new people, fresh ideas. We can’t be sitting in an echo chamber.”

Hickey said that another of his central issues is banning what he called “critical race theory” — an academic concept that argues racism has been embedded into modern institutions, and that the history of slavery, segregation and racism continue to affect people of color. Asked what he meant using the term, Hickey said he would describe it as “separating the races” in Holyoke, “where everybody gets along.”

“It’s the modern-day segregation,” Hickey said. “This would be just a horrible thing to teach the children. It’s nothing but resentfulness”

Asked the differences between himself and his opponent, Hickey said he was an opponent of the 2019 effort to pass a debt-exclusion override to pay for two new middle schools. He described himself as “kind of center-right.”

Hickey said that he is supportive of parents who have shown up to school board meetings nationwide to confront officials. He said some of those parents have been labeled as “domestic terrorists,” but that he supports parents being active and vocal about what they want to see in their schools.

“The parents should be angry,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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