4 vie for 2 spots on School Committee: Candidates share their views

  • Charles Miles

  • Kyle Belanger



  • Kevin McAllister —Submitted photo

Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2018 11:33:49 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Four candidates are vying for two seats on the School Committee at next Tuesday’s annual Town Election.

Incumbents Christine Phillips and Kevin McAllister face challenges from Charles Miles and Kyle Belanger.

Meanwhile, a single candidate, Allison Schlachter, is running for a two-year seat on the School Committee left vacant after a resignation.

The Gazette profiled each School Committee candidate in a contested election.

Christine Phillips

A native and graduate of South Hadley High School, Christine Phillips is running for her second full term on the committee.

She joined the committee four years ago after being appointed by the Select Board to fill a vacant one-year position while serving as president of the Plains School parent-teacher organization.

What motivated Phillips to run for re-election was a troubling trend of students leaving the South Hadley school district. At her request, the committee surveyed families about why they were taking their students out of the district, and what the schools could offer to keep them. In response, the district decided to focus more on vocational programming, offer more accelerated courses and hire a special education director. 

“I was surprised by the number of people leaving and wondering why,” Phillips said. “I felt there was a place for me to get involved as a person who had a great experience in South Hadley schools.”

In her four years with the committee, Phillips said she is proud of the positive trend in which 50 students have rejoined the district in the last two years.

Phillips is the first vice president of human resources for PeoplesBank, and says her managerial experience helps her understand the skills students need to thrive after graduation.

She pushes back against the accusation by candidate Charles Miles that the committee lacks transparency in its budgeting decisions.

“We have open meeting every month, we have public comment in those meetings every month,” Philips said. “To indicate that there is no transparency and that there is no opportunity to ask questions is ridiculous.”

With two children in third and sixth grade attending South Hadley schools, Philips said she has a vested interest in the district’s well-being. She is proud to be part of a school system she says pays fair wages to employees, while supporting athletics, vocational programs, the arts and extracurricular activities. 

“Not everybody in our school system is on a track to a four-year college and we have to serve them and give those students opportunities for things they are interested in,” Philips said.

Kyle Belanger

The father of two sons attending Plains and Mosier elementary schools, Kyle Belanger, 40, is running for School Committee for the second time in two years. 

A former public school English teacher in Syracuse, New York, he moved to South Hadley in 2007 and now works as a communications professor at Springfield College. Belanger believes his experience in the classroom would provide a perspective underrepresented on the committee.

“Nobody on the School Committee has ever taught in the public school,” Belanger said. “One of the things that powered me to run was looking at the current School Committee makeup and seeing how beautifully represented the business and financial sectors are.”

Founder and board member of the nonprofit foster care adoption advocacy service All Our Kids Inc., Belanger is a foster-turned-adoptive father to his eldest son, 8-year-old Milo. He hopes to start a conversation about child and family welfare if elected. 

Communication and transparency are also priorities for Belanger, who said he would like the committee meet more frequently, make meeting minutes and live streams more readily accessible, and have transparent conversations about financial decisions. 

“I believe that increasing the number of chances to have these discussions would allow us to be able to make sure that funds are being spent the way that the public actually wants them to be spent,” Belanger said.

Belanger also proposed new ideas like adding “development and enrichment” after-school programs, implementing a social media literacy and citizenship curriculum and cultivating relationships with outside academic professionals.

“When I think about authentic community engagement that asks members of the community to share what they do best with students, not only would that allow for curriculum to be supplemented, but it also creates genuine community bonds,” Belanger said.

Charles Miles

A U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf War, Charles Miles started his post-military career working as a software developer on national security and veterans issues in Washington D.C.

He is an advocate of open government and public responsiveness, which led him to scrutinize the ways that South Hadley schools use its money. After a public records request, Miles alleges that money intended for teacher salaries was instead spent on building the high school’s vocational culinary program.

“I believe we need to be open about how we’re spending money, and where,” Miles said. “They get an appropriation and money is being moved around, but nobody know how money is being moved around.”

Miles is concerned about the lower graduation rates for special-needs students, and wants to focus more on providing services for those students, as well as addressing a supposed discrepancy in the way that students of color are disciplined compared to their white peers.

“I’m very focused on climate in the schools,” Miles said. “I get the sense from a lot of teachers I’ve talked to is that they’re not feeling supported.”

Allowing teachers to anonymously report grievances could be a step in the right direction, Miles said.

“Right now many teachers have told me they don’t feel comfortable going to the School Committee,” Miles said.

He would also like to see the committee more effectively address bullying in the school, especially in regards to how social media is used. With four children currently in the school system, he has a vested interest in solving these problems.

“I’d like to see us form a committee with parents, teachers and people from the community about how we want to address social media and what are the best practices from other school systems,” Miles said. 

Kevin McAllister

A professor and chairman of the sport management and recreation department at Springfield College, Kevin McAllister, 51, is running for his third full term on the School Committee, which he currently chairs. He is the father of two children in the middle and high school.

In response to accusations by Miles that the committee needs to practice better transparency, McAllister said that decisions to invest in the school’s vocational program came after a year of public discussion. 

“Our primary goal is a quality education for our kids and we’ve got to do it in a fiscally responsible way,” McAllister said.

He commends Superintendent Nicholas Young’s progress over the past five years, implementing a new “spiral curriculum” that builds on student’s education from kindergarten on.

Investing in vocational and accelerated academic courses has paid off with more students returning to the district and saving the school an estimated $1.5 million, he said.

“Hands down, the quality of our education has improved tremendously,” he said. “Everything we’ve done in the last five years with Young and his administrative team has been a complete turnaround in quality and educational performance.”

Continued investment in the school’s academic, vocational, and extracurricular programs and promoting clear channels of communication with the School Committee, students and parents are goals McAllister hopes to pursue with another term.

“One reason I want to continue on School Committee is because I still think there’s more to do and I want to continue the momentum we’ve achieved over the years,” McAllister said. “I’m in it for the kids and I’m in it for the community.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.

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