Amherst School Committee candidates share views

  • Benjamin Herrington, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School.

  • Kerry Spitzer, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School.

  • Allison Bleyler McDonald, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School.

  • Amherst candidates including Ivan Babian for Select Board, left, Robert Greeney for Select Board, Douglas Slaughter for Select Board, Benjamin Herrington for School Committee, Allison Bleyler McDonald for School Committee and Kerry Spitzer for School Committee are shown March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School.

Published: 3/22/2018 12:05:53 AM

AMHERST — School Committee members Vira Douangmany Cage and Phoebe Hazzard announced in December that they would not be seeking re-election to their positions, leaving two seats open for new candidates.

Three candidates have joined the race, and each spoke with the Gazette about their campaigns. Below are their responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Ben Herrington

A member of the custodial team at Wildwood and Fort River, Ben Herrington says his background in construction and building maintenance will give him important insight in solving one of the serious challenges facing the town’s schools.

“Infrastructure is a huge deal for us now,” the 40-year-old former combat engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers said. “I think I could provide something that is a little more unique that we didn’t have the last time the building project didn’t go through.”

Herrington, who also worked as the lead maintenance foreman at the Center For Extended Care, said he will soon become a member of the Fort River Building Committee.

“I see that we have a direction right now,” he said of the committee’s work. “I’m optimistic of the results for our students… and I’m getting involved.”

Another important reason for his campaign, Herrington said, is to give voice to the town’s diverse population in a district with changing demographics.

“I live in a low-income area,” Herrington said. “A lot of folks who live in my neighborhood and similar neighborhoods around town feel like their voices aren’t heard.”

Among his proposals are that the district focus more on restorative justice. He also praised programs like the African-American literature read-in program at Wildwood, adding that he supports any such initiative that works to bridge cultural gaps among students.

Herrington supports Superintendent Michael Morris’s proposal to create a dual-language program in one of the town’s elementary schools as such a program. He said his children are part Dominican, and he laments that they don’t speak Spanish.

Herrington’s two children — a third-grader at Crocker Farm and a ninth-grader — have at various times received free-and-reduced meals, and he said he’d push for expanded free breakfast and lunch programs so that all students can get a meal without stigma.

Herrington was against the school building project that failed last year for several reasons, but what convinced him was a neighbor showing him how long it would take for her to get to the proposed school on public transportation.

Herrington also opposes the charter proposal, citing the fact that School Committee members would all have to run for office every two years. The chance for total turnover, he said, presents the risk of losing all institutional knowledge during a single election.

Allison McDonald

With a background in marketing and communications, Allison McDonald said that her experience in the private and nonprofit sectors has given her the tools needed to bring people in the community together.

“The skills I have developed here are listening and seeking out the needs, desires, hopes and problems that different constituencies face,” the 52-year-old said of her current job at the Hadley-based nonprofit VentureWell and her past job at Yankee Candle. “And really turning those insights into solutions.”

McDonald has two children in the district, in fifth grade and seventh grade.

The district’s infrastructure is the biggest challenge McDonald said she hopes to tackle with her approach. She said she was disappointed to see the proposed building project at the Wildwood site fail, depriving the town of $34 million in state aid.

Another issue McDonald is passionate about is how special education students are split up from siblings if they don’t live in a neighborhood zoned for the school where their needed services exist. She favors a different approach that could keep those families together.

“That’s something that I have a personal experience with,” McDonald said, describing how she wasn’t able to attend the same school as her older sister, who has developmental disabilities. “I know the real impact it has on families and children, that separation.”

The district’s demographics are changing, McDonald said, with more students coming from economically disadvantaged families or entering the district as English-language learners.

“That calls for change in the way we’re doing things in our schools just because we’re talking to a very different population today than we were 10 years ago,” said McDonald, who was part of the enrollment working group studying socioeconomic balance in the district.

McDonald advocates bringing more social services into the schools, such as after-school programs or psychological support, to name a few. She is also a supporter of the proposal for a dual-language program at one of the elementary schools.

McDonald serves on Town Meeting, and said she was frustrated with that system of government and how many people run unopposed for their seats. For that reason, she supports the charter proposal.

Kerry Spitzer

An Amherst public school graduate from the class of 1999, Kerry Spitzer says her professional expertise in budget and policy analysis will be valuable assets, particularly at a time when the district faces financial challenges.

“We need to look at the bigger picture,” she said, describing how the town’s schools have become more of a social safety net for people in the community. “I think I do have that ability to see how things connect and to see the bigger picture in our town.”

Spitzer, 36, holds a doctorate in urban policy and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and previously worked as a budget and policy analyst in New York City government before moving back to her hometown of Amherst. She currently conducts health service research at Baystate Medical Center.

As the mother of a 5-year-old at Wildwood and a 1-year-old in day care, she said she knows how difficult it is to find affordable preschool in Amherst. She said she supports increasing preschool availability.

“It’s expensive and not all families have the means to access private preschool,” she said.

As part of the enrollment working group, Spitzer recently looked into the socioeconomic balance across the district’s elementary schools.

Spitzer said she is really concerned about the infrastructure in the town’s schools, lamenting that the town missed out on state funds for the failed school building project, which she supported.

“I’m glad we’re moving forward, I just wish we could speed it up a little bit,” she said of the current processes the district is pursing to improve the elementary schools, adding that community engagement is an important part of that process.

Budgets are already tight across the district, Spitzer said, with a frozen budget at the elementary level and cuts happening at the high school. She said it’s important not to make cuts to “the things that really make Amherst public schools successful.”

One of those things is the district’s language programs, Spitzer said, advocating that the district keep those programs strong and perhaps bring back other language programs that no longer exist. She is also in support of the proposal for a dual-language program at one of the town’s elementary schools.

A Town Meeting member, Spitzer said she supports the charter proposal to move to a town council form of government, describing her frustration with the Town Meeting process.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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