NASHUA — Candidates vying for the four open seats on the Board of Education faced a round of questions from the front lines of local schools Wednesday night at a forum sponsored by the Nashua Teachers Union.
Five of the six candidates in the race offered their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s school district. They were also challenged by several teachers in the audience who want more support from school officials.
“We are not accepted as professionals,” Stephanie Keating-Bayrd, a teacher at Fairgrounds Middle School, told the candidates
“We are the panacea and the pariah,” she said, adding that after 10 years in the district she earns less money and puts in many more hours.
Keating-Bayrd said teachers rely on the board’s support when schools are criticized for spending and other issues, and board members are not always there when needed.
But during the 90-minute forum, each of the candidates repeatedly praised the city’s nearly 1,000 teachers calling them heroes and saying they were the heart of education in Nashua.
Incumbents David Murotake, Thomas Vaughan and Sandra Ziehm, and challengers Dotty Oden and George Farrington zeroed in on different strategies to strengthen Nashua schools. Dennis Ryder, the sixth candidate in the race, has been away on a visit to his home in England and did not attend the event.
Murotake, who currently heads the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, said Nashua needs to do better in science and math. Murotake has been pushing for more emphasis on foundational skills such as learning multiplication tables and other basic math facts, an idea that has been out of favor with some educators because it requires memorization and rote.
Vaughan stressed the need for more resources and support for staff and said Nashua is behind the curve for professional development opportunities for teachers.
“We should be providing useful data for teachers to help them adjust their teaching,” he said.
For Ziehm, more communication among board members, teachers and administrators is essential in order to understand district’s needs.
“We need communication first, last and always,” said Ziehm, who also said she was committed to ensuring that the district’s funding and resources were distributed equitably among city schools.
Farrington, a former BOE member who served two terms, said Nashua schools need more focus.
“As I look at the district it seems to me one of the problem areas is the focus is too wide,” said Farrington who added that teachers are being weighed down by a pile up of goals and strategies.
“Teachers have enough on their plate developing relationships with students,” he said, adding that the district should do fewer things but do them better.
As a former first-grade teacher at Amherst Elementary School, Oden said keeping class sizes small is high on her list of priorities. Oden also said schools with high populations of low-income students and students with special needs have first-grade classes with 25 kids while schools in more affluent neighborhoods have 16 students in a class.
“Where’s the equity?” she asked.
Members of the teachers’ union wanted to know where the candidates stood on the budget, but rather than ask how much money is adequate, they asked if the schools should return the district’s annual surplus to the city.
Murotake and Farrington said that returning the surplus was part of the process that’s in place.
“There’s an indirect link with returning the surplus and the amount of money that will be in the budget for the next year,” said Murotake.
Still, both he and Farrington agreed that sticking with the process was part of maintaining a good relationship with the Board of Alderman and the mayor.
“We probably shouldn’t have a large amount of money going back to the city,” said Vaughan, who felt the board should budget more accurately. He agreed that spending a surplus would create problems with other city officials.
But Oden and Ziehm disagreed.
“When I think about surplus, I think more than we need,” said Ziehm, who then asked the audience of mostly teachers if they felt they had more than they needed in their classrooms.
“I vote we keep all the surpluses,” she said.
Oden said there’s something wrong with a budget that requires teachers to go out and buy their own materials.
“I understand you want to respect it. It’s taxpayer money, but education today costs money,” she said. “We are paying all the money for testing; let’s buy some materials for the kids.”
After listening to the candidates talk about more communication and cooperation between the board and teachers, Denise Trombly, a teacher at New Searles Elementary School, offered a new proposal to the candidates.
“My suggestion is rather than coming to the dog-and-pony shows, you should come volunteer in the classroom — all day,” said Tombly. “You’ll see it, and feel it for yourselves.”