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Meet the Four Candidates for School Committee

Needham's Annual Town Election is Tuesday, April 11, 2017. There are four School Commnitee Candidates vying for two seats on the School Committee. In preparation for that election, we asked the four candidates five questions and provided their responses below.

What skills and/or experience would you bring to the Needham School Committee?

Kim Marie Nicols - My experience, community involvement, and professional background make me highly qualified to continue to serve on Needham School Committee. As a parent, I have seen firsthand the excellence of our school system. It has been an honor serving two terms and much has been accomplished. This includes several building projects, recommendation for full-day Kindergarten, expansion of the school day, and development of programs using 1:1 technology and interdisciplinary learning. I am the Committee Liaison to the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and involved in many other organizations in Needham, including Town Meeting and the Needham Diversity Initiative. I have been actively involved with school over-ride campaigns, including serving as Co-Chair on the High Rock operations over-ride. I have a strong commitment to the Field of Education, with a Master's degree in Educational Administration & Supervision, and have been employed by several Massachusetts school programs.

Michael Greis - When I first ran for School Committee in 2005, the skills I stressed were finance, collaboration and technology. All have been central to my work on the committee. I have been deeply engaged in finance and the budget, from the yearly budget process to the development of the first five year forecast. My technology expertise was initially focused on critically evaluating, justifying and gaining support for technology spending, but is now important in developing and implementing our long-term technology strategy. Collaboration is an integral part of how our schools work, so my focus on collaboration builds trust and enables me to be effective internally. I have leveraged collaboration to build strong relationships with other Town boards. Perhaps most importantly, we have built a strong, positive relationship for negotiations, with a focus on problem solving. It has enabled us to successfully negotiate fair, affordable contracts.

Ben Pasco-Anderson - Having graduated from Needham High School in 2010 and from UMass Amherst in 2014, I bring a young, student-focused perspective that currently is missing from the School Committee. Having experienced public and private education at several levels also gives me unique insight into creative ways to solve problems that public schools may overlook. Professionally, I've spent my short but productive career working in operational efficiency. I've worked with budgets and processes, and have helped companies function smoothly while fixing pain points and reducing costs.

Matt Spengler - I am a parent of three children that attend Pollard, High Rock and Mitchell schools and I have more than 25 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal and founder of an education nonprofit organization that is dedicated to promoting educational equity and improving life outcomes for students across the country. I also believe that my personal experience as a long-time Needham youth soccer coach, and board member of Citizens for Needham Schools makes me well qualified to serve.

Most prospective School Committee members have several areas in which they are particularly interested and for which they have some ideas for improvement. What are yours?

Matt Spengler - As a former high school English teacher and principal I have a particular interest in the plans to expand Needham High School. My daughter will be an NHS 9th grader in the fall and I know from my professional experience how significantly class size, collaborative learning space, access to technology and school design impact teaching and learning. I also believe that a primary responsibility of our schools is to provide our children with safe, welcoming and effective learning environments. Achieving this mission for all students and adults requires thoughtful and strategic approaches that are coordinated across grades levels and regularly monitored. I have worked to support and lead schools that place a high priority on Social and Emotional Learning and on developing Cultural Proficiency for staff and students. I will be a strong advocate for continued improvement in this area and for monitoring our progress by reviewing data and seeking input from students, staff and community members.

Kim Marie Nicols - I am committed to increasing engagement between schools, parents, and the community. This includes creating partnerships with students and community groups, encouraging attendance at concert and theatre performances, and utilizing social media. We live in an increasingly diverse community, and I approve District Goals that reflect a commitment to cultural proficient learning environments. There has been greater recruitment of diverse school staff, and practices are being re-evaluated to be more supportive of METCO and students of color. Special education students are increasingly being educated in-district through the development of new programs, and I support activities that are inclusive and create greater understanding of differences.

Michael Greis - Finance and budgeting continues to be a major focus; we cannot be satisfied with simply maintaining what we do well, as challenging as that is. Innovation to provide enhanced and new offerings requires that we continuously improve our use of resources so that the community has the ability and the confidence to continue investing in our schools. Areas I have worked on and care deeply about include interdisciplinary learning, civics, STEM (now STEAM), and sustainability. These are ongoing collaborative endeavors involving faculty, administration, students and external organizations.

Ben Pasco-Anderson - I was extremely excited to see the completion of the solar farm at the town dump last year. Needham has a unique opportunity to take advantage of its success and promote net-zero school buildings in the district. As a member of the School Committee, I would join in on efforts to make our district a leader in energy efficient school buildings. Also, as a recent student and a millennial, I believe it's extremely important that all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sex identity, be supported and given equal opportunities to thrive. I hope to work with administrations at Pollard and the high school to ensure facilities and services are accessible to all students.

As a School Committee member, you will have to make some tough budgetary decisions. How do you define your priorities?

Ben Pasco-Anderson - The students come first. The job of School Committee is to ensure that administrations and teachers have what they need to best work for the students. If budget cuts are ever required, I will do everything I can to protect class offerings, student programming and support services. The student experience should not be affected by decisions made without their input.

Matt Spengler - One of the School Committee's most important responsibilities is to take a long-term approach to advocate for budgets that will adequately support student needs while recognizing a larger Town-wide financial context. As a committee member, my guiding question when discussing budgetary choices would be to understand how an investment or cut will directly impact student learning.

Kim Marie Nicols - The provision of a quality education for all students should be at the center of every budgetary decision. Developing and approving budgets are challenging, especially with decreasing state and federal funds, and every proposal and line item must be carefully analyzed. A significant portion of the budget is dedicated to school personnel, and I am a member of the Negotiations Team that is developing competitive and fiscally sustainable contracts that will continue to retain and attract qualified staff. I was on the Full-Day Kindergarten Study Committee, and our recommendation to open a compulsory program will increase the budget. The School Committee works with the Superintendent to annually set budgets that provide the same level of services each year, not cut services that will negatively impact educational programs, and continue to add innovative programs that make our schools exceptional places of learning.

Michael Greis - The budget guidelines we review and set annually guide us and the administration: The District's mission, vision, values, and goals; The need for highly qualified staff teaching within established student/teacher ratio guidelines; Ongoing refinement of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices; and Developing and maintaining educational resources and a technology infrastructure that supports student learning and meets District goals. The most difficult decisions involve making cuts to existing programs or not implementing needed improvements. Minimizing impact on students and teachers in the classroom is always a top priority, but there is no magic formula. We do not neglect less visible spending that has a great impact on many students over the longer term.

How do you envision engaging the Needham community with determining school priorities and budgetary decisions?

Michael Greis - To engage effectively, we must first inform. Transparency and candor, especially with difficult information, is essential to providing credible information and earning trust. We do well at this, but we must never be satisfied. CNS was created to help and is a valued partner. Having made information available, we listen. I encourage everyone to use all the available channels - their Principals, teachers, PTCs and School Councils - to make their voice heard.

Ben Pasco-Anderson - I would advocate for a variety of new communication channels between the School Committee and the community. From regular town hall meetings, to more social media engagement and online polling, there should be more engagement between the committee and it's constituents. At the beginning of each School Committee meeting, there is an opportunity for the public to speak to the group about important issues. Unfortunately, the committee only hears these comments and does not respond back. I would like to open up this section of the meetings to engage in more productive conversation. With these added inputs from the town at large, committee members will be given more information with which to make budget decisions.

Matt Spengler - Last week I attended a School Committee Open House at the Da Vinci Workshop at the High School. As a parent and community member, I have appreciated the many opportunities that I have had to connect directly with School Committee Members at public forums and through formal and informal communication pathways (conversations at town events, emails, phone calls, etc.). If elected to serve on the Committee, I will continue this tradition of being an engaged listener and community participant.

Kim Marie Nicols - The Needham Public Schools budget is a significant part of our Town's annual budget, so it is vital that the community stays aware of the process through reading reports posted on the NPS website, speaking out at public hearings, and keeping current through newspaper articles and local cable programs. Long term priorities regarding school facilitates and operation budgets require collaboration with other Town Boards and approval from Town Meeting Members and voters. As a School Committee Member, I carefully listen to the concerns of the community, and welcome personal discussions about school programs and budgets.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the Needham Public Schools over the next three years?

Matt Spengler - There are several important issues that are critical to the long term quality of our schools. Adults throughout our schools and town must ensure that all of our students feel safe, respected and valued. The district has many programs and supports already in place but this is an area that requires continual monitoring and improvement. Additional challenges include providing Full-day Kindergarten for all students and the effective investment in and use of technology. Our high school is overcrowded and the Mitchell School is outdated and overdue for modernization, as is the Pollard School. Each of these issues and our ongoing need for capital improvements may require the School Committee and the town to make tough budget decisions in order to adequately support student needs for the next three years and beyond. That said, these topics also provide an important opportunity to engage in a public dialogue about how our schools will ultimately reflect and promote the values and goals of our community.

Michael Greis - The most urgent challenge is adding instructional space to Needham High School. We have selected a thoroughly vetted and forward-looking plan (Option F), a classroom addition near the Webster Street entrance. We will work to close the gap between the $7.3 million identified in the capital plan and the estimated $11.3 million cost of the project in a way that does not jeopardize other important town projects. We will - finally - implement full-day Kindergarten in fall 2019 or 2020. The complex planning has begun; community involvement is a key to success. The School Committee is focused on developing a financial plan in collaboration with the Selectmen and Finance Committee. The implementation of 1:1 computing at NHS begins next year. This rollout, and the revised technology plan for the lower grades, will come together with a long-term technology strategy. The next three years will see the implementation of significant changes in how we support teaching and learning.

Ben Pasco-Anderson - There are several key hurdles that Needham Public Schools will have to address over the next several years and beyond. The largest is overcrowding at the high school. When I was a sophomore in 2007, the new building was completed and students were finally given the space they needed. By the time I was a senior in 2010, the school was already at capacity. Now, my sister's senior class of 2017 walks sideways through the hallways with the school at 200 students over capacity. Multiple projections show that number will bloat to almost 400 students over capacity in the next decade. The School Committee and town administrators are already working on solutions, but finding the funding in the town budget and actually implementing a solution will be the toughest challenges of the next three years. Other challenges facing the public schools are the implementation of full day kindergarten, whether or not the town moves further towards energy efficient school buildings, and addressing the needs of gender non-binary students at all grade levels. As a member of School Committee, I would also like to begin investigating the rising interest and importance of computer programming as part of the curricula, and start preliminary planning for new renovations at Mitchell Elementary and Pollard Middle School.

Kim Marie Nicols - Needham is an attractive town because of the outstanding reputation of its school system, with impressive student achievements in academics, athletics, and the arts. But this has lead to an increasing student population and overcrowding into school facilities, some that may not adequately meet today's innovative educational and technological needs. We need to develop building proposals and secure funding for an addition to Needham High School, rebuilding Mitchell, and renovating Emory Grover and Pollard. Additional challenges include the implementation of full-day Kindergarten, supporting technology plans utilizing iPads and laptops, and creating multidisciplinary instructional programs. This requires working with other Town Boards in proposing fiscally responsible budgets while meeting the needs of Needham Public Schools.

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