By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Seven of the eight candidates for School Committee agreed on a broad range of issues at a debate last night, including keeping a focus on technology, opposing user fees and taking a slow approach to any redistricting.
The only hint of disagreement came over whether athletes could be exempted from physical education, or band members from music, if they take other curriculum courses instead.
An eighth candidate, Thomas Grondine, could not attend the debate at Timony Grammar School because of a previously scheduled meeting of the Greater Lawrence Technical School board, of which he is a member.
Most of the candidates have prior experience as elected officials. Incumbents Lynne Hajjar Kumm and Mary Jean Fawcett are running for their second term. Robert Vogler, who has served for years on the committee, is running for a full term after being appointed to finish the term of former member Mark Graziano. Grondine also has served on the City Council. Dennis “D.J.” Deeb served on the Dracut School Committee and the Greater Lowell Technical School Board before moving to Methuen.
Candidates Richard Beshara, Jana DiNatale and Bryan Sweet have not held elective office.
Four have or had careers in education: Beshara retired as principal of Marsh Grammar School this year, Deeb is a teacher at North Reading and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Fawcett was a teacher and administrator in Methuen and Vogler was a teacher in Beverly.
DiNatale is an assistant district attorney and Sweet is an administrative manager of research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The seven candidates, who answered questions from moderator and MCTV executive director Karen Hayden and from audience members and students, disagreed over whether students in certain extracurricular activities, such as sports or music, could be exempted from gym or music classes.
“I wouldn’t single out athletics,” Fawcett said in response to the question, which specifically named athletes.
“I’d have to look at the different scenarios,” Kumm said.
Vogler said he would want to get the input of the school administrators and the student council.
“I would support it, especially if they take another curriculum course,” Beshara said.
Deeb, DiNatale and Sweet said they would not support such an exemption.
The candidates unanimously opposed the imposition any user fees. Methuen does not charge user fees for its sports, arts programs, busing or kindergarten.
“The thought of user fees on any of those things is heartbreaking,” DiNatale said. “When you have user fees, you start excluding students.”
They also said Methuen Public Schools is well on its way into integrating interactive technology into its curriculum. Every ninth grader has access to an iPad this year, and the School Department will be expanding that through the entire high school, which will be equipped with digital televisions and wireless Internet capability when renovations are completed next year.
Sweet, who was appointed to the Building Committee overseeing the high school project, said the school will be a “21st century building,” but the department should keep its eyes on the horizon. “We need to have a plan for when iPads are last year’s technology,” he said.
The candidates said they hesitate to engage in any changes to grammar school boundaries, unless there are significant shifts within the city, and that any changes would be part of a long process involving parents, students, teachers and members of the community.
Vogler said he was a School Committee member years ago when the lines for the Comprehensive Grammar School were changed. “It was very emotional, and we had every voice at the table,” he said.
Deeb suggested that the School Department establish a capital improvement fund to maintain the school buildings. “We need to have money in an account if something goes wrong with one of these buildings,” he said.
The debate was held at the Timony Grammar School auditorium and aired live on MCTV. It will be rebroadcast several times before the election.
Six School Committee seats are up for election on Nov. 5.
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