Michael Shepard is running for reelection to the School Committee. The election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
1) What inspired you to run for School Committee?
When I first ran for school committee in 2011, I was drawn to four main issues which I felt needed to be addressed: resolving the teacher’s contract, budget concerns, appointing a new superintendent and expanding special education programming. We resolved the teacher’s contract and appointed Dr. Fitzgerald as Superintendent, but we still have work to do regarding the budget and student programming.
Now, as I run for re-election, I want to continue my focus on the budget and how to get the most out of every dollar the schools have. We have made a lot of progress on our special education programming and I want to continue to advocate for further program development and to attract very skilled and highly qualified teachers so we can provide the best services possible in district. I also want to develop and expand other student services and educational programs to give our students every resource and opportunity to excel.
Lastly, as Chair of the Buildings and Grounds subcommittee, I want to continue exploring ways to add more space to our schools because our buildings are bursting at the seams. We currently have a Statement of Interest being considered by the Mass. School Building Authority, which, if accepted, could lead to a new high school. I am also thinking of new, creative solutions to address the physical space needs, while working within the limited amount of free space we have in Watertown.
All of these issues are inter-related: if we don’t have the funding, we can’t staff new programs or expand existing ones. If we don’t have the building space, we be able to accommodate the new staff, relieve the over crowding and reduce class sizes, nor will we be able to handle any unforeseen space requirements mandated by the Commonwealth or Department of Education.
I would like to continue working on all of these issues and see them through to completion as part of building a better school district for the future.
2) What do you see as the biggest issue for the Watertown Public Schools and why?
Watertown is a complex and diverse community with many challenges facing the schools: large class sizes, student health issues including the rise of opiate/opiod abuse, and rebuilding the staffing and programs that had been cut due to the economic downturn.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge we face now is the need for more physical space – more classrooms, more breakout rooms for one on one or small group instruction and more room for new programs and staff. By gaining more space for instruction, we can lower class sizes, which will lead to more effective teaching and learning. Students have enough challenges outside of the classroom, so we should do everything we can to make their time in class a positive, comfortable place to learn. A student who needs just a little extra help will have a better chance of getting that help if the teacher isn’t trying to work with 25 or more other students. By lowering the class size, that student will get the attention needed.
I am currently working with the administration on how the space in our schools is currently used and what the needs for the future might be. We are looking into enrollment projections from the state, development projects in Watertown and what programs will need to be added or expanded in order to meet the needs of future students. After that information is analyzed, we can have a larger discussion about how to proceed and what actions to take to meet the projected needs.
3) While schools are your focus, working with the Town Council and town administration is also part of the job. What would you do to have a good relationship with people on the Town side?
Communication is the key. Being able to have candid, professional discussions regarding any issue is the key to success. Asking for input or feedback from the Council or the school administration is necessary because none of us individually have all the information or experience needed to make an informed decision or recommendation. By sitting down and exploring the issue, sharing information and collaborating to find the best resolution, all parties can learn from each other, and have a stake in defining the way forward.
4) What is your opinion of the Common Core standards, and how much do you think they should play a role in shaping education in Watertown?
The common core standards sound like a nice idea – common educational and assessment standards across all states for direct comparisons. However, numerous experts have pointed out flaws with the standards, pedagogical differences from current best practices in the classroom and a continuation of the “test and punish” approach to school and sometimes teacher assessment.
Another problem with the Common Core standards is the interpretation of the test results, via PARCC testing. Many states have chosen to reinterpret the results differently than the testing companies intended, which defeats the intent of the Core and the testing, which was commonality across all states. As a result, more and more states are dropping the Common Core and PARCC and defunding it.
I don’t think the Common Core or PARCC should play a role in Watertown schools. One of the original goals of Common Core was to teach critical thinking, but due to the tests being primarily the same type of multiple choice questions, rote teaching and learning are promoted. Another question that has not been answered is: who benefits from these standards and tests? Since teaching to the test has become the goal, rather than teaching critical thinking and encouraging a love of learning, the students and teachers don’t benefit. And since this is yet another high stakes test, one that is not required for advancement or graduation, students are subject to more stress for no benefit. After the test, our school administrators will have to analyze yet another set of test results and interpret them to make meaningful changes.
To comply with the testing requirements, significant capital investments in computer hardware and networking equipment will have to be made, and maintenance and replacement expenses will have to be added to the budget every year. These funds could be used in other areas of the schools for greater benefit. The testing company in Massachusetts, Pearson, negotiates contracts at the state level, but the costs are borne by the districts themselves. The hidden costs that are not accounted for include the cost of substitute teachers needed to cover classes while certified teachers proctor the exam. These costs are not funded by the state, forcing districts to cover them, when that funding could be better used elsewhere in the schools.
The short answer is that Watertown students and teachers do not benefit from the adoption of the Common Core and PARCC testing, nor does the administration. Computer and network hardware companies benefit financially, but the prime beneficiary is Pearson and the other testing companies involved in pushing another unfunded mandate onto states and pulling more public funds out of the educational system and into their profits.
5) Tell us about yourself – your family, background and qualifications to be a School Committee member.
My wife and I have lived here since 1989, and our daughter is in the Connections program at the middle school where she continues to make great progress thanks to great teachers working with her.
I am a project manager in the financial services industry, overseeing a portfolio of projects. I have spent most of my career either working in technology companies or the financial sector. Working with money managers and small tech companies taught me several things early in my career: results are what matter, always follow the money, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know … but I’ll get the answer for you.”
Our students and their education are too important to not give maximum effort to effect changes to enhance our schools. Finding creative solutions to the complex challenges in our district is key and going through the motions is a disservice to all of our students and families.
I started my career training to be an engineer, but changed my focus before graduation. A benefit of working with engineers was learning to break down complex issues into smaller and smaller pieces until those small pieces could be resolved. Taken together, those small fixes become the solution to the bigger issue. Working in financial services for so long has taught me to analyze complex financial data and financial statements and put that information into context. Being comfortable with finance has helped me work with the administration on the budget and other fiscal matters. Being a project manager for so long has helped me see the big picture and how various different areas of an organization can be intertwined in not so obvious ways and to identify dependencies and possible problem areas.
I consider my background and professional experience to be very useful given the challenges facing the district: more complex budgets and resource allocation; possible renovation or construction of a school building; complex program needs for our general and special education students. I would like to continue using my skills and experience to help the School Committee effect positive changes and keep improving the Watertown Public Schools.