LYNN — How to address overcrowding in the Lynn Public Schools, aging school buildings and providing a quality education to all students were the topics that took center stage at the first School Committee candidates’ forum on Wednesday night.
Candidates also spoke to how they feel the district is perceived by parents and how it needs to improve.
Seven of the eight candidates — incumbents Brian Castellanos, Donna Coppola, Lorraine Gately, Jared Nicholson and Michael Satterwhite, and challengers Sandra Lopez and Tiffany Magnolia — running for six seats on the School Committee participated in the debate, which was held at LynnArts and hosted by the Lynn Community Association. Incumbent John Ford could not attend because of a medical procedure.
Candidates all agreed overcrowding was a pressing issue facing the schools. Lynn English and Lynn Classical high schools are bursting at the seams, with more than 2,000 students each, and the middle schools are heavily overpopulated.
Nicholson said addressing overcrowding by increasing, expanding or improving schools can be made even more daunting by how expensive it would be to address the issue. While the district can’t allocate new funds, it can innovate and advocate for funding, he said, pointing to examples such as the eighth grade discovery academy at the Lynn Vocational Technical Institute annex alleviating middle school overcrowding.
Satterwhite said one of the biggest issues with finding additional space is making sure places are ADA-compliant. There are two empty supermarkets in the city, he said, that could be used. He pointed to a recent partnership with the Lynn YMCA that would make use of five empty classrooms there to alleviate pre-K overcrowding.
There was a consensus among the candidates that the district needs new schools, with Coppola saying the district can’t continue to put Band-Aids on the problem by finding additional classroom space or creating programming.
Candidates said there’s a lot the district is doing well, with Castellanos pointing to it excelling in the arena of social and emotional learning, but agreed there are areas that need improvement.
Satterwhite said the district needs to do better with its special education — special education students are one of the lowest performing subgroups in the district. A formal complaint was recently filed against the district for non-compliance of special education requirements. Hiring a new compliance officer will help, he said.
Coppola said the district’s technology needs improvement and Lopez said there needs to be more diversity among staff. A lot of people may not get involved with the schools because they don’t speak English, Lopez said.
Another issue candidates focused on was the importance of making sure each student receives a quality education in the district, no matter the condition of their school or what neighborhood their family resides in.
But Magnolia said there’s a difference between equality and equity. Instead of each school providing the same education, she said the focus should instead be on equity, where schools meet the needs of their neighborhood, comparing it to different people needing different types of bicycles.
Candidates believed parents were generally happy with the educators in the district, but may not be satisfied with the district overall. Gately said the average family may see deteriorating buildings and large class sizes, which a lot of people aren’t happy about.
But there’s still a lot of hope with families, said Castellanos, adding that the city’s five-year capital improvement plan, which includes building a new Pickering Middle School, could really impact the way parents perceive the schools.
“We have the ability to overcome,” Castellanos said. “The resilience of the community is overwhelming.”