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Cheryl Garrity, Candidate For School Committee: Dishonest Politicians, Mediocre Schools Are A Horrible Mix

Feb 23, 2016 09:59AM ● By Bill Gilman

(Editor's note: The following is the Candidate Statement of Cheryl Garrity, candidate for Tewksbury School Committee.)

As a homeowner and parent, I am concerned with the current and future education provided by our Tewksbury Public Schools.  I am the mother of two public school children in grades 7 and 9, both of whom have always and will continue to attend the Tewksbury Public Schools and who have been involved in community sports while maintaining high academic standards and various outside interests.  

I decided to run for School Committee due to my concerns over transparency, democracy and leadership in municipal government – or the lack thereof.  I strongly support and believe that the Open Meeting Laws must be followed and that the Public Records Laws must be obeyed such that the community will understand what decisions are being made and why, how their tax dollars are being allocated, and to encourage their active involvement by voicing their opinions, concerns and ideas. 

When I requested public records regarding the school committee’s attempt to fill the vacancy created by Lisa Puccia and why it had to be redone as they did not follow the proper procedure and were called upon by the selectman to do it over; as well records regarding the release of students’ private records on the web site that violated state and federal laws, I had to spend months appealing to the Public Records Division, and the School Committee spent our tax dollars on a lawyer to deny me access.  They tried to charge exorbitant fees (over $1,000), stonewall, and otherwise make it difficult to hide their records.  When they finally produced a large pile of records, and charged me $150 for the copies, over 75% was irrelevant – ads, multiple copies of the same documents, or simply nonresponsive to my request.  Childish tactics that cost us, the town taxpayers, thousands of dollars in legal fees and administrative costs.  The superintendent’s staff, with the encouragement of the school committee, spent their “working” hours searching for face book posts of people who dared to question them.  Snarky comments between the chair and the superintendent or with other school committee members is the norm.  It appeared to me that the superintendent told the school committee what to do – the proverbial tail wagging the dog.  Is this who we want running our schools and employing the superintendent? I was disgusted and I was also worried because I have heard first-hand the retaliation that is coordinated between the school committee and the administration against children – yes children – of those who dare to even question them.  This is a clear abuse of power.  I eventually decided that it was time to run because I know I am not running for some power trip or popularity contest.  I am running for well-being of our children and I will be honest, open, and forthright as well as professional as a member of the School Committee.   Rather than criticize the Board of Selectman in emails I attempt to keep secret, I will work with them looking for ways to improve our community.  

The members of our school committee have failed in their responsibilities to advocate for our schools.   Instead, they defend the status quo and tell us how wonderful the schools are doing.  They might be wonderful for a small percentage of students, but not for the vast majority.  

Our schools, except North Street, are all Level 2 schools.  The same people, or their family members, have been on the school committee for far too long resulting in a mediocre, Level 2 school system.  This is due to a lack of leadership by our school committee and their complete lack of oversight of the superintendent, not a lack of money.  Our children and our town deserve better.    I am not part of the old network of politicians that tend to monopolize our school committee for their own power and purposes, or to retaliate against anyone (or their children) who dares to question them.   Instead, I am an outsider who has the best interests of all our students and the community at heart.   I will use my skills as a lawyer to address the sometimes competing needs of the community and aim to reach a mutually beneficial consensus whenever possible.  I pledge to never retaliate against anyone, and especially not to harm any child, or thwart efforts to obtain information about where your tax dollars are being spent and how decisions are being made.  

The elementary schools are in complete disrepair.  When I first moved to Tewksbury in January 1998, I knew we missed the boat on state funding that was granted to Malden, Somerville, and other schools to pay for their new, state of the art elementary schools.  Only now, during the election, have they finally pulled their act together to start moving on the new schools and seek state assistance.  

Our elementary schools have libraries but my children have been unable to take out books.  Why?  We have no librarians and rely on a system of volunteers that is not dependable and also not necessarily trained to assist children to find appropriate books for their skills and interests.  

We have a very weak curriculum particularly for the elementary schools.  We no longer have a foreign language available to middle school students.  This is the exception for the majority of public schools in the Commonwealth and certainly subpar.  We do not have a Talented and Gifted Program in our schools to cultivate and advance the interests of our students.  

To defend these shortfalls by saying we have a town library, or parents can pay for foreign language and other experiences for their children is not appropriate.  We have many low income families, and even middle income families, that struggle from month to month and are worried about college costs, mortgages or rent.  They are not able to pay for these things.   We need prioritize our budget and our energies to focus on education.  It would require short money to fix the curriculum and library issues, and ideally we will receive the state building funds to alleviate the tax burden on our town people to build new schools.   However, it requires leadership, advocacy, and prioritization of these issues.  By raising the standards at the top, it will raise all expectations and the achievement for all of our students.  

We further need to shift our focus from MCAS, PARCC and/or Common Core.  Even teachers who are opposed to the standardized testing and mandates are forced to teach to the tests rather than teach to our children.  We spend significant monetary and time resources focused on preparing for the tests, administering the tests, and then evaluating the meaning of the results.  With a strong curriculum, strong leadership encouraging our teachers to teach children critical thinking and otherwise prepare them for the tests without solely focusing on the tests.  Common Core was designed without public scrutiny and although I appreciate the Gates Foundation significant financial contributions to schools, I am opposed to the strings they have attached and the fact that private foundations or individuals should have any influence on public education.  

Professionally, I am an attorney with my own family and probate practice in Burlington since 2001 (I have been an attorney since 1991).  I am one of the few Certified Financial Litigators in the country and have received several awards including being named a Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters in 2015.  I have 25 years of experience working with families in difficult and often emotional situations and am able to maintain my professionalism throughout.  Through the years I have been appointed to represent children in poverty, children who were neglected or abused, and also to help parents with children who had different abilities – all very heart breaking but worthwhile work.  

I have always been involved in numerous non-profits and community groups which has provided me a broad range of experiences and knowledge.  I intend to utilize and expand upon this skill set while serving on the Tewksbury School Committee.  Currently I serve as an elected member of the UMASS Amherst Alumni Association Board of Directors and serve on the Board Development and Awards and Scholarships Committees.  In past years, I served on the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for 2 years and the Web Site Redesign Task Force.  More locally, I serve on the board of Liam Nation which provides support, services, and activities to families with children of different abilities and provides volunteer opportunities for more able-bodied students that serves to encourage understanding of each other by all the youth involved.  For many years, I have served on the Human Rights Committee of the Greater Lowell Mental Health Association which provides housing and supportive services to mentally challenged adults living independently in the community.  I have actively been involved in leadership and mentoring through the Women’s Bar Association and University Women in Leadership sharing my experiences with young women lawyers and young women college students interested in exploring careers in the law.  I was first elected to public office at age 20 as a Representative to Town Meeting, Amherst, MA.  

If you are concerned with mediocre schools, lackluster performance, a failure to abide by open meeting and public records laws; if you want leadership, transparency, and community commitment; then vote for change on April 2nd – Vote for Cheryl Garrity for School Committee.  

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