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Candidate Forum Highlights: Night 1

If you missed last week’s Candidate Forums, which were sponsored by the Town Crier and organized by Paige Impink, we provide some highlights below. You can also watch the full two-night event on TewksburyTV’s YouTube channel.

Night 1: Planning Board, Moderator, School Committee
Night 2: Board of Health, Library Trustee, Select Board

Night 1 was moderated by Rosalyn Impink, with timekeeping assistance from Cassia Burns. Both are Town Crier correspondents.

Planning Board

The order of the speakers was chosen at random. George Ferdinand spoke first.

Ferdinand noted he’s lived in town for eight years. In 2016, he was part of the town’s Visioning Committee, was elected to the Board of Heath and previously served on the executive board of Tewksbury Cares, resigning in 2019. He cited as issues regulations that need updating, Route 38, a low business occupancy rate and too much building.

Thirty-eight year resident James Duffy spoke next. Duffy has been involved in the town in many ways since his kids were young, including the Heath Book PAC, youth sports and on the Green Committee, where they were able to “source revenue to be used for energy improvements on municipal buildings.”

Next up was Cody Smith, who grew up in Tewksbury, left for four years and came back and bought a home here. Smith is running because he want to be more invested in town now that he owns a home.

Jeremiah “Jay” Delaney was out of town and unable to attend. The Carnation will publish Planning Board Candidate profiles this week.

The first question was about the candidates’ vision for the community and how they would work towards a vibrant Main Street.

Duffy answered first, noting he’s a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) expert, with a background in construction that is applicable to the board. He thinks we need community connectivity, healthy buildings and energy efficiency on any development in Tewksbury.

Smith wants to see Tewksbury succeed. He’s been in construction his whole life but is still learning where the boundaries of the Planning Board start and end. Ferdinand would like to see the 10 year route 38 repaving plan shortened to seven years, and to use night paving. He also referred to the document created by the Tewksbury Vision Committee.

Next question: What role does town staff play in the Planning Board decision-making process?

Smith said they have a big role because Planning Board packets are compiled by staff. Ferdinand mentioned that he supported the regional dispatch center and how employees had to be assured they wouldn’t lose their jobs or seniority. He says he’ll keep in mind that Planning Board decisions affect people’s lives.

Duffy believes town staff can help the Planning Board secure grants for the town, since they have the expertise.

The climate crisis was next, with candidates being asked how to make more energy-efficient and climate-resilient homes and buildings in town. Ferdinand proposes more tax breaks for people who buy solar. Duffy believes this should be a priority, and notes that we have good building codes in Massachusetts and that new buildings have to be at least LEED Silver. Smith has built renewable housing and agrees that the building code is going in the right direction.

Candidates were then asked how they would work with other boards or committees to make sure the town master plan is being met. Duffy said he’s seen how other towns are more streamlined, and that’s something we could work on. Ferdinand doesn’t want to tell other groups what direction they should go in. One area to improve is to make it easier for average citizens to get the same response times from the town as businesses and big projects.

Noting that the town is in a vulnerable position in regards to affordable housing due to in-lieu-of fees (fees paid as an alternative to providing affordable housing units), candidates were asked what solutions they would offer to the affordable hosing issue. Smith says that the town is at the mercy of the state because we are under the percentage of required affordable housing, and as long as we’re under that percentage, we should not be offering in-lieu-of fees. Ferdinand commented that he knew when the Balsam Place complex was built that the town was “screwed on 40b for the next five years.”

Duffy says that fee in lieu shifts the burden of building affordable housing to the town and that we should “put the breaks on” for now. In fact, the town is sitting on some $5 million in fees paid by developers, without a Local Housing Partnership committee, while facing a massive 40B project at Ames Pond.

Candidates were next asked to consider how they would get up to speed on the board. Duffy would ask the town to let him go to the NMCOG (North Middlesex Council of Governments) training sessions and talk to other board members. Smith has always learned though “trial by fire” and says it has worked for him. He would learn from other board members and staff. Ferdinand said he would consult with current board member Eric Ryder, the building department and Assistant Town Manager Steve Sadwick.

Lightning Round! Candidates are permitted only one-word answers here.

First, is infrastructure an asset or a liability? All agreed it’s an asset.

Have you read the revised zoning bylaw and do you support it? All replied yes and yes.

Do you favor growth or stability in town? Smith chose stability, while Duffy and Ferdinand chose growth.

Should Tewksbury create a design review board? Ferdinand and Duffy say no, Smith leans yes.

Closing Statements

The candidates spoke in reverse order of opening statements, so Smith was up first. He says he’s looking forward to meting all the new members and wishes the other candidates luck.

Ferdinand listed the many things in town he supports, like the dispatch center, the fire station, the new school, billboards, tattoo parlors, zoning changes and cannabis cultivation, because he thinks as a taxpayer you should know where all the candidates stand. He will review each proposal with respect and without bias and looks forward to supporting individuals and business projects on Route 38.

He also will not favor moving forward mixed-use projects that do not include occupancy agreements.

The Planning Board portion closed with Duffy, who discussed how he has raised his family in town. He is now retired, is looking for a way to give back and thinks he brings a skill set that is unique. He believes communication with residents could be improved and hopes to be a sounding board for them.

Next up: Moderator

Candidate Dustin Weir is running unopposed for a one-year unexpired term. The town’s previous moderator, Todd Johnson, left the position after one year to take a seat on the Select Board, and former School Committee and Finance Committee member Scott Wilson served as interim moderator last year.

Weir didn’t face any questions but was given five minutes to make a statement. He’s been a resident of town since 2016 and has an 8 year old and 5 year old. He believes Tewksbury is a wonderful place to live and wants to give back. Since moving to town he’s been a Learn to Skate coach, volunteered at the food bank, served on the General Bylaw Committee and been a poll worker. He noted he’s also in the Medical Reserve Corps and an Eagle Scout.

Weir works as an engineer and has a current staff of 12; he says his strong technical background will help him interpret town bylaws.

Finally, School Committee

Candidate Christine Chesbrough spoke first. She stressed her No. 1 focus is the education and well-being of all students. She has two children, one a TMHS graduate, the other a current student at TMHS. She has volunteered for the North St. Elementary School PAC, Girl Scouts, CCD and runs multiple community Facebook pages. She believes these roles have helped her to be able to listen and communicate with others.

Kayla Biagioni-Smith spoke next, saying she believes she is the best person to sit in the seat and that she brings broad, diverse new perspective to the committee. She shared the quote, “Anything that is ultimately worthwhile initially scared me to death,” noting that her nervousness means that what she is doing is worthwhile.

Biagioni-Smith also has two children, with both currently attending school in the district.

Richard Russo gave the last opening statement. He moved to town in 1985, and he and his wife, a life-long resident, have three children in the school system and chose to stay in town because there’s a real sense of community. He is actively involved in the community as a member of the Finance Committee, President of Youth Football and Cheer, served on other youth sports boards, and was on the School Re-opening Task Force. In his professional career he’s currently the CEO and CFO of a medical device company and believes that, due to this, he can bring a unique perspective to the school committee.

First up was school safety. The new elementary school building is incorporating some of the newest security technology and designs for student safety; how do candidates feel about the status of school safety in the older school buildings?

Biagioni-Smith mentioned that the Heath Brook Elementary School recently added a security vestibule so you can no longer walk directly into the school. She did note there are likely still security gaps, and the district should make sure all students are safe. Russo thinks security is of the utmost importance and that once we have the technology, it’s worth exploring in other schools. Chesbrough concurred security is the most important thing and that there’s room for improvement. She also believes the town should follow what we’re doing in the new school in the older ones.

There have been ongoing, racially motivated incidents at TMHS targeting black and Jewish students. What would you do as a school committee member to address these issues? Russo would start by finding the motivation behind the incidents and take a step back and figure out how we can bring awareness across all schools. He would work with administration to bring programming into the schools. Chesbrough would make sure there are programs in place and bring in speakers, especially at the lower grades. Biagioni-Smith wants to start with teaching children to have difficult conversations. She is currently a member of her company’s BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) community and knows you must work constantly to be sure everyone feels valued.

Special education programs were on the table next. Some parents have expressed dissatisfaction with services and support for their students. Giving your understanding of current special education programs, where could we do better?

Chesbrough has spoken to parents who say their children aren’t getting services and believes we need to make sure we have appropriate staffing. Biagioni-Smith agrees more staff is needed because the staff feels they are drowning. She also promotes more open communication. Russo notes that there are 645 students receiving some form of special education, but only 80 staff providing services. He wants to bring parents and administration back together to make sure needed services are being provided. He also wants to make sure children are brought up to grade level after two years of the pandemic.

Next, what is one school sustainability initiative you would like to see? Biagioni-Smith wants recycling programs back in the school. She also would like to see kids have access to gardens in the new school. Russo noted that the administration is using less paper and would like that to work its way down through the district. He would also like to see the recycling and green clubs come back because this is an important issue for the next generation to grasp. Chesbrough shared that her daughter started a recycling program at TMHS when she was a student and would like that brought to the lower schools.

Budgetary issues were on the table because schools will soon be losing federal emergency relief funds.

Russo notes that 60% of the town budget goes to the schools, and as debt decreases and costs increase, student achievement needs to be at the front and would always be a focus when making tough decisions. Chesbrough wants us to hold people who do work on our schools accountable, pointing out that the TMHS already needs a roof replaced after only 10 years. Biagioni-Smith thinks we really need to focus on support services, whether it’s for teachers or students. She notes we’re spending around $17,000 per student and sees it as important to make sure that we stay within expectations and monitor the average of the state and other communities nearby.

Tewksbury will be hiring a new superintendent in the coming months, which prompted the question: The school committee is expected to collaborate with and hold the superintendent accountable at the same time. How would you manage this dual role to achieve best outcomes for students?

Chesbrough wants a superintendent who is visible and “recognizes the excellent education of our children,” and who is also a great communicator. Biagioni-Smith is interested in someone who is focused on communication with the entire committee, and knows how to find the balance between too much and too little, since we saw both sides of the spectrum in the pandemic. Russo sees a constantly evolving relationship. In a new superintendent he “would be looking for a track record throughout the education system, working knowledge of Massachusetts frameworks to help really move our district forward.”

Lightning Round! Candidates are only permitted one word answers here. First up, do you support creating a gifted program in the district? All candidates replied yes. Do students have the right to demonstrate? All replied yes again. Name one trait that you would like to see in our next superintendent? Chesbourgh says accountability, Biagioni-Smith went with collaborative and Russo wants leadership. What is the one most effective method of communication between the school committee and the community? All think one-to-one discussions are most effective.

What is the No. 1 most important subject for students to learn? Russo picks math, Chesbrough thinks financial literacy and Biagioni-Smith loves science.

Closing Statements

Russo shares that he spent 18 months thinking about running, because he found being on the school Reopening Committee eye-opening and now wants to get to work for the 30,000 people of this community. He notes that he’s been a member of various youth sports organizations and has worked to make them the best programs that they can be for the kids and the families in this community. He spoke of the upcoming work the community must do and the leadership that will require. He already has plans to tour district classrooms.

Biagioni-Smith wants to bring her passion to helping students in the community at large. She wants students to not only meet expectations, but exceed their potential and will help them do so by making well-thought-out decisions with the right people in the room. She stresses open communication and everyone’s voices being heard, including children who often bring a new perspective, as a priority. As an active member in our community she is part of the no-excuse moms exercise group, multiple PACs, the Tewksbury North St. & Trahan School Reuse Committee, and has 16 years of experience in the financial service industry. She closes by saying she’s motivated, passionate and driven to succeed.

Closing out the evening was Chesbrough, who states she’s dedicated to making positive change and wants people to feel comfortable. She knows “through communication and productive dialogue that a town can be brought close together,” and that people can disagree but still work together. She’s determined to make sure that every person has a voice because everyone should have a chance to speak their opinions and be listened to. She plans to do her research, communicate with others and consider all opinions. She will strive to “demonstrate honesty, fairness and enjoy transparency.”

Editor’s note: The cover photo shows one of Biagioni-Smith’s children as well as a slice of what was a large and engaged audience. Organizers would like to thank residents who showed up, listened respectfully and supported a great field of candidates.

Julie Naughton
Julie Naughton

Julie likes coffee and covers education and all things concerning the Tewksbury Public Schools, along with other topics, for the Carnation. Contact her at: attn Julie N.

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