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SOUTHWICK — One of the seats for the Southwick representative on the Regional School Committee is up for grabs during this town’s annual municipal election, as incumbent Robert Stevenson is being challenged by Kim Perron.

Stevenson has been a physical therapist for over three decades and earned a bachelor of science degree in physical therapy from McGill University in Montreal.

He is currently the director of business development with Sybmbria, an Illinois-based company that provides outsourcing for physical therapy and pharmacy services. He was been with Symbria for 19 years.

Originally from Canada, Stevenson moved his family to Southwick in 2009 and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2020. In high school, he coached baseball and earned the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award. He also earned the equivalent of Eagle Scout while a member of the Boy Scouts of Canada. He is married with three children, who all attended district schools in Southwick.

Kim Perron has been working in education for 25 years, starting as a teacher of high school Spanish in Westfield and in Boston. She earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and Spanish, and a master’s degree in Spanish language and literature, both from Simmons College in Boston.

She also earned a master of education degree from Harvard University, and has worked at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute, and is the president and owner of SchoolWorks. She is the wife of Select Board member Jason Perron.

Reminder Publishing asked each candidate five identical questions. Their answers have been edited for length and brevity.

Q: Why are you running for election or re-election?

Stevenson: I am running for reelection to continue the work and accomplishments that I have already completed in my first term as a School Committee member. Those accomplishments including being named chair after only two meetings and being reappointed in my subsequent years on the committee.

While on the committee, finally allowed homeschool children in our district the ability to join our athletic teams.

Worked with the superintendent and administrators to hold the district accountable to follow policies and to ensure that when changes occur that affect parents and students that communication is sent out prior to the change going into effect.

I provide a point of contact that actually reaches back out to parents to discuss their concerns and proposed and included a second School Resource Officer in this year’s budget to improve the safety of our children.

Perron: I have a longstanding value that all kids, families and communities deserve access to high quality educational options that advance students’ diverse needs, achievement, and well-being.

While the district is meeting some of the kids’ learning needs, data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reveals that many of its students (especially high needs students) are not making the academic progress that they should be.

I strongly believe that our kids, families, and the taxpayers deserve better outcomes, as well as a better experience working with the district. My vast experience in public education has resulted in a deep understanding of the mutual goals, individual challenges and collective opportunities embedded within the work of educators, students and their families, and the community. I am excited to lend my passion and expertise in doing that work to our town and to the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District. 

Q: What prior experience has prepared you to serve on the School Committee?

Stevenson: I have worked in the health care field as a physical therapist for over 30 years. I have treated patients from infants to a 103-year-old, managed departments from three to 40 staff members and managed entire divisions of a company where I had over 200 employees reporting to me and was responsible for a budget that was over $20 million annually. I am a problem solver and I believe that there is always a solution to a challenge.

I do not have an educational background. I do not believe it is required to be an effective School Committee member, and in some respects, it may actually be a detriment in this role. Too many times someone of the same mindset does not see solutions that may be right in front of them. We need to be a check and balance for the district, and if they can’t explain what and why they are doing something that is unacceptable.

As a treating therapist and a manager of departments and regions, I have gained the experience to work closely with a team and be a leader to propose and find a solution that works for the challenge that we are facing.

Having the budget and fiscal knowledge and understanding throughout my career has been able to provide me the ability to not only learn the many different and unique aspects of the regional school committee budget but allowed me to be able to identify opportunities.

My many years of volunteering in the community has allowed me the opportunity to meet many members of our town and this role allows me a way to continue serving the community in a positive manner. As the chair of the school committee, I have made a point to reach out to any community member that calls or sends me an email to discuss their concerns.

Perron: I am the president and owner of SchoolWorks LLC, a national educational consulting company founded in 1998 with a background in school and district improvement, accountability, quality, and school redesign, as well as a focus on instructional and leadership supports.

Our mission is to build the capacity of educators to advance all aspects of student achievement and well-being. My team and I work with states, districts, schools, foundations and other education reform-minded organizations around the country.  Under my leadership, SchoolWorks has become a priority partner for schools and districts in several states, including Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois and Georgia, among others.

I offer a national perspective on effective practices (as supported by research), coupled with local knowledge of our town, community, and students. I have 10 years of experience as a public school board member in Boston (one as a faculty representative to the board, and three consecutive three-year terms as an appointed board member).

Finally, as president and owner of SchoolWorks, it is my ultimate responsibility to ensure that our company not only meets our mission, but that we remain a financially viable organization. Since assuming ownership of SchoolWorks, I have nearly doubled the company’s revenue. I am a resourceful and skilled leader of people and organizations and a savvy financial manager.

Q: Are there any programs or curriculums that you would like changed or added in the regional school district?

Stevenson: There are a few areas in which I think we can continue to improve the educational outcomes and financial impact to the budget for the district.

I would like us to continue to explore creative ways to bring more of our special education out-of-district children back into our schools. We are expecting to be able to bring back several children into the district in the next fiscal year by replicating a program that is being provided at the Lower Pioneer Valley Career Technical Education Center.

Considering the recent racial issues at school and other challenges that we have experienced with some of the instructional material that is used to supplement the curriculum, I would like to see an enhancement of the oversight of these items. I would like to have a Quality Assurance program created that has routine reviews established of this material to ensure that the material is inclusive and appropriate.

I would like to continue to explore opportunities to enhance our Dual Language Education programs in the district.

Perron: I do not harbor any particular agenda with regard to programmatic or curricular changes and am largely agnostic in terms of the choice of curricular programs — so long as they are meeting the recommendations set forth by DESE, align with DESE’s educational vision, and meet the needs of all students. However, the extent to which that is true, or that the curriculum is implemented with fidelity, is questionable, as evidenced by mediocre student outcomes and declining enrollment patterns.

To that end, I would recommend that the district engage in a curriculum audit process to ensure that the written curriculum (and the curriculum as it is implemented by teachers in the classrooms) is designed to prepare students to demonstrate mastery of essential skills and knowledge outlined by the state’s curriculum frameworks, is equitable for all students, and that the district and its teachers have selected and are appropriately using High Quality Instructional Materials for students at each grade level that allow students to engage in deeper learning — among other priorities.

Q: Are Southwick taxpayers getting their money’s worth for the education provided by the district? What cuts or increases would you suggest?

Stevenson: Yes, I believe they are. This topic is one of the most challenging areas to try and have people understand. I certainly had to do a lot of work to dig in and understand the amount of our budget that is mandated by the state and then the amount that is requested by the School Committee above and beyond that, to the towns, to run the district.

Do I believe there are other opportunities to reduce spending by reviewing procedures and getting into the weeds with expenses, I certainly do. A regional school district budget is very complicated, but I have worked very hard to understand the inner workings of this to where now I am able to understand and even explain them to community members that have questions. I take the fiduciary responsibility that I have as the town’s representative very seriously.

With the continuation of the free school breakfast and lunch program, we will be looking to be able to review our expenses to ensure that they are allocated accordingly. Any expense that the food service department is responsible for needs to be allocated to them. This would move that expense out of the general school budget and would reduce the taxpayers’ cost.

Perron: I believe the district has yet to maximize the taxpayers’ investment. A closer look at the district’s Accountability Report on the DESE website reveals that STGRSD is only meeting 45% of its Accountability Target, which reflects moderate progress toward its goals. Practically speaking, we see that in most assessed grade levels, only 29-58% of students are meeting or exceeding expectations in English language arts, and 39-49% of students are meeting or exceeding expectations in mathematics.

This means that between 42% and 71% of students are not meeting expectations in English language arts, and 51-61% of students are not meeting expectations in mathematics. That’s a lot of students who are below grade level expectations in these two critical subject areas, and if your son, daughter, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor is included in the large majority of students not making adequate progress, I would argue you are not getting your money’s worth.

While every organization, local school districts included, will have areas for growth and room for continuous improvement, I believe that the current administration and school district have not created sufficient transparency or accountability for themselves around these results, or put an effective plan of action in place to address them. The district’s recently approved strategic plan lacks clearly articulated and measurable goals to determine progress, and the “Goals” page on the district website is blank; the Superintendent’s Goals for 2023-24 also are not measurable, but instead detail a list of key actions and inputs (benchmarks). In summary, STGRSD has not provided transparency or accountability for student results and lacks a results-oriented focus for student learning and well-being.

Q: Do you believe the racist incidents were handled correctly by the school district?

Stevenson: After reviewing our policies and the actions that were taken by the district, I do believe that it was handled properly following our policies.

The district followed its policies and was as transparent as it could be under the circumstances. This situation was taken very seriously and was not ignored, nor was any attempt made to hide this from our community. Of the other four racial events that the family has indicated happened prior to the one in February, the two that were reported were also addressed immediately and taken seriously. The superintendent is in a very difficult position where, due to strict privacy laws protecting the students of the district, she cannot openly discuss any specific actions that were or were not taken. When inaccurate claims and statements are made by other parties, the district is not in a position to refute them, as this would violate those privacy laws.

As a School Committee member, I am committed to take the advice and feedback that we have been provided by the families and our community to “do better.” As the chair of the committee, I proposed, and was approved by our committee, to put together an advisory committee that will be made up of parents, teachers, students and community members, so that as a community we can discuss these issues that will report back and make recommendations to the School Committee.

The superintendent also has a number of actions that she has committed the district to. We have partnered with Emery College for a 360-degree review.

As I have said above, I am committed to doing everything that I can to help move the community towards a place where all our children can feel safe in the district, and everyone is respected.

Perron: I believe that the district followed its stated policies in addressing the recent incidents. However, the problem is that the policies alone are insufficient, and understandably left the affected parties and the larger community feeling unseen, unheard and unaddressed. Following policies does not equate to effective leadership. True leadership requires leaning in to shared values, demonstrating empathy, holding space for voices, experiences, and perspectives that differ from those of our own, and devising and taking action together as a community. Instead, what we experienced was leadership at both the district and School Committee level that has continuously adopted a defensive stance regarding their actions, made statements that leave doubt as to whether they truly embrace the values of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and left opportunity for true change by the wayside.

Specifically, the district could have leaned into this unfortunate experience to harness the energy and commitment of the community to rectify the past and present trauma and harm experienced by students and families, engage them around elevating the reference to DEIB initiatives within the Strategic Plan, and used that as a basis for creating a fully developed DEIB plan that includes measurable goals and objectives, clear strategies, and specific timelines in order to demonstrate commitment and urgency in addressing a long-standing issue within the schools.

I am aware that an external assessment is underway, however, and it is my expectation that an outcome of this work would be a fully developed plan to ensure that, moving forward, STGRSD becomes a more diverse, inclusive and equitable organization where everyone feels they belong.

cclark@thereminder.com | + posts