Shrewsbury candidates answer questions at forums

SHREWSBURY – Candidates for the Shrewsbury Board and Schools Committee met last week to answer questions ahead of next week’s municipal elections.

Organized by the Grafton Shrewsbury League of Women Voters, this event followed a separate forum by A Better Shrewsbury, addressing topics in this year’s election discussion ranging from diversity and civic engagement to how the school district should manage the limited space at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.

Breeders Council

Three candidates – John Samia, Michelle Conlin and Rajesh Uppalapati – are running for two seats on the board.

Samia, who is currently council chair, was elected to the council in 2019. Prior to her election, Samia served three terms on the school committee and was a member of the town assembly for over 12 years.

Conlin described herself as a “community advocate” and volunteer. She has been a member of the Borough Assembly since 2018 and chaired the voting committee campaign advocating for Shrewsbury’s 2.5 over-budget campaign last year. Conlin sits on the Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services Board, was PTO Chairman at Parker Road and Beal and is a member of the Beal School Board.

Uppalapati, meanwhile, is a member of the Beal PTO and school board and is part of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for Central Massachusetts.

The three candidates were interviewed at the League of Women Voters forum on transparency, the benefits to be extended to older people and how to balance the tax burden with the need for services in Shrewsbury.

They were also asked what they could do to reach out to the diverse communities in Shrewsbury to encourage civic participation.

2020 census data indicated that Shrewsbury has become more diverse since 2010. The largest racial subgroup that saw an increase since 2010 was the number of residents who identify as Asian, as this group increased by 61 % to now represent 24.6% of Shrewsbury’s population. .

Samia noted the continued efforts of the city’s strategic plan.

“The most critical aspect of a strategic plan to be successful is the involvement of the community – all voices [need] be heard,” he said.

While the initial part of the plan involves stakeholders and city staff, Samia said the next step is to “actively engage” with every resident, whether in places of worship, recreation centers or sports fields.

“I sincerely believe that when individuals understand that they are part of the future of our community, it will also motivate them to get involved,” said Samia.

He also said the city should continue to work on recommendations made by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force in its final report, which was presented to elected officials in the fall. Samia said this work could be incorporated into the strategic plan.

Speaking on the same topic, Uppalapati suggested creating a buddy program, which would connect young residents who enjoy volunteering with older people in the community.

He also called for transparency efforts, which Uppalapati said it was one of the reasons he ran.

Among his suggestions related to transparency, Uppalapati recommended that town meeting agendas be made available on the Shrewsbury website and on Facebook so residents can see what parts of the meeting might interest them and index the coverage of the meeting.

“I noticed that town meetings usually last three hours,” said Uppalapati. “Nobody has that kind of time. They’re busy with their kids or their job.

Conlin said increasing involvement in the Shrewsbury community was “essential” to foster a sense of pride, belonging and ownership in the community.

“When people feel like it’s their community, that they love it and they love them as much as they love our community, that encourages people to get involved,” Conlin said.

That involvement could be volunteering at schools or public programs, she said.

Conlin suggested that Shrewsbury could increase its intergenerational programming. She noted that the new police station will have a community space. She also noted other places like the Shrewsbury Public Library and the Center for the Elderly.

“I believe that if we invest as a community in these public programs and improve our public spaces, these will foster a sense of pride and belonging within our community that will increase participation across [a] various ages and all people in our community,” Conlin said.

school committee

Lynsey Heffernan, Erin Boucher, Jennifer Luke and Sanam Zaer are running for two school committee seats.

Zaer did not attend the League of Women Voters forum, but she submitted a statement.

She currently works as an elementary and middle school principal at a local private school, is a member of the town assembly and a founding member of A Better Shrewsbury.

Zaer has volunteered on school councils for Beal and Spring Street Schools, also volunteering on committees including the Shrewsbury Public Schools Redistricting Committee and Superintendent Joseph Sawyer’s Coalition for Equity and anti-racism.

Zaer said his top priorities are ensuring the mental and emotional well-being of all students, supporting staff, and stepping up efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the district.

Heffernan currently serves on the school board as secretary. She was elected in 2019 and is currently a member of the committee’s finance subcommittee. Heffernan is a liaison with the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and previously served on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group.

Boucher has been a member of the Town Assembly since 2014, a member of the Beal School building committee and a member of the school council for Shrewsbury High School (SHS). She is a former co-chair of the Spring Street PTO and was also a board member of Oak Middle School. She was also a member of the SHS Mascot Ad Hoc Study Group.

Luke has lived in Shrewsbury for 20 years and has been volunteering in the community since his eldest was three. She was chair of the Shrewsbury Child Development Committee and chair of the Coolidge, Sherwood and Oak PTOs.

Among the questions, candidates were asked how the district should handle the fact that students from Shrewsbury may not be able to attend Assabet next year.

Superintendent Joseph Sawyer reported that eighth graders in Shrewsbury may no longer be able to enroll in Assabet after state policy changed to require vocational technical high schools to give preference to students from their member communities.

Shrewsbury is not a member of the Assabet district, instead compensating the school with the tuition fees of students who attend.

Heffernan noted those tuition fees, calling them “definitely worth it.”

Calls to replicate Assabet’s options at SHS are “untenable”, according to Heffernan.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” she continued.

Heffernan noted the school board’s efforts to contact the Shrewsbury State Legislative Delegation on the matter, adding that in the short term the district should figure out how to bring additional community and business partnerships into Shrewsbury schools.

Luke said his son, who is in grade five, has shown interest in vocational education. She advocated looking at ways to “join” a program to give students like her son that professional opportunity. If that’s not possible in the short term, she suggested partnering with companies or SELCO.

“Professional training – it’s not like it was when we were growing up many years ago,” Luke said. “It’s very necessary in our society today.”

Boucher also suggested partnering with companies and higher education institutions for internships, job shadowing and dual employment programs.

“Finding alternatives to meet the needs of students who would benefit from a vocational training program will remain a top priority,” she said.

Election set for May 3

Shrewsbury’s election is May 3.

Polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voters were urged to verify their polling location through the state’s Voter Information Finder program as the recent redistricting after the 2020 census redrawn precinct maps.

Meanwhile, all voters in Constituency Two will vote at Shrewsbury Senior Center this year, instead of Town Hall as they have done in the past.

The full League of Women Voters forum can be viewed online by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0_4FnS5HPE.

Full candidate statements, submitted to the Community Advocate in recent weeks, are also available from each of the Shrewsbury Municipal candidates in the disputed races.

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