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Schools face opportunity to think strategically, newcomer says

Jennifer SusseSusse

ELECTION'S EARLY LOOK: Those who take out papers in races that may be contested in April respond to basic questions about themselves and Arlington.

The new face in the School Committee race is Jennifer R. Susse.

The 45-year-old East Arlington resident is one of four candidates seeking three three-year seats, as six-year incumbent Leba Heigham did not return papers.

She is not a new face to Thompson and Hardy PTOs, where she has been an active volunteer. She was a founding organizer of the Arlington Community Card, which helps raise money for Arlington schools through purchases at local businesses.

Asked why she seeks election to the School Committee, the six-year town resident wrote:

"This is an interesting time for the School Committee. Thankfully, we have some breathing room from the financial crisis of just a few years ago.

"Because of this breathing room we have the opportunity to think strategically about what we want the Arlington public schools to look like in the future. The fact that the high school needs to be rebuilt offers us another opportunity to think big picture and long term.

"Of course, we need to make sure that whatever we do is fiscally responsible and doesn’t put too much burden on our residential taxpayers."

Asked about her background in school issues, she recalled her parents. "Before they retired," she wrote, "[they] were public school educators in New York City, and educational issues were always part of our dinner-table conversation.

"From my experience teaching at the university level for eight years, I have some insight into how difficult and how rewarding teaching can be."

Because of her two children in the Arlington public schools -- Tessa, in fourth grade at Hardy; and Miles, in seventh grade at Ottoson -- she wrote that has followed issues in the Arlington public schools fairly closely.

How she sees challenges ahead

All candidates for key offices on the town election are asked what they see as the greatest challenges ahead.

For the town's schools, Susse wrote, one of the biggest will continue to be financial.

"Given insufficient state aid, and Arlington’s heavy reliance on our residential tax base, we are unlikely to have the money to do everything we would like to do," she wrote.

Another challenge -- "and we are not alone," she added -- is meeting the needs of a diverse group of learners. Arlington is a high-achieving school district, but it is clear that we need to do better at educating all of our children. The fact that we have not had a permanent special-education director has been really difficult for Arlington. Hopefully, we will receive an announcement soon that the position has been filled.

A further challenge for Arlington she cited is the town's growing enrollment. "On the one hand, this is a good problem to have, as it is evidence of our success," she wrote. "On the other hand, it will continue to strain both our infrastructure and our budgets."

The former teacher offered a final word for those in the classroom.

The School Committee needs to help teachers navigate the recent state initiatives "that have come to them all at once," citing the new teacher-evaluation system, the Common Core curriculum and training programs to help English language learners.

"We need to do this while also making sure that we support their professional development generally," she wrote.

Ways to address

As to ways she would address these challenges, she wrote:

"I won’t sugar-coat this. These challenges are real and persistent. For our financial challenge, we can do a better job at prioritizing, going after grants, lobbying our legislators and harnessing volunteer efforts, but it is likely that we will be working within the current constraints for some time. Arlington’s long-range financial plan ensures fiscal stability until 2018.
"For our special-education students, low-income students and English language learners, we need to make sure that we are fulfilling our moral and legal obligations while creating a nurturing environment for their growth. It is important that the parents in this community feel listened to and respected.

"For teachers, limited time (and money) are always going to be issues, but we must take every opportunity we can to create opportunities for them to grow as educators. One of the best ways to do this is through the types of collaborations and peer observations that are already happening in Arlington."

As to the challenge of a growing enrollment, she cited "some excess capacity at the elementary level (though not much), we can add rooms to the Ottoson by subdividing some of the larger rooms and a new larger high school would help a lot."

She noted that recently the School Committee successfully lobbied for extra money from the town to help with the financial strain that that recent increases in enrollment have had. Town Meeting will vote on this proposal in the spring.
"Thinking big picture and strategically need not take a lot of money. In fact, we need to think strategically if we want to ensure that we are spending money on the right things. Now is the time to do this," she wrote.

"Our schools are doing well, but we can’t afford to be complacent. This period of relative calm, and the chance to rebuild the High School, offers us the opportunity to be visionaries. Let’s take that opportunity together."

In addition to other activities, Susse has been involved in local and statewide political campaigns, is a Precinct 3 Town Meeting member and has helped with plays at the Thompson and the Arlington Children's Theatre.

Also contending for School Committee seats are incumbents William Hayner and Paul Schlichtman as well as Michael Buckley, who ran in 2013.

Campaign website >>

Looking at how some newcomers to the committee have done in recent elections, you can see that Hayner received 3,983 votes in 2011 in a year when Joseph Curro Jr. topped the ticket, with 4,779, and Heigham got 3,523.

In 2008, when she ran for the first time, Heigham received 3,002 votes. Curro got 3,915 and Joseph E. Curran 3,202.

2014 town election: Town | YourArlington

This story was published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014.

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