Framingham District 6 School Committee Candidate Geoffrey Epstein

District 6 School Committee candidate Geoffrey Epstein

District 6 is Precincts 10 and 11.

Editor’s Note: If an answer is blank, the candidate chose not to answer the question.

Age: 70

Occupation: Engineer

Years lived in Framingham3

Family: Married, 3 sons

Volunteerism: Framingham School Committee Communications & PR Task Force

Website or Facebook page link:  www.geoffepstein.net

https://www.facebook.com/geoffepsteinforSC/

 

Editor’s Note: Candidates were asked to provide one-word answers only. If there is no answer the candidate did not submit a response.
  • Framingham Public Schools are underperforming.
  • What was your favorite subject in school? Mathematics
  • Should Framingham Public Schools Provide free universal preschool? Yes
  • Wi-Fi access at the middle school and Framingham High is indispensable.
  • At this time, what letter grade would you give Superintendent of Schools Bob Tremblay? A+
  • Should the $100 athletic fee be eliminated? Yes
  • Favorite children’s book: Orlando the Marmalade Cat
  • What was the last Framingham Public School event you attended: School Committee meeting
  • What is your favorite place in Framingham? (just one): Callahan State Park

Editor’s Note: As there have been no forums for School Committee candidates, thus far, Source decided to ask far more questions of these candidates than of the mayor and city council candidates so voters could understand where they stand on issues. Candidates were given up to 350 words to answer each question. If the candidates went over 400 words, they were cut at the closest sentence to 400. Answers to the questions are copied and pasted below.

QUESTION #1 – Why should voters in District 6 elect you to the new Framingham School Committee?

 

I am seeking election because we have real challenges ahead, and I believe that I can bring the right mix of experience, judgment and new ideas to the School Committee, to ensure that our school system is constantly improving and delivering the best possible education for our kids.

I served for 6 years on the Newton School Committee, and that experience, in a city environment, is well matched to many of the tasks ahead:

 

  1. Budget building with a Mayor and council
  2. Working productively with a new superintendent
  3. Replacing/upgrading aging school buildings
  4. Collective bargaining with the Mayor on the team

 

We also need fresh approaches to improve our schools.

We already can see encouraging signs of progress from the new superintendent. He has noted the educational improvements effected at Stapleton and it seems very sound to support his idea to expand those better practices to the other elementary schools. Further, with as many Portuguese speakers as Spanish speakers in FPS, the notion that we could expand on the successes at Barbieri, by transitioning one of our Level 3 elementary schools to become a Portuguese immersion school, seems very appealing and is also on the superintendent’s radar.

One thing I also learned from my prior School Committee service was that early investment in  K-2  is a crucial factor in improving student outcomes and lowering downstream remediation costs.

We have a very capable superintendent in place now and we need to work with him and his staff to complete his strategic plan after the November elections and build a productive, durable relationship with him, as we shift the focus of the School Committee back to student achievement.

We need to substantially improve communications at all levels and would do well to actually implement the recommendations of the 2015 task force on communications. See Q3 for more details.

Further, we must provide the right digital infrastructure to support a modern education.

I could go on. My key message is that, in all of our endeavors, we should be focused on doing everything we can to improve student achievement.

 

QUESTION #2 – In your opinion what is the biggest issue facing the Framingham Public Schools? How will you work to fix it?

The biggest issue is underperforming schools. I will work with the School Committee and the superintendent and his staff to address this critical problem.

Ideas worth promoting are:

 

(a)  Exploration of an elementary Portuguese immersion school.

(b)  Expanding the educational successes at Stapleton to the other elementary schools.

(c)   Placing more focus on the K-2 years to achieve better student outcomes from the start.

(d)  Strengthening mathematics, as this is a weak area, with low proficiency in multiple elementary schools and with 1 in 6 high school students not proficient in mathematics.

(e)  Enriching and increasing access to after school programs.

(f)    Greatly improving communication with families on academic matters so they know what their kids are doing in class, what homework they have, what projects are due and how they are doing in tests so they can be more of a real asset in the academic progress of their children.

 

All these should be folded into the superintendent’s strategic plan to improve all of the schools across FPS, especially the Level 3 schools. There is a real path for us to move the school system from Level 3 to Level 2 in the next few years, making real progress on closing the achievement gaps.

 

 

QUESTIOn #3 – The district has been criticized for not communicating to staff, parents, and students. You served on the School Committee’s Communications and PR Task Force? What recommendations that task force recommended has been implemented? What recommendation has not been implemented that you would push for in your first year?

This is pretty interesting, as the report was duly presented to the School Committee in May 2015, posted on the FPS website, but since has entirely disappeared from view. It is nowhere to be found, which is a somewhat ironic testament to the underlying communication problems the report sought to address. I have searched diligently and note that even the link to the report on the FPS website, originally published in a local news source, is broken.

That said, it appears that for the most part the report has been mothballed. There were some improvements made to the FPS website but those fall far short of what is really needed.

One can quite fairly say that none of the recommendations have been implemented to any significant degree. They are summarized here for the readers’ convenience:

 

  1. Improve the quality of the communications (letters, memos, press releases, verbal decisions etc.) from the Superintendent’s office and other sources within FPS.
  2. Overhaul the district website, as it is a critical information hub and communications center.
  3. Support genuine two-way communications.
  4. Ensure that communications relating to academic matters are given a high priority.

 

All these recommendations are important and all should be implemented. That will be one of my priorities, if elected.

 

 

QUESTION #4 –  Should Framingham Public Schools return to neighborhoods schools? Why or why not?

 

School choice is a central feature of the school system, so any shift to another model, such as neighborhood schools needs to be very carefully considered. There are many factors.  I have a great deal of experience with neighborhood schools and for them to work, they must be fairly evenly distributed across the municipality. The schools have to be where the students live. That is not the case for Framingham where a majority of schools are on the north side, but a majority of students live on the south side. That is a very big logistical disparity, which would take a great deal of planning, building and investment to remedy.  It seems feasible, however, to pursue a long term plan to remedy this imbalance by increasing school building capacity on the south side. If we expand capacity where the students are, while we improve the quality of the education delivered by all our schools, we should see a natural  progression towards more students going to schools in their neighborhood and less bussing to more distant schools.

 

 

QUESTION #5 – One of the major roles of the School Committee is to set policy. If elected to be the School Committee member from District 6, what policy change would you recommend? Why?

 

First of all, the School Committee has 315 policies which may be found at:

http://z2policy.ctspublish.com/masc/Z2Browser2.html?showset=framinghamset

An immediate overhaul is needed to make the policies consistent with the new city charter. For example, vacancies on the School Committee are handled in the charter and should not be in the set of policies.

Further policy changes which make sense to me would include:

 

  1. Require that all School Committee open meeting materials be posted along with the minutes and agenda. These are public records and should be easily accessible to the public. Currently, there are many documents covering fiscal updates on the budget which are not posted.
  2. Allow for 15 minutes of public comment at the end of open session School Committee meetings, to invite public comment on what has transpired. This enhances communications with the community.
  3. Each School Committee should have an individual FPS email address, so that they can be contacted directly by the community, especially from those residents in their District.
  4. The Finance Standing Committee should meet at least monthly to review the budget financial reports. For some reason, this committee ceased meeting regularly after the April elections. No meetings were convened between April 14 and August 30, which was exactly the period when a surprising $3 million budget surplus developed.

 

There are no doubt other improvements which could be made in the policy area, as we transition to a city with a largely new School Committee. Fresh thinking should bring better practices.

Additionally, if we are to have policies, which make any sense and have any impact, they should be adhered to. One of the policies in the set of 315, namely BCA (School Committee Member Ethics), which can be viewed at the link above, contains the following:

“A School Committee member in his/her relations with fellow committee members should uphold the intent of executive sessions and respect the privileged communication that exists in executive sessions.”

This policy is not being respected in the current political cycle.

 

QUESTIOn #6 – Framingham has four level 3 schools. Even some of its level 2 school have significant achievement gaps. What can you do as a School Committee member to close the achievement gap?

 

See the answer to Question 2.

 

 

QUESTION #7 – Do you support a level funded, level service, or an increase in the Framingham Public Schools budget for the 2018-19 school year? Why?

 

The FPS budget is dominated by salaries tied to collective bargaining agreements which provide for specified salary increases. Those agreements are up for renewal in 2018, but it is a very safe bet that the FPS budget will increase for 2018-2019, as it has these built-in drivers.

One question is how big the increase will be and is that consistent with an overall fiscal picture for the city which is sustainable?

But the more important question is will the budget, with its increase, serve to support the plan to improve the schools?

The notion that we figure the possible increase in the FPS budget at the start and then fit budget planning into that, puts the cart before the horse.

The sound way to proceed is to determine what budget properly serves the strategic plan for FPS currently being developed by the superintendent and his staff.

We all know that the budget is constrained by projected city revenue, but the FPS plan and its key objectives must come first. Then the execution of the plan is managed to make sure that the most important planned objectives are met first with the budget constraints we have.

It may be that key investments need to be made in 2018-2019 to achieve better outcomes and sustainable savings downstream. That is not clear at this stage.

The further fact is that we have a superintendent who is a good planner and has a great deal of ability to make the right educational investments. When I met with him, he recounted how the town folks in Weston were taken aback when he proposed a budget with just a 1½% increase. They expected more, but he had planned the budget to address the school system needs he saw, not the default expectations of the town planners.

So, I have high confidence that we will arrive at the right budget, with the right increase, which will ensure that we are on track to improve the schools but  will also ensure that we have a long term sound fiscal picture for the entire city which is sustainable.

 

QUESTIOn #8 –  If you could spend $100,000 in the Framingham Public Schools, where would the money go? why?

 I would use half that money to reduce fees where possible, as fees discourage participation, and I would use the other half to make a series of investments in areas which improve student achievement. The simplest approach would be to get input across the board on what would be best. We could potentially support a Math day in the elementary schools, or bring in Mass Poetry to inject poetry into the middle schools and high schools. There are too many possibilities to enumerate here and I am sure that we could run a survey across the school system to all the staff and all the students and all the families to find out a ton of great ideas. The survey would also be part of the plan to improve two way communications across the school system for betterment of our students.

 

QUESTIOn #9 –  Framingham is dealing with a significant increase in student enrollment over the last decade. As soon as November 2018, voters may be asked to spend between $30 and $50 million for a new Fuller Middle School. How will you enlist support for bond issues or public school spending from conservative voters or taxpayers with no children in the public schools?

The Massachusetts School Building Authority will require a debt exclusion to prove community buy-in before it will commit the $20-30 million of state matching funds to the Fuller project. That is a compelling factor for most voters. Further, the debt exclusion guarantees that the money voted can only be spent on the Fuller project and cannot be siphoned off onto something else. Further when the Fuller bonds are paid off, the tax increase goes away. Debt exclusions are temporary tax increases to pay for specific projects.

If the debt exclusion fails we would lose the state money, and have to pay for the project fully. The full cost of the project would then come out of the annual budget and would not require voter approval. The key to getting a YES on the debt exclusion is to keep the community fully informed at all stages of the project, including getting voter input if there are different options for the project. That means that the Mayor, Superintendent, Council, School Committee and supporting staff put together a full briefing for residents and take it on the road through the whole city so that after many presentations, everyone has gotten an opportunity to ask all the questions they want, adjustments have been made based on that input, and everyone is fully informed.

The further comment to make is that the more we improve the schools, and that includes their building infrastructure, the greater will be the increase in property values. For the average Framingham homeowner, an annual 1% increase in property values means an added annual return of $3500 on their home investment.  That is far greater than a debt exclusion tax increase. For all homeowners in Framingham, including conservative voters and tax payers with no children in the schools, their best investment target by far is the school system.

As a homeowner myself, I know that investing soundly in the school system not only increases the quality of the education we deliver to our kids, but it means that I get a much better return on the investment in my house.

 

 

QUESTIOn #10 –  One of the complaints about the district is that there is inequity among the three middle schools. There is a reason that more than 50% of the students at the McAuliffe Charter School hail from Framingham. Superintendent Tremblay said he noticed the differences first hand during his residence program. How as a School Committee member can you make sure all students received an equal education in grades 6-7-8? 

I would ask the superintendent to investigate the problem, get the facts, develop a solution, run it past the School Committee (SC) for approval and suggestions, then implement the solution. Then the SC would track the implementation to check that it is producing the desired outcome and advise the superintendent to fix any places where it needs fixing. Regular written reports with real measures of progress should be brought to the SC at its monthly meetings for review, comment and adjustment. This would continue until the problem is solved. Plus, as part of this process we should check out the charter school and see what we can learn from them to improve our educational process.

 

QUESTION #11 – School bus rides are too long. I would fix it by asking the superintendent to have the transportation department do a review, get family input, suggest various options for improvement, then implement the improvements and track whether they work and if not, do another round etc. until the problem is fixed.

 

QUESTION #12 – You will represent a specific part of the city. How will you balance the needs of your constituents with the needs of the overall school district? Be specific in your answer.

 

I am elected from District 6 but my responsibility is to all of the children in the town. They are my real constituents. Naturally, there are different schools in each district, so I have a special interest in Barbieri, but all of the SC members are a team and each child deserves an equal opportunity and each school deserves equal resourcing to make sure that we don’t have educational disparities in the town.  We are in this together and we should be very aware of that. I also think that each school committee member can act as the first point of contact for their District and should have an FPS issued email address so they can be easily contacted in this modern age.

 

QUESTION #13 – You served on the Newton School Committee. Explain something you accomplished. What issue did you not solve while on the Committee and why?

 

Here are some of the things I accomplished, as there were a number and they are all important:

 

(a)  Co-initiated the FIRST Robotics team creation and successful launch, producing a collaboration between the two high schools which was very positive. This team has been in operation since 2008 and done well in national competition, affording many kids, boys and girls, a first rate experience in a premier, nationally recognized STEM competition.

(b)  Improved math focus, including making sure kids are not easily tracked out of calculus in the middle schools. The Calculus Project was started to make sure low income kids were kept as much as possible on a calculus track, and the net result was to double the number of those kids taking calculus.

(c)   Made sure the SC did not make decisions out of the public view, violating the open meeting law. On a number of occasions, I had to prevent OML violations, once notably with the assistance of the Mayor.

(d)  Successfully argued the case in the local media for debt exclusions for two elementary school projects.

(e)  At every step was the lead proponent of properly funding educational technology needed by the teachers and kids, including making sure that class rooms had smart boards, laptops etc. as needed and that the wireless network had enough bandwidth to support heavy use in classroom instruction.

 

I was unsuccessful in fixing the problem where of the 1200 low income kids in Newton Public Schools, 40% of them were classified into special education, compared to 20% for the general population. About 240 low income kids were told they had special needs, when what they really had was a need for better general academic support. There never was enough support for fixing this, the problem being that a majority of the SC was never comfortable having a discussion on the subject, and blocked having the debate.

 

QUESTION #14 –  Name three things you have specifically done to improve education in Framingham.

 

(a)  Served on the School Committee Communication and Public Relations Task Force, which produced great recommendations to improve educational and other communications.

(b)  Raised the issue of very poor financial reporting in to the SC which has resulted in crises in the management of the budget and very problematic underspending of the allocated budget when we have real needs in the system which were not met. This is a big problem which needs to be fixed ASAP.

(c)   Raised the issue of a Portuguese immersion school as a solution along the lines of Barbieri which could provide us the fastest path to bring the school system up from Level 3 to Level 2.

 

QUESTION #15 – There is criteria to measure a Superintendent. Criteria to evaluate a teacher. How should you as a School Committee member be evaluated? What three things should voters hold you accountable for? Why?

 

  1. Making sure the Superintendent is successful, because everything flows from that.
  2. Making sure the transition for the SC to a city form of government is successful, as that draws heavily on my city experience, and we don’t want a rocky transition which erodes community confidence and undercuts progress in the educational system.
  3. Making progress on student achievement as that is the only thing which really matters. If the schools are not measurable better in two years, the community should vote me out of office.

 

 

 

Framingham Source Editor Susan Petroni

Susan Petroni Framingham Source Editor Email: editor@FraminghamSource.com Phone: 508-315-7176

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