NORTHAMPTON — Three current School Committee members are running against one another in a competitive race for two at-large seats on the body.
The race pits current at-large School Committee members Aline Davis and Gwen Agna against Meg Robbins, who currently represents Ward 1 but was redistricted out of that ward.
The election comes at a critical juncture for the city’s schools. Earlier this year, the School Committee passed a budget that used $1.2 million in emergency funding from the city to avoid the deepest of budget cuts. A deficit gap of $649,000 still existed, however, and the district is removing jobs via attrition, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
The district is also under new leadership after the departure of longtime former superintendent John Provost and a handful of other top administrators at the district, middle and high school levels. In March, the School Committee named Portia Bonner as the new superintendent, and it is the School Committee’s job to support and supervise superintendents.
Agna, a longtime educator in the district including as Jackson Street Elementary School principal, has raised the most money in the race. She has pulled in $6,446 — the second-most of any candidate running for office in Northampton this cycle. She spent $3,525 of that money mostly on advertising and campaign materials.
Established politicians past and present have also lined up to support her. State Sen. Jo Comerford and longtime former City Councilor Bill Dwight, for example, gave remarks at her campaign launch party. And former Ward 2 councilor Dennis Bidwell held a fundraiser for her and other candidates including Davis, at-large City Council candidates Marissa Elkins and Garrick Perry, and other hopefuls, according to a flier for the event.
Davis is a second-grade teacher in Longmeadow’s public schools who was a union organizer before she became an educator. Robbins is a longtime former teacher in western Mass who also worked as a school-change coach who helped schools better support their teachers, administrators and communities.
Davis and Robbins have both raised similar amounts of campaign cash — $2,445 and $2,410, respectively. Davis has drawn campaign support from some of the same sources as Agna, including Dwight, former mayor David Narkewicz and former Ward 2 School Committee member Laura Fallon. Robbins has received a $500 donation from former at-large School Committee member Susan Voss and was introduced at a meet-the-candidate event by Barbara Madeloni, the former president of the state’s teachers union.
The following are short profiles of the three candidates in the order that they appear on the ballot:
Aline Davis has worked for 25 years as a teacher locally after getting her teaching degree from Smith College. A second-grade teacher in Longmeadow, she was elected to the School Committee in 2021. She said she is running again because she cares about public schools and making sure the city’s kids have a strong education.
“It’s a big part of what makes the community strong,” she said. “Well educated people can advocate for themselves and make a stronger community.”
Davis previously worked as a union organizer and health educator with several labor unions and served in the Peace Corps in Honduras. Her three grown children all went through the city’s public schools. She said that as a former school parent who still teaches in a public school, she is uniquely qualified for the position. She said she cares about crafting the district’s budget and being a voice of support for industrial-arts education in the district.
“There’s all kinds of learners in school and I want to make sure they have things that excite them when they come to school as well,” she said.
Davis said that if elected, she wants to continue focusing on anti-racism work in the district and making sure the city’s schools are responding to climate change, a priority she said she shares with fellow School Committee member, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra. She described herself as a “glass-half-full” person and said she hopes to bring that to the School Committee’s meetings.
“It’s very important to think about ‘what can we do?’ instead of ‘what can’t we do?’ and fussing with one another,” she said. “Being collaborative is critical and it doesn’t mean that we’re not disagreeing. But I want to be part of a much more effective, collaborative School Committee. And that hasn’t always been the case and I think that’s a strong suit of mine.”
Gwen Agna is a longtime educator in the city, having worked coordinating early-childhood programs, putting on anti-bias training and monitoring racial imbalances in the schools before becoming principal at Jackson Street Elementary School in 1996. She retired in 2020 and was elected the following year to the School Committee.
Agna said the city’s schools are close to her heart and that the School Committee plays an essential role ensuring the quality of the district. She said that diversifying the schools’ staff is a priority if re-elected.
“I know that our school population of children are not all white, so it’s really important that we have people who look like our children and can serve as role models,” she said.
Oversight of the budget and superintendent are also important facets of the job, and Agna said her past as a school leader gives her important experience with those issues. The recent departures of many district leaders and staff turnover are also issues of concern for her. She said that she felt like she was supportive of teachers when she was a principal.
“I hope I can still be seen that way,” she said.
Agna said that as a child of the 1960’s, she did rebel against institutions in her younger years. But she said she’s a big believer now in the importance of institutions, and has dedicated much of her life to Northampton’s schools.
“I have seen it’s possible to make significant change while working within a system,” she said. “Politically I am on the left, but I also believe that having spent as much time as I have in Northampton, I believe in making sure all stakeholders have a voice.”
Agna said her core belief is in children and that public schools are “an essential part of our democracy.” She said that she has experience “bringing voices to the table that are typically not heard in Northampton,” and wants to help get the School Committee out into the community to do the same.
A longtime former teacher at several different western Mass school districts, Meg Robbins worked for some two decades working as a school-change coach. She has four grandchildren in the school district, and said she wants to continue to work hard on budget oversight.
“My familiarity with it will pay off in the next round of figuring out what to do,” she said.
Robbins said she wants to focus not just on increasing diversity in the district but also retaining staff, faculty and administrators of color who currently work in the schools. She said her work on the School Committee’s Ad Hoc Exit Interview Subcommittee gives her experience on that issue.
Robbins currently chairs the Curriculum Committee, which had previously been disbanded. That work, she said, has brought teachers, administrators and School Committee members together to talk.
“I think it’s a real asset to our community,” she said.
Robbins also said she wants to be involved in discussions about greening the city’s schools and how to respond to climate change.
Robbins said her past work on school change gives her an important, big-picture view on the budget. And she said that she wants to be sure that the budget supports classroom educators and that their voices are heard in decision-making.
“I’m really aware of some of the change movements that have gone on in the country and have a different perspective about what options might be in front of us,” she said.
Robbins said that her opponents have drawn political support from some of the same people. She contrasted herself as “a very independent voice” and said that it is vital for the School Committee to have different perspectives.
“I’m not part of any slate, I’m an independent candidate with an independent voice,” she said.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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