COVID-19: School Committee Recall Election on Hold as Coronavirus Makes Residents Shelter Inside

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With local elections approaching this spring, eyes are on the two open positions on the School Committee and the six competing contestants, including incumbent Gloria Miller, who is completing her first three-year term in June.

The posts are attracting a surprising number of contestants because of an election recall spearheaded by resident Sue McKay Higgins, who wants all but one committee member to step down. Hundreds of teachers, school employees, and members of the general public attended a Feb. 10 committee meeting to express support for Olsen who is seeking to extend his contract by at least one more year.

Superintendent Bill Olsen. WESTFORDCAT FILE PHOTO

But behind closed doors at some point between August and January, six of seven committee members voted to deny the extension, saying they had concerns about Olsen. The superintendent said he learned of the decision in January, but continues to hope for a positive outcome.

“…my attorney and the School Committee’s attorney are discussing my status and I’m hoping for an extension,” Olsen said.

Committee members Megan Eckroth, Avery Adam, Chris Sanders, Gloria Miller, Alicia Mallon, and MingQuan Zheng, voted against extending the contract. Sean Kelly voted in favor.

Mingquan Zheng. COURTESY PHOTO

“Individual members of the committee have expressed reservations about the strategy around renewing Superintendent Olsen’s contract for some time,” said Sanders. “These strategy concerns have been ongoing and are myriad in nature.”

Among those concerns was an email sent by Olsen to resident Kristi Bates after she and a group of residents successfully squashed a push to rename the Stony Brook School in Olsen’s honor. The superintendent later said the disappointment led him to strike out in the email. Bates said she and Olsen have since resolved their differences. They participated in a joint WestfordCAT interview on Feb. 27.

Megan A. Eckroth is one of three candidates vying for two School Committee seats. COURTESY PHOTO

The other incumbent, Eckroth, withdrew from the race on March 17 after weathering some criticism earlier this year. At one point, Eckroth became so disheartened that she walked out of a meeting, saying “I resign from the School Committee.”

She later opted to complete her three-year term which ends June 30 but not before facing a confrontational Higgins at the School Committee meeting on Feb. 24. Higgins questioned Eckroth as to why she was present on the panel that night, after stating she would be resigning.

According to Town Clerk Patty Dubey, resigning from public office requires a written statement and signature which Eckroth did not submit.

Eckroth issued the following statement to WestfordCAT: “It was a very difficult decision, but I have decided not to run for re-election. Serving on the school committee is an enormous time commitment, and while I have been honored to dedicate my time and serve my community these last three years, it is a commitment I am not able to make for another term.”

Stony Brook School. WESTFORDCAT FILE PHOTO

Miller is running again but faces competition from Jannelle Cioffi, Paul Kravitz, Arthur Benoit, Valery Young, and Terry Ryan. Benoit and Ryan served on the committee in prior years.

Higgins’ dissatisfaction with the current committee members was prompted by their decision not to extend Olsen’s contract.

Sue MacKay Higgins. COURTESY PHOTO

“I’m still baffled,” Higgins said. “We don’t know where the School Comittee is coming from. They want to take things in a different direction. When you’re number one, where are you going to go?” she said, referring to a 2014 NerdWallet.com rating of Westford public schools.

To recall the existing committee members, Higgins was required to get certifiable signatures from 10 percent of the population in each of the town’s six precincts. But then the coronavirus pandemic took over the globe and required residents to shelter in place under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Higgins must now get 10 percent of the voters’ signatures in each of the 6 precincts.

“The petitioner has opted to not pick up the petitions at this time due to the coronavirus concerns.  The 20 day clock would begin when the petitions are picked up,” Dubey said.

Adam, chair of the School Committee, did not return an email message seeking comment. An agenda for the April 13 meeting includes a behind-closed-doors session at 8:20 p.m. The meeting will not reconvene according to the agenda. It will take place virtually beginning at 7 p.m.

Three options available to access the School Committee meeting remotely:

1. Register to watch the meeting through the Zoom website at: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_tHEfPR2WTcmySe8TcC0X_g. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with a link to join the meeting on your device.

2. Westford CAT will be broadcasting the meeting live on channels 9 (Comcast) and 34 (Verizon). They also will be streaming the video online. Please see their website for more details: www.westfordcat.org.

3. You may call in and listen on any phone (landline or cellphone) by dialing 646-558-8656 and using the meeting code 757-240-311.

UPDATE: ON April 11 a typo was corrected, and a quote by Superintendent Bill Olsen was added. On April 13, the phrase “and a group of residents” was added to the sentence: “Among those concerns was an email sent by Olsen to resident Kristi Bates after she and a group of residents successfully squashed a push to rename the Stony Brook School in Olsen’s honor.”