Candidates Make Final Pitch To Voters At Harmony Hall (Video)
Apr 30, 2017 03:38AM
● By Bill Gilman
Matthew Sheehan, who is vying for his fourth term on the School Committee, and challenger Sabrina Heisey, sparred over a variety of topics,
Dracut Candidates Night [4 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
The event, sponsored by the Lowell Sun, was moderated by the newspaper's Enterprise Editor, Christopher Scott. Dracut voters will head to the polls on May 1.
Matthew Sheehan, who is vying for his fourth term on the School Committee, and challenger Sabrina Heisey, sparred over a variety of topics, from school department spending procedures and contract negotiations to performance evaluations for Superintendent Steven Stone and override votes. Along the way, they traded accusations and barbs.
By contrast, incumbent Selectman Alison Hughes and challenger and John Joyce engaged in what was more of a friendly chat about local issues rather than a debate. The candidates found little of note to disagree on and Joyce went so far as to say he couldn't think of anything the town wasn't doing well for its residents.
Selectmen Tami Dristilaris, the third candidate in the race for two seats, could not attend the debate due to a previous commitment.
A recurring theme of the evening for Heisey was the relationship between Sheehan and Stone. The challenger alleged that because of a longstanding friendship between the men, pre-dating Stone's hiring as superintendent, Sheehan "rubber stamps" all of Stone's policy and spending recommendations.
Sheehan countered he doesn't vote in lock step with Stone's recommendations but that the members of the School Committee trust Stone's professional judgement.
"Our superintendent does his due diligence to get the most bang for our buck," he said. "We don't negotiate (with vendors)."
"No, (school committee members) don't negotiate but you do sign off on it," said Heisey.
Sheehan defended giving Stone "exemplary" ratings on his job performance review and for supporting a recent merit pay raise for the superintendent.
"In order to maintain excellent help, you have to pay for excellent help," Sheehan said.
"Nobody, no matter how great you are, gets exemplary job (reviews) every year," countered Heisey.
The candidates also clashed on Common Core and standardized testing such as PARCC, which Heisey said was a useful tool in evaluating student progress and in providing national standards. Sheehan said he was opposed to standardized testing as a graduation requirement and said Common Core was "just bad."
Heisey hammered Sheehan on his opposition to a $2.9 million Proposition 2 1/2 override for the schools, though she admitted she had also voted against that particular override.
"I spoke with parents who were disheartened that my opponent not only opposed extra funding for the schools but actively campaigned against it," she said.
Sheehan denied allegations that he held anti-override signs on Election Day or that he celebrated when the override was defeated. But he didn't deny opposing the override itself.
"2.9 million was an irresponsible number. I'm not going to support something that's irresponsible," he said.
Another area of disagreement was charter schools. Sheehan said they just provide healthy competition to the Dracut School Distract. However, Heisey said charter schools drain funds from the district, making it more difficult to compete.
The second portion of the Candidates Night was far more cordial, as Hughes and Joyce shared their spending priorities, the performance of Town Manager Jim Duggan and the scandals that have recently plagued the Dracut Police Department.
The candidates were in agreement that an investment in hiring additional full-time police officers would greatly decrease the amount being spent on overtime. They also shared optimism that newly appointed Police Chief Peter Bartlett would be able to steer the department in a positive direction.
"No one wants a tainted police department. Not in this town, not in any town," said Joyce.
In discussing the future of the community, Hughes said the reality was that Dracut was no longer a farming town but rather a gateway community to Lowell. She said she supported the use of Community Preservation Funds to preserve open space but pointed out that with 93 percent residential development in town, additional commercial growth was needed.
"You need $50 million in commercial growth to move the needle one percentage point," she said. "There has to be a happy medium between development and open space."
Joyce said he was in agreement but said he would support additional commercial and residential development as a way to generate more tax dollars.
"I think we can build up Dracut just a little bit more," he said.
Both Joyce and Hughes said they are very pleased with the job done by Duggan, noting his work in overseeing the investigation into the operations of the Police Department his work in attracting major commercial development projects. Hughes said Duggan's starting salary of $140,000 (due to no previous experience as a town manager) was a bargain and that he deserved a merit pay increase.
Dracut voters will go to the polls on Monday, May 1.
Dracut Candidates Night closing statements by selectmen candidates
Dracut Candidates Night closing statements by school committee candidates