Bono once said “the worst disease in the world today is corruption”. And the cure: Transparency. These words echo the current school crisis going on in Leominster, Massachusetts. It is now time to share the true culture of cronyism, conflicts, and the power of special interest. We’d like to share the story of how a group of parents, who at the time were just a blip on the radar, quickly became a unified storm that will not stop until change is made.
On July 30th 2020 the Leominster School Committee voted 5-4 to go remote amid Covid-19 concerns. Peter Haigis, Ronald Houle, Isabel Alera, Brandon Robbins and Michael Stassen made up the majority. School Committee Chair Eileen Griffin, Mayor Dean Mazzarella, Melissa Bible and Suzanne Koehler made up the minority. This vote shocked our community and outraged parents, the decision simply did not make sense. The science did not support what they were saying. Many of us new to Leominster politics found ourselves asking what is going on?
Weeks before the vote parents were surveyed about their thoughts of what back to school would be like. An overwhelming 80% of parents chose to have some kind of in-person learning. At the same time, 70% of Leominster’s teachers wanted to return. The vote went down to everyone’s disbelief; thus, a movement was born.
The working parents of this city had found themselves in panic. Who will care for our children? Will we have to quit our jobs to homeschool our kids? Soon a group was formed seeking to find the 80% of parents and 70% of teachers who disagreed with the Leominster School Committee.
We soon became one voice with individual needs but united by a need to maintain some normality for our children. We had formed a relationship with our State Representative, Natalie Higgins. We asked Natalie to join our Leominster Working Parents Facebook group on July 31st.
As parents, we were backed into a corner by the Leominster School Committee with an agenda of radical change, 100% remote schooling for 6000 students, but without radical solutions, without a comprehensive plan to transform our schools into effective, online classrooms. Natalie was our solution and would be a voice for the voiceless. She was clear with us that she supported the remote model. Despite our differences, she was who we needed at the time to help us with our problem: the lack of financial, technological, and academic preparedness for a district with no school buildings. Members pleaded with the State Representative for help and to create legislation. Here are a few examples: child care, job security, tax credits or vouchers to help pay for school desks, internet and supplies. The Representative said she would help us and all similarly situated find emergency daycare. Her response to our other concerns were effortlessly forwarding us links to various government websites that were little to no help. We needed a fighter not a pencil pusher.
Weeks went on without comment from the Representative, despite our members daily stories telling of real-life problems. On August 13th, I asked Natalie for an update on her progress. In a condescending response, she suggested she solved our problems by forwarding us the previously mentioned websites. It soon became apparent that she had made no progress. Soon thereafter, the Representative was removed from this solution-based group.
Over the next several days, we united with other community members. We knew this was going to take time, effort, and fortitude and knew that we needed help. Two strangers just a few weeks ago became our greatest allies: Bonnie Budd and Frank Cohen. Now, four individuals, with hundreds following, were pushing against the School Committee. We created the “My Family My Story” campaign; these letters were written to the school committee about how special everyone’s kids are and the hardship that their vote has caused. Frank Cohen created a petition to illustrate to the School Committee why they needed to change their votes.
Due to the committee improperly posting several school committee meetings in essence shutting the public out from expressing their will, Bonnie Budd filed several open meeting laws also pointing out civil rights violations due to those postings. She fact checked the school committees’ ventilation systems argument among other things. Frank also filed open meeting law violations. Kaitlin Volpe held rallies on the City Common to vocally get the message out about our disagreement with the school committee decision.
On August 17th, the School Committee declined a revote after hearing pleading parents, and the public acknowledgment of our petition by Superintendent Paula Deacon. They simply ignored the 800 signatures of their constituents. Days later, the state gave Leominster the green light to open it’s school doors, making perfectly clear that Leominster’s case rate was ideal not just for hybrid but even full face-to-face instructions. We just wanted a compromise, that is, some face-to-face instruction with teachers. Still no consideration was given to a revote.
In our opinion, we contend the school committee has not represented it’s people. The few in the majority, Peter Haigis and Isabel Alera, are deeply connected to Representative Natalie Higgins. Ms. Alera is Representative Natalie Higgin’s legislative aide while Mr. Haigis is her campaign manager and fiancé. One of the Representative’s largest campaign donors is the teacher’s union, which is largely opposed to in-person learning. Mr. Haigis’s personal relationship with the Representative could have swayed his vote in the interest of getting the Representative reelected. We have filed an ethics violation with the state against Ms. Alera for a conflict of interest due to her mother being a Leominster School Teacher. We sure hope we are not seeing nepotism and corruption underlying here and not all parties upholding their elected duties to represent the needs and expressed wishes of their community.
Transparency is a word we hear all the time, yet our elected officials fail to follow through with the people’s will. Voting against the will of the people and against sound science will continue to result in civil unrest. It will cost the incumbents elections and create leaders who have no choice but to stand up to their injustice.
We have created relationships that guarantee to keep us in the light and out of the shadows of repression. We will not tolerate their cure to be worse than the disease. We are one group with “individual needs and one voice”. We are no longer just a blip on the radar, we now monitor it.