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Longmeadow Daze: Triple Retirements Close School Committee Era…

Longmeadow Daze is an occasional series reporting on and analyzing Longmeadow government and politics.

The Longmeadow School Committee in 2015. After these retirements, six of the seven members in this photo will have departed. (WMassP&I)

LONGMEADOW—In 2013 the School Committee outflanked the Select Board and secured a budget transfer to avoid cuts to the schools. It was a resounding victory which belied the organizing needed to safeguard the biggest asset of this tony Springfield suburb: its educational system. But this year, a changing of the guard will see out the last of the members from that time.

All three of the incumbents up this year, John Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bone and Michael Clark—the Committee’s chair during the 2013 budget coup—have declined reelection. That leaves three open seats and interest is high. But the departures complete a transition underway for some time.

The hottest race in the spring elections here will be the School Committee seats. Marie Angelides, the only select board member up this year, is favored to win reelection.

The years-long transition has not all been voluntary. Controversy has led to changeover, too.

While the 2013 budget battle was a win, issues like elementary school redistricting, full-day kindergarten and the superintendent search followed. In a town like Longmeadow—one of the commonwealth’s most affluent—the Sturm und Drang some of these matters provoke can seem petty compared to the trials Springfield’s much poorer students face. Yet, they become the locus of election battles and Committee disagreement.

The School Committee at Peak Clark in 2013 (Screen capture from LCTV)

“The lesson for me is that sometimes the process matters more than policy,” Clark, 27, said. He conceded that sometimes communication, or lack thereof, many have stoked the disagreements.

In an interview at Starbucks the day before his nomination papers would have been due, Clark waxed nostalgic about his six years on the Committee, two as its chair. While there has been a lot of interest in the open seats, Clark was confident he could have won reelection. However, retiring does let him focus on his day job.

Earlier this year, he changed job titles in State Senator Eric Lesser’s office. In what was described as a lateral move to strategic advisor from chief-of-staff, Clark left day-to-day office minutiae to concentrate on messaging and public engagement. State ethics law also forbade him from engaging Longmeadow town issues directly. Retirement from the Committee eliminates this prohibition.

Committee member John Fitzgerald (via Longmeadow schools)

Fitzgerald, a member since 2008, had made an announcement at a meeting of the Democratic Town Committee—of which he is a member—earlier this year. Bone, Clark said, made her decision without much fanfare.

“The three most senior members are leaving,” Clark said. “With us goes a lot of history.”

In a statement on Facebook, Clark thanked Fitzgerald, Bone, another current colleague Stephanie Jasmin, his previously departed colleagues and countless administrative and financial staff and teachers.

Speaking to WMassP&I, Clark noted Martin O’Shea and Marie Doyle, the superintendents with whom he served. Clark called Doyle, the superintendent as the start of his Committee tenure, “a mentor.”

“I made some erroneous errors,” he said sardonically. But, Clark continued, she “always had my back. I really appreciate that.”

Of his colleagues, praised Fitzgerald’s straightforwardness and conviction. Even when they “butted heads,” the two understood and respected each other.

“Very few people you can say who have dedicated themselves to education the way John has,” Clark said. He noted Fitzgerald service in Vietnam, protested the war and became a trustee of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Fitzgerald went on to teach in public schools for 30 years.

Committee member Elizabeth Bone (via Longmeadow schools)

Like other Committee members Clark has served with, he noted that Bone, too, was a teacher. “Liz is no nonsense. She will always tell you what she believes,” he said. Clark described her work to educate students on the environment, developing recycling programs and ideas to save energy.

“She’s a behind the scenes person,” he said. “She’s done so much work that goes so unnoticed.”

For all the bonhomie, tension has been rising on the Committee. Clark declined to comment on this, but it has been palpable for some time. When Clark and his outgoing colleagues last won a three-year term in 2014, disagreements existed but comity endured. It would not last.

Elementary school redistricting provoked vociferous debate on the Committee and among parents and residents. The issue featured prominently in that 2015 Committee election, contributing to the defeat of Katie Girad, a close Clark ally.

The closing of that chapter did not signal a better tone on the Committee.

Nonetheless, Clark was sanguine about the experience—nor is he ruling out a future run for office. Indeed, he pointed to his education in Longmeadow schools as part of what drew him to public service.

“I don’t think there isn’t one person anywhere who doesn’t have that teacher that changed their life,” Clark said. To work with them on the other side on the School Committee, he continued, “It’s an honor I really can’t quantify.”