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Briefings: Vacant Get No Satisfaction with Holyoke At-large School Committee Exit…

Erin Brunelle

Brunelle gaveling out a School Committee Tenure. (via Holyoke Public Schools)

For several terms now, Holyoke has had at least one vacancy in some office that the City Council—sometimes with another body—must fill. For the term that began this past January, that time has come. 

Erin Brunelle, an at-large School Committee member and the body’s vice-chair, announced Tuesday she had resigned. She leaves at a critical point for the schools. The commonwealth has announced it would begin restoring local control of the schools. This, in effect, means returning all power to the School Committee.  

But Brunelle, citing a change to her family situation, said she would leave her post immediately. 

“This year has beed [sic] particularly challenging for my family and we have recently decided to seek other options for education outside of HPS,” she said in her resignation letter dated May 15 addressed to the Committee and Mayor Joshua Garcia. 

Brunelle said that with her family’s ostensible withdrawal from the public schools, she would not be able to prioritize her work on the School Committee. She posted a copy of the text to Facebook Tuesday. The Republican first reported the resignation.

“I can no longer offer the position the dedication and commitment it deserves,” Brunelle continued. “I wish you all the best in your continued efforts to regain local control and make Holyoke Public Schools the best it can be for our students.”  

Brunelle joined the Committee in 2013 as the member for Ward 7. In 2015, she ousted appointed at-large School Committee member John Whelihan. He later rejoined the body as its representative for Ward 5. 

A majority of the City Council and the remainder of the School Committee shall appoint Brunelle’s replacement in a joint session. Brunelle had won a new four-year term last November, but the charter appears to only let the joint Council-Committee appointment serve until next year’s election. Therefore, in 2025 Holyoke would hold two at-large School Committee elections: one for two-year and one for four years. 

Holyoke Joint City Council/School Committee

Holyoke’s version of a papal conclave filling a School Committee vacancy in 2022. Too early in the meeting for white smoke. (Still via YouTube/Holyoke Media)

The Committee’s seven ward seats have two-year terms. The at-large seats have four-year terms that are usually are offset so only one of the two is up every municipal election. The mayor chairs of the School Committee, but he has no vote. 

The other at-large Committee member Mildred Lefebvre became acting vice-chair with Brunelle’s exit. 

Holyoke officials have had to fill several offices in recent years. A joint Council-Committee session filled Ward 3’s vacancy in 2022 after Rebecca Birks resigned. The session chose Yadilette Rivera-Colón. 

Due to an usual declination on the part of the Council President when then-Mayor Alex Morse resigned, the Council had to pick a new acting mayor. After receiving the authority to do so from the legislation, councilors chose then-Ward 2 Councilor Terence Murphy. 

Holyoke City Hall

Some circumstances where Holyoke had to fill an elected vacancy were normal. Others were weird. Brunelle’s appears to be the former. (WMP&I)

The charter directly empowers councilors alone to fill vacancies in their own midst. Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman exited ahead of since-dismissed embezzlement charges. The body then chose Murphy to fill the term Roman won in 2017. Before that, at-large councilor Jennifer Chateauneuf bailed months after winning another term in 2015. Her departure came amid a bizarre controversy involving her bathroom—well, photos of it anyway. After lengthy debate, councilors eventually selected Diosdado Lopez to complete Chateauneuf’s term. 

Individuals can submit their candidacy to the city in-person or via email. The Council and Committee, along with Mayor Garcia, shall interview candidates on June 18. Both as platform to affect education and as a political stepping stone, the seat could draw broad interest.

Still, Brunelle’s exit might leave a hole on the school board. She had been a vocal advocate for the schools and not only at School Committee meetings. She appeared at rallies and before other municipal panels along with her own kids, to press for the schools, such as the push for a new middle school. 

Officially, the School Committee has no power during receivership. However, past Committee members have said the state involved them in decisions. Yet, like her colleagues and other Holyoke residents, Brunelle had pushed for explanations on how the state would relinquish control over Holyoke Schools. 

In March, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced a transition to bring the Holyoke Public Schools out of receivership, where the system had been since 2015.  

Brunelle is not disappearing entirely. In her resignation note, she said she would remain on the School Building Committee. That body oversees projects like the new middle school which finally broke ground this year. As vice-chair, Brunelle was among the dignitaries feting construction.