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And the Holyoke School Committee Appointee at a Critical Moment Is…Devin Sheehan…

UPDATED: 6/21/24 1:04PM: To include the vote tally from the Clerk’s office.

Devin Sheehan

Back by popular demand, it’s Devin Sheehan. (via

A joint session of the Holyoke City Council and School Committee met Tuesday to fill the vacancy created when at-large Committee member Erin Brunelle resigned. After interviewing applicants, the joint session voted to appoint former at-large School Committee member and onetime Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) President Devin Sheehan to fill Brunelle’s spot.

On May 21, Brunelle announced in a public statement that she had resigned from the School Committee. In her resignation letter, she cited family concerns and her child’s educational needs. While the Paper City only elects about two dozen municipal officials, vacancies have been common in recent years. That also means the process to fill those vacancies is a well-oiled machine.

“I am honored to have been selected in a joint session of the School Committee and City Council,” Sheehan said in a statement on Facebook. “I look forward to serving the residents of the City during this critical time for our public schools.”

Sheehan was one of six candidates that appeared before the Joint Session Tuesday for interviews. Sheehan received 20 votes on the first ballot according to the City Clerk’s office. Two other applicants received one vote each.

During his interview, Sheehan said he was pursuing a return to the Committee to serve the greater Holyoke community. Many, he said, do not feel heard in the city’s public education system.

“I’m here to help to be a voice for some of those families, the parents who are struggling to get phone calls back, are trying to work through [individualized education program] meeting or just came to the area and are trying to figure out how to enroll their student,” he said.

Brunelle’s term ran through 2027, but the seat will appear on the ballot in 2025 to fill the final two years. (The full four-year term for the Committee’s other at-large seat is also up next year.) Sheehan indicated in his interview that he would be open to seeking election.

Sheehan is no stranger to Holyoke’s school board. Long a political animal himself, he jumped into municipal politics after returning home from college. He first joined the Holyoke School Committee as its Ward 5 representative before taking one of the body’s two at-large seats in 2013.

Mayor Joshua Garcia, who is the Committee’s chair, welcomed Sheehan’s appointment. In a past political life, the mayor had been on the School Committee. He saw Sheehan’s willingness to dig into the weeds of policy and procedure first hand.

“He’s got that technical knowledge, expertise, the experience,” Garcia said in an interview. “It’s so critical considering conversations right now that are happening about transitioning back to local control.”

Holyoke City Council School Committee

View of the Vatican–er, Holyoke City Hall, during deliberations to fill a School Committee vacancy on June 18. (still via Holyoke Media)

During his tenure, he became active in the MASC and several posts there including president from 2019 to 2020. That involvement with the state advocacy group for school committees fostered his own political contacts and reach. He became close with members of other communities’ school committees, especially those who took office around when he did.

One of those was now-Ludlow Senator Jake Oliveira. Until 2023, Sheehan had been an analyst for the Springfield Public Schools. When voters promoted Oliveira to the Senate in 2022, Sheehan followed him to Boston, becoming the new senator’s chief of staff.

While Sheehan left municipal service 18 months ago, he has not disappeared from education. While on the Holyoke School Committee, he joined the board of the Greater Commonwealth Virtual School. He has also kept up with the National School Board Association, which focuses on federal issues pertaining to elementary and secondary education. Sheehan has been tapped to be its next president.

Sheehan’s previous stint in elective office overlapped with a politically heated period in the city. Yet, the openly gay son of a state trooper and city hall staffer moved between the city’s opposing camps of that time. He had allies among “New Holyoke”—a controversial term for a then-rising political coalition which actually included many longstanding political figures. However, Sheehan also served as president of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, the epitome of the Holyoke establishment.

Closer to home, he and his partner Michael Dodge raised a foster child. In fact, as Sheehan noted, their foster child is actually a student at Westfield State University.

Altogether, he had developed a credible base for him to run in Holyoke’s open mayor’s race in 2021. That contest spawned a packed field—among them Garcia—and Sheehan did not advance beyond the preliminary. His School Committee seat was up that year, too. An ally of his, Mildred Lefebvre, succeeded him.

Sheehan will also be returning to the Holyoke School Committee at a pivotal moment. The state has outlined a plan to return local control to Holyoke schools in the coming months.

Garcia called Brunelle a “champion” and “key advocate” for city schools, but was certain the Committee would not miss a beat with Sheehan’s experience. The return of local control is not a foregone conclusion. Among the things on the state’s checklist is local capacity and political stability.

Mayor Joshua Garcia

Garcia on inauguration day. Bringing back local control has loomed large in Holyoke politics ever since the election. (still via Holyoke Media/YouTube)

“Not only is it important that the incoming member know how to operate in the environment, but it’s a volunteer role and you need to have the time,” the mayor said. “At this phase in this game, we want to be well above our toes here. Again, there is no learning curve with Devin.”

The state’s takeover in 2015 had been highly controversial. Sheehan had fought vehemently against it then. However, he said while running for mayor that the state-imposed receiver worked with the Committee as much as practicable and kept it abreast of changes.

Regardless, as the state hands the wheel back to Holyokers, the Committee will have a well-resourced colleague in its midst. With Brunelle’s resignation went a decade of experience. Sheehan’s return—alongside his state and national education contacts—should help to recoup any deficit the Committee has at this critical time.

Indeed, in his interview at the Joint Session, Sheehan acknowledged the stakes of getting the exit from receivership right. Returning to a theme from earlier in his remarks, he said it would take listening.

“The state can say, ‘here you go, your schools are back,'” he said, “but until we have a committed community and full school community that are ready for our schools to be back within the city of Holyoke, we’re going to be right back where we were.”