Mark Niedergang, 2009 Ward 5 School Committee Questionnaire Responses
What political or community activism accomplishments are you most proud of during your last term in office (or the last two years if you have not previously served)?
I am most proud of my leadership as the Chair of the Finance and Facilities Subcommittee in the school budget process this year. The budget process was extraordinarily difficult due to substantial decreases in state and city revenues and to uncertainty, until late in the process, over how much local aid Somerville would receive from the state. We knew we would need to cut positions and make layoffs in order to balance the budget, but we had no idea how deep those cuts would have to be.
I made sure that the budget process was open and transparent; that information was posted promptly and updated regularly on the Somerville Public Schools website; and that there were multiple opportunities for public comment. In fact, we made several major changes as a result of input from parents, teachers, and staff. For example, we kept about a dozen paraprofessional jobs that the Superintendent had proposed cutting, and we kept the Brown School 6th grade, which the Superintendent wanted to disperse throughout the district.
I worked closely with other School Committee members, particularly Chair Maureen Bastardi and those on the finance Subcommittee, Mary Jo Rossetti and Paul Bockelman, as well as with the Superintendent and the Finance Director, who both worked incredibly hard and did a terrific job under trying circumstances. I also worked closely with both Mayor Joe Curtatone and leaders of the Board of Aldermen, such as President Walter Pero. I collaborated with Finance Committee Chair Maryann Heuston to hold the first-ever joint Board of Aldermen-School Committee public forum on the budget.
Other accomplishments I am proud of include my continued work on long-range planning. In 2007, I initiated a strategic planning effort that set five long-range goals to improve our schools. I have continued to press the Administration to move forward with implementation of these goals. Last year, I pushed to make the goal of developing "a groundbreaking, exciting middle-grades program" our top goal, and the School Committee did so.
For two years, I fought to create a district-wide Volunteer Coordinator position. The Volunteer Coordinator has involved hundreds of volunteers in our schools and has been so successful, that the City is modeling its new Volunteer Coordinator position in part on the one for the schools.
I am proud that I continue to be an activist on the School Committee and have helped transform the School Committee from a more passive body to one that now exercises its power over the budget and policy issues.
I am also proud that I am responsive to parents, guardians, students, teachers, and staff who seek information or to raise issues. As Chair of the Education Programs and Instruction Subcommittee, for example, I responded to concerns about homework from parents of young students by holding a public hearing and got the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum to review the homework policy. The result was a clarification of the policy that was received positively by almost everyone involved. Similarly, I responded quickly to the dozens of calls and e-mails I received on an abstinence-only sexuality education program at two of our elementary schools. I took the lead in getting the School Committee to consider the issue and encouraged the Superintendent to drop the program, which he did.
What are your top three agenda priorities and how will you take action on these priorities?
My top priority is to continue to push for implementation of the five long-range goals that I helped establish for the School Committee in 2007. These goals are:
- create a groundbreaking, exciting middle school instructional program;
- increase inclusion opportunities for Special Education students;
- establish a foreign language instruction program before high school;
- improve after-school programs and develop an extended-school-day initiative;
- increase staff diversity and develop greater multicultural understanding.
Due to the budget cuts this year and likely cuts in the next couple of years, it will be difficult to move forward on some of the more expensive-to-implement goals. But there are many significant changes and improvements we can make without spending a lot of money, and grants are available in some areas.
My second priority is to once again help lead the School Committee through an open, transparent, and participatory budget process for the 2011 fiscal year. It is important to involve the public early in the process and to provide information in a timely fashion so people can truly participate.
My third top priority is to continue to fight for equity as well as excellence in the schools. This effort involves a range of student populations and issues. I have been the most active School Committee member on special education issues. About 20 percent of our 4,800 students are in the special education program, which has significant strengths but which for many years had significant shortcomings. I have also focused on the needs of English Language Learners and our immigrant student population. Over 50% of our students come from homes where English is a second language. I fought for passage of a resolution supporting tuition equity for undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts public colleges and universities, and the School Committee approved it with a 5-4 vote. In the coming year, I will focus on the Somerville High School Guidance Department's work on the college admission process, particularly for students who would be first-generation college goers.
What would you tell a parent to convince her/him to send their children to Somerville schools?
I tell all parents in Somerville the same thing: "Do your due diligence. Do your research. Don't assume that the talk you hear on the playgrounds is the truth. There are persistent 'urban legends' in Somerville that the SPS is a poor school system. This is simply not true. The schools have many strengths, and most of the 4,800 children receive a good education. Visit a few schools, observe classes, talk to the principal, get a sense of the atmosphere. Talk to parents who have children in the schools – the vast majority are satisfied with their children's education and many are enthusiastic."
I tell them that the early childhood (Capuano School) and kindergarten grades are excellent; that there are many good options for elementary school; and that most young people have a good experience at Somerville High School, which is particularly strong in its honors program and in its Vocational and Technical program. I also say that the middle grades (6th, 7th, and 8th) are weak at most of the schools – but that the same is true in many other school districts -- and that improving the middle grades is the top priority of the School Committee, the Superintendent, and his staff.
I tell them that my daughter will be a senior at Somerville High School next year, that she has been in the SPS since kindergarten, and that my wife and I are very satisfied with the education she has received. To spread a positive message and disseminate information, I have organized several parent coffees on kindergarten enrollment, two evening meetings at my house to introduce Somerville High School to parents of younger students, and two large meetings targeting the Somerville Moms, an e-mail listserve of more than 600 parents of young children. More than 150 parents attended these seven meetings over the past three years.
What do you think the City should do with the Powerhouse School?
The School Committee no longer controls the Powderhouse School building, so we have no authority over its disposition. As a community leader and a parent, I would like to see a small part of the building used as a combination youth and a community center. We really need a youth center in the western half of the City since the only youth center is in East Somerville.
Unfortunately, the City does not have the money to renovate and develop the Powderhouse. There are other more pressing needs, such as rebuilding the East Somerville Community School. Also, the City has a huge amount of excess building space while several departments rent space in buildings owned by other institutions. This obviously makes no sense. The Mayor has had several task forces analyze this issue but has not moved forward on it.
The best idea I've heard is to sell the Powderhouse School building when the real estate market is stronger. The deed would include a covenant requiring the new owner to not only develop space for a youth and community center but also lease that space to the City at a specified low annual rate for a long period of time.
Which progressive candidates have you supported in the last five years?
I have supported and worked on the campaigns of Pat Jehlen, Denise Provost, and Carl Sciortino for the state legislature. I supported and worked hard on both of Marty Martinez's campaigns for Alderman-at-Large and on Fred Berman's campaign for Alderman-at-Large. I also supported Rachel Heller's campaign for Ward 7 Alderman and all of Rebekah Gewirtz's campaigns for Ward 6 Alderman.
I have done extensive doorknocking for many of these candidates; served as a precinct captain in several campaigns, most recently for Carl Sciortino in 2008; contributed money to most of these candidates; and sent out hundreds of "Dear Friend" cards on their behalf.
Why are you the progressive choice?
I am an activist on the School Committee and am willing to speak up for and fight for what I think is right. I am constantly developing ideas for new or better ways to do things to improve our schools. I have an agenda in my work on the School Committee, and it is a progressive agenda. I fought to make increased staff diversity one of the School Committee's long-range goals. I've repeatedly championed parent involvement and empowerment. I've consistently spoken out for proportionately larger pay increases for those employees who earn the least. In making budget cuts this year, I voted to cut non-classroom positions of administrators and secretaries rather than paraprofessionals and teachers who work directly with students.
I am not afraid to ask pointed and tough questions of any administrator or other School Committee member. Yet I go about my business in a way that is respectful of my colleagues and I encourage them to share their concerns and ideas in public to further the discussion and debate.
Most of all, I have successfully fought to make the School Committee's work more open and understandable to parents and the general public. I almost always invite members of the public to speak to the School Committee when I am chairing a meeting, and I have held several public hearings to solicit comments from the public.
Finally, I have supported progressive political organizations and organizing efforts in Somerville for several decades. I have been a member of PDS since 2004 -- before I ran for the School Committee.
What else should we know about your candidacy?
I would like you to know a few things about me personally. I have lived in Somerville for 30 years and own and live in a two-family home that we bought in 1997. I came here to go to Tufts and stayed because I love living in this wonderful community.
I have been married to Marya Axner for 18 years. Marya worked for four years in the Somerville Public Schools organizing parents and developing after-school programs. She currently works as the New England Director of the Jewish Labor Committee.
Part of my motivation to improve our Schools comes from having a daughter who has been a student in the Somerville Public Schools since kindergarten. She will be a senior at Somerville High School this fall. I have been a volunteer in a Somerville Public School for most of the past 10 years. For three of the last four years, I have tutored students once a week at the Kennedy School or the Winter Hill Community School. I have served on the Boards of many community organizations, including the Somerville Community Corporation, Eagle Eye Institute, and Congregation B'nai Brith, the synagogue on Central Street. During the school year, I teach young children at the Sunday morning religious school there. I am a member of many community organizations, including the Somerville Community Corporation, the Somerville Garden Club, the Mystic View Task Force, and the Brown, Kennedy, Winter Hill Community School and Somerville High School PTA's.
My primary means of transportation for the past 35 years has been my bicycle, and I am a committed environmentalist. I love nature, the outdoors, and gardening. I am an advocate of physical exercise for people of all ages. Whenever possible, I have encouraged the development of programs in these areas in the Somerville Public Schools. I work professionally as a consultant to non-profit organizations, helping with fundraising, special projects, organizational development, and problem solving.
I am a hard-working candidate for re-election and already have a serious campaign underway. PDS's endorsement would not be wasted on me. I will use it on my still-under-construction website and in my literature. I hired an experienced Campaign Manager, Sarah Fishman, in June. Sarah managed my successful race in 2005 when I defeated the Ward 5 incumbent by 54 votes. Sarah is the mother of a 3rd grader at the Brown School and a parent representative on the Brown School Council. I recently hired a campaign intern, Adit Thapa, who will be a senior at Somerville High School in the fall. Adit holds an elected position as Mayor of the New England region of JSA, a student debating and political group with chapters nationwide. This spring, Adit ran a campaign for this position against an incumbent and won by just a few votes.