Sherr says there is unfinished business for a new term

Between now and Election Day, the Greenwich Post will be running profiles of the six candidates running for four spots on the Board of Education. This is an interview with Peter Sherr, a Republican candidate seeking his second term.

 

p1-BOE-Sherr-10-17Peter Sherr admits there was a point during his first term on the Board of Education where he didn’t think he would run for re-election. But his campaign is in full swing with just weeks before the election because of what he feels didn’t get done over the last four years.

“I think there’s a lot of unfinished business,” Mr. Sherr said. “I believe the Greenwich Public Schools are good but they really could be great. They really could be world class. That vision has not been fulfilled yet and I really want to work on that and continue to work on that. These past few years have seen some progress, but we haven’t made nearly enough of it.”

Mr. Sherr said that when he first took his spot on the board four years ago, he underestimated how much of a learning curve there would be. He originally believed he would be able to really understand the issues and the inner workings of the board and how to be effective in a year, but said he now knows it takes new members closer to two years to get up to speed. With long-serving board members Leslie Moriarty, the current chairman, and Steven Anderson, a former chairman, not running again, Mr. Sherr said he worried too much experience was being lost at a time with a new superintendent with only a year of experience as a superintendent.

The decision to run again also came about after he said people, both within the Republican Party and nonpolitical residents of town, urged him to do it.

“I think my experience will matter going forward,” Mr. Sherr said. “I really care about the school system. I have three kids in the schools. I care about the outcomes and I see the results every day because we have kids in each level in the system. This is not an abstract outcome for me.”

Over the next four years, Mr. Sherr said, closing the achievement gap has to be a priority for the board.

“It’s really kind of outrageous that with the amount of money we spend and the amount of resources that we have and the community commitment that we have that we can’t figure out how to substantially close the achievement gap,” Mr. Sherr said. “Unfortunately, people in this town talk about the achievement gap like it’s only minorities or children of poverty. When you look at the actual data you find out there are kids who are not minority and not poor who are not performing at basic proficiency. In a system like ours, that’s just unconscionable.”

In addition to closing the gap, there’s also the need to get kids who are performing to perform even better. Mr. Sherr said he wants to see the achievement level go up everywhere. And he is excited about what the district’s initiative on digital learning can do toward that.

“Digital learning is, to me, an absolute potential game changer,” Mr. Sherr said. “It could dramatically change the way we teach children and it gets you to a place where you can look at each child individually and focus on their needs and then try to teach to those needs. That’s remarkably difficult when you have 20-plus kids in an elementary classroom. Digital learning has the potential to change that and complement the teacher in the classroom with individualized, focused learning.”

But there’s more that can be done. Mr. Sherr said he wants to see the board “renovate how we teach children.”

“We can’t keep doing things the same way we’ve been doing them,” Mr. Sherr said. “We need to renovate our curriculum.”

That kind of renovation is something he feels needs to be targeted toward language arts. Mr. Sherr said writing is an area that demands attention on a district level and has to be “vastly improved” because of how important written communication is today. He said there’s been progress in improving the district’s math curriculum but that it should have happened earlier than it did, and work still needs to be done to make that curriculum work. There’s also been progress in science, but Mr. Sherr said he’s not happy with social studies and said it needs more time to be revised and improved instead of just adopting the state standard, which he said “dumbed it down.”

With common core standards being implemented, Mr. Sherr said, he doesn’t just want to see that adopted, but rather build a Greenwich curriculum that has parts of the common core built into it but is more rigorous than “just the basics.”

Mr. Sherr also wants to focus on the cost of education, and as head of the board’s labor contracts committee, he’s worked with the town’s labor unions and said people need to be prepared for “rapidly escalating” health care costs. Mr. Sherr said labor contracts will have health care costs rising 14% to 17% each year, and this will put “tremendous stress on the community.”

“Greenwich wants to fund its schools with the best people possible, but being able to tolerate those kinds of benefit increases is going to put tremendous pressure over the next few years,” Mr. Sherr said. “This is going to take a collaboration and a consensus in the community to address it. That means the Board of Education will have to work much more strategically with the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET). We’re going to have to work much more strategically with the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) than in the past. The Board of Education has frequently operated as an island in town government. It prides its independence. But going forward, collaboration will be critical.”

Mr. Sherr said he doesn’t see the Board of Education and the BET as having opposite goals. He said the BET is asking for accountability in outcomes and transparency in spending, and even though its goal is to keep taxes low, the school board has been able to work with the BET to keep funding its level of staff, noting that the town has one of the “richest staff-to-student ratios in the state.”

“The BET isn’t saying they don’t want to fund schools,” Mr. Sherr said. “It’s saying it wants better accountability for outcomes and better return on the money that’s invested. … If there’s one area I would disagree with the BET, it’s that I would like to see them invest a little bit more in capital and capital maintenance, but overall the BET has been remarkably supportive of schools.”

Mr. Sherr said there will naturally be some tension between the BET and the Board of Education, since 27% of families in town have kids in the public schools with the other 73% picking up a share of the bill. But he says that can be positive for the system.

“People are not willing to let us just spend and spend and spend without clear, provable outcomes,” Mr. Sherr said. “They don’t want their taxes to be like they are in Westchester. But at the same time they’ve been supportive. They just don’t want their taxes exploding, and they make that clear. That creates a tension in the system that makes you end up with a better answer.”

In terms of getting those outcomes, Mr. Sherr said he knows that in education, results of changes won’t be seen overnight. But he said the Board of Education has gotten away from hearing about the “unified scorecard” that showed progress in subjects. Because of that, he said, he will work on the board to make sure it’s communicating with the district’s administration to have achievable goals and then show the progress toward them.

“We don’t want to do this to be difficult, but so we can collectively make adjustments to policies and programs the board puts in,” Mr. Sherr said. “We see some of that in monitoring reports, but it’s not nearly as effective as it could be.”

Mr. Sherr is running as a Republican, but he is not one of the Republican Town Committee’s endorsed candidates. That could well stem from fallout over Mr. Sherr’s vote two years ago to not support Mr. Anderson, a fellow Republican, as chairman and instead vote for Ms. Moriarty, a Democrat. The next board will have a new chairman, and when asked, Mr. Sherr said he would support a Republican for the spot, repeating, as he has in the past, that his vote two years ago was based on specific circumstances and not anything more.

“I think a Republican chairman will be elected,” Mr. Sherr said. “I think if Republicans get the majority vote in town we have the right to have a chairman from the party. I can’t see a scenario now where it won’t be another Republican.”

In speaking with the Post, Mr. Sherr also wanted to put to rest reports that he and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie couldn’t work together. The two have differed publicly on plans to deal with the state’s racial balance mandate for two Greenwich elementary schools, and Dr. McKersie last week publicly apologized for emails he wrote about the situation. But Mr. Sherr said there’s no doubt the two can work together and he feels he made the right choice in voting to hire him last year.

“We need the superintendent we have now to be successful,” Mr. Sherr said. “I’ll continue to work with Bill to make sure that happens. Do Bill and I have the same views on all policies? No. But have we been able to get stuff done together? Sure. We did digital learning together. It’s ok to have different policy views. We can work together, and I appreciate tremendously that he apologized. I have tremendous respect for him that he did that.”

 

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