LOWELL -- The two candidates vying for one seat on the Dracut School Committee, incumbent Matthew Sheehan and challenger Michelle McCarthy, engaged Tuesday in what could best be described as a polite, hour-long discussion, rather than a debate.

The two discussed top issues facing the public schools, along with whether a new voice with a mother's perspective, or an experienced board member with a voting record deserves to get elected to a three-year term.

McCarthy and Sheehan, responding to questions posed by Sun Enterprise Editor Christopher Scott at The Sun's downtown Lowell offices, described Dracut Public Schools as under-funded and in need of hiring more teachers to lower the student-teacher ratio.

Dracut School Committee candidates Michelle McCarthy and  incumbent Matt Sheehan participate in the Sun Editorial Board debate Tuesday.   SUN/ David H.
Dracut School Committee candidates Michelle McCarthy and incumbent Matt Sheehan participate in the Sun Editorial Board debate Tuesday. SUN/ David H. Brow

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They also concurred that last year's $2.9 million override special-election ballot question posed the wrong solution for Dracut, as proven by the 72 percent "no" vote.

Sheehan and McCarthy agreed that Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone has done an outstanding job since coming on board, including his redistricting plan, and was highly deserving of the three-year contract extension and modest 1.36 percent pay raise he received from the School Committee.

The only moments of disagreement came when the subject was discussed of McCarthy's not having voted in Dracut previously, and when Sheehan challenged the notion that the School Committee would be better served by having his seat filled by a mother with young children attending school in the district, such as McCarthy.

Sheehan said McCarthy's lack of a voting record in her six years of residency irks some residents.

"It bothers the veterans a lot, because they fought in wars for the right to vote," Sheehan said.

McCarthy responded by asking residents not to judge her on her lack of a voting record.

"I would ask them to judge me instead on what I'm doing now, and what I have done in the community," McCarthy said. "If I didn't vote, there is a reason. It would have been a disservice, because at the time I didn't know that much about town politics. I am just a concerned mother who wants to get more involved."

Sheehan, who is seeking his third term, said his personal status -- married to wife Melinda for eight years in May, the couple has no children -- has not prevented him from being a productive School Committee member for six years.

"I find it disheartening that (statement) is out there," Sheehan said. "Some of us are not fortunate enough to have kids. The biggest thing is that we give the kids the best education we can."

He cited former Superintendent of Schools Christos Daoulas as a prime historical example of a childless individual lauded for his contributions to the Dracut Public School system.

McCarthy said as a married mother of two young children attending the Dracut Public Schools, she represents a key segment of residents who, like her, are "100 percent invested" in the school system.

"We'll have to agree to disagree on that," McCarthy told Sheehan on whether there should be at least one mother with young schoolchildren on the School Committee.

The candidates also differed slightly on the degree to which communication could be improved between parents and School Committee members, and school and town officials. Sheehan said communication between selectmen and School Committee members exists, suffered a setback during last year's override campaign, and needs to be improved.

McCarthy, on the other hand, opined that "there's a complete lack of communication between everybody in Dracut," she said. "Coming from parent's perspective, we don't feel we get a lot of communication from the district. There are so many different sources of communication available to us now, and it's completely underutilized. You can't point fingers at one person. There is a general divide. We need to heal some of these wounds and move forward."

When asked about the controversy surrounding Stone's and Dracut High Principal Richard Manley's dismissal of 27-year Dracut High School English teacher Robert Moulton for "conduct unbecoming a teacher," Sheehan said he had faith in the superintendent's decision and stands behind the district's decision to let Moulton go. 

"I know students were upset by it," said McCarthy, referencing an online petition that was signed by nearly 800 students and a classroom sit-in protesting Moulton's firing. "I don't know too much about the Robert Moulton issue, but if it needed to be done, it needed to be done. I stand behind the decision that was made."

In closing, McCarthy said she hoped voters on May 5 will have faith in her ability to bring a fresh, young mother's perspective to the board.

"I understand what our priorities are. I want to be the new voice on the School Committee," said McCarthy. "It's an exciting time in Dracut. We have the new high school, new elementary school, and two new principals. I want to see us move forward in a positive direction."

Sheehan closed by reminding voters of his independent thinking and alternative idea on the "all-or-nothing" $2.9 million override question. Sheehan, who was the only one of the five-member board to oppose the override, proposed an alternative idea to eliminate the town's Community Preservation Tax to produce an extra $750,000 annually for the schools. The idea was rejected by Town Meeting.

Sheehan also listed what he said were his proudest accomplishments over the last six years, including: "Creating full-day kindergarten at no charge; as chairman, asking Mrs. (Elaine) Espindle to return as the interim superintendent; overseeing the successful process and vote for the renovated high school; and the hiring of Steven Stone, our current superintendent."

"With an economy still in flux, and new town manager just being hired, I feel we need experience on the School Committee," Sheehan said.

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