SHREWSBURY – Candidates for Shrewsbury’s Board of Selectmen and School Committee met this past week to field questions ahead of next week’s municipal election.
Organized by the Grafton Shrewsbury League of Women Voters, this event followed a separate forum by A Better Shrewsbury, touching on topics in this year’s election discussion ranging from diversity and civic engagement to how the school district should handle limited space at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.
Board of Selectmen
Three candidates — John Samia, Michelle Conlin and Rajesh Uppalapati — are running for two seats on the Board of Selectmen.
Samia, who currently serves as the chair of the board, was elected to the board in 2019. Prior to his election, Samia served three terms on the School Committee and was a Town Meeting member for over 12 years.
Conlin has described herself as a “community advocate” and volunteer. She has served as a Town Meeting member since 2018 and was the campaign chair for the ballot committee advocating for Shrewsbury’s Proposition 2.5 budget override last year. Conlin serves on the board of directors of the Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services, has been PTO president at Parker Road and Beal and is a member of the Beal school council.
Uppalapati, meanwhile, is a member of the Beal PTO and school council and part of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for central Massachusetts.
The three candidates were asked during the League of Women Voters’ forum about transparency, benefits to extend to seniors and how to balance the tax burden with the need for services in Shrewsbury.
They were also asked about what could they do to reach out to diverse communities in Shrewsbury to encourage civic participation.
Data from the 2020 census indicated that Shrewsbury has become more diverse since 2010. The largest racial subgroup that saw an increase since 2010 was the number of residents who identify as Asian, as that group increased by 61 percent to now represent 24.6% of Shrewsbury’s population.
Samia noted the town’s ongoing strategic plan efforts.
“The most critical aspect of a strategic plan to be successful is community involvement – all voices [need] to be heard,” he said.
While the initial part of the plan is engaging stakeholders and town staff, Samia said the next step is to “actively engage” with every resident, whether that be at places of worship, recreation centers or athletic fields.
“I truly believe that, when individuals understand that they’re part of the future in our community, that will invigorate them as well to become involved,” Samia said.
He also said the town should continue working through recommendations that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force’s made in their final report, which was presented to the selectmen in the fall. Samia said this work could be incorporated into the strategic plan.
Speaking on the same topic, Uppalapati suggested building a buddy program, which would connect younger residents who like to volunteer with seniors in the community.
He also called for transparency efforts, which Uppalapati said was one of the reasons why he was running.
Among his transparency-related suggestions, Uppalapati recommended having the agendas for town meetings available on Shrewsbury’s website and Facebook so that residents could see what parts of the meeting they may be interested in and indexing coverage of the meeting.
“I’ve noticed that the town meetings are usually three hours long,” Uppalapati said. “No one has that kind of time. They’re busy with their kids or jobs.”
Conlin said it is “critical” to increase involvement in the Shrewsbury community to help a sense of pride, belonging and ownership in the community.
“When people feel like this is their community, and they love it and it loves them just as much as they love our community, it encourages people to get involved,” Conlin said.
That involvement could be volunteering with schools or public programs, she said.
Conlin suggested that Shrewsbury could increase its intergenerational programming. She noted that the new police station will have community space. She also noted other locations like the Shrewsbury Public Library and Senior Center.
“I think if we invest as a community in those public programs and improve our public spaces, those will foster a sense of pride and belonging within our community that will increase involvement across [a] diverse range of ages and all people in our community,” Conlin said.
Lynsey Heffernan, Erin Boucher, Jennifer Luke and Sanam Zaer are running for two seats on the School Committee.
Zaer did not attend the League of Women Voters forum, but she submitted a statement.
She currently works as the director of elementary and middle school at a local private school, serves as a Town Meeting member and is a founding member of A Better Shrewsbury.
Zaer has volunteered with school councils for the Beal and Spring Street Schools, also volunteering on committees, including the Shrewsbury Public Schools’ redistricting committee and Superintendent Joseph Sawyer’s coalition for equity and antiracism.
Zaer said her main priorities are ensuring the mental and emotional wellbeing of all students, supporting staff and increasing efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the district.
Heffernan currently serves on the School Committee in the role of secretary. She was elected in 2019 and is currently a member of the committee’s finance subcommittee. Heffernan is a liaison to the special education parent advisory council and previously served on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force.
Boucher has been a Town Meeting member since 2014, a member of the Beal school building committee and a school council member at Shrewsbury High School (SHS). She is a former co-president of the Spring Street PTO and has also been a member of the Oak Middle School council. She was additionally a member of the ad-hoc mascot study group at SHS.
Luke has lived in Shrewsbury for the past 20 years and has been volunteering in the community since her oldest child was three-years old. She was the president of the Shrewsbury Child Development Committee and president of the Coolidge, Sherwood and Oak PTOs.
Among questions, candidates were asked how the district should handle the fact that Shrewsbury students may not be able to attend Assabet next year.
Superintendent Joseph Sawyer reported that Shrewsbury eighth-graders may no longer be able to enroll at Assabet after state policy changed to require vocational technical high schools to give preference to students in their member communities.
Shrewsbury is not a member of the Assabet district, instead compensating the school with tuition payments for students who attend.
Heffernan noted that tuition, calling it “well worth it.”
Calls to replicate Assabet’s options at SHS are “untenable,” according to Heffernan.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” she continued.
Heffernan noted the School Committee’s efforts to reach out to Shrewsbury’s state legislative delegation on this topic, adding that, in the short term the district should figure out how to bring additional community and business partnerships in Shrewsbury schools.
Luke said her son, who is in fifth grade, has expressed interest in vocational education. She advocated examining ways to “buy into” a program to give students like her son that vocational opportunity. If that’s not possible in the short term, she suggested partnering with businesses or SELCO.
“A vocational education — it is not as it was when we were growing up many years ago,” Luke said. “It’s very much needed in our society today.”
Boucher also suggested partnering with businesses and higher education institutions for internships, job shadowing and dual job skill programs.
“Finding alternatives to address the needs of students who would benefit from vocational programming will remain a top priority,” she said.
Election set for May 3
Shrewsbury’s election is May 3.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Voters have been advised to check their voting location through the state’s election information search program, as recent redistricting following the 2020 census has redrawn precinct maps.
All precinct two voters, meanwhile, will be voting at the Shrewsbury Senior Center, this year, instead of at the Town Hall as they have in the past.
The full League of Women Voters forum can be viewed online by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0_4FnS5HPE.
Full candidate statements, submitted to the Community Advocate in recent weeks, are also available from each of Shrewsbury’s municipal candidates in contested races.