Shrewsbury candidates bring their message to forums


Shrewsbury candidates bring their message to forums
Voters will head to the polls May 2 for the Shrewsbury Election, including voters in Precinct 1 in the Town Hall. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SHREWSBURY – The League of Women Voters hosted School Committee and Select Board candidates for a forum at Oak Middle School on April 24. The candidates were asked a series of questions, many from the audience, that touched on some of the critical issues facing the community.

The Shrewsbury election is May 2.

School Committee

The three School Committee candidates – incumbent Sandra Fryc, Rachel Sharifipour and Rajesh Velagapudi – shared their perspectives on the challenges the school district faces. 

In the wake of Shrewsbury students losing access to Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, all candidates expressed the need to establish a vocational education program of some sort. 

“We need to think outside the box,” Fryc said. “We don’t have a lot of space, but we can look at what we have and how we can build on that. We’re applying for a grant for the Innovation [Career] Pathways [Program] so we can start students on a path … within our schools in various areas that we already have, but we also have to look into our community – and not just in Shrewsbury – and expand beyond into businesses and higher education.” 

“It’s a complex issue, but we need to do it in a measured, thoughtful way,” she continued. 

The candidates also discussed the need to address overcrowding at Shrewsbury High School (SHS) and the aging infrastructure and facilities at other schools around the district.

“We know that [SHS] has a critical need [for space], but there’s also an aging issue at Coolidge … Paton, and Spring Street [elementary schools] … We need to build a robust roadmap for these critical [pieces of] infrastructure – when they’ll need improvements, and when they’ll need capital investment,” Velagapudi said. 

The end of the debate tackled issues of pandemic learning loss and the mental health of students. According to the school district, 38% of SHS students reported feeling “sad or hopeless” almost every day for two or more weeks, with 17% considering suicide. Each of the three candidates displayed an urgency to address both issues.

“It’s important for students to have connections with people who they trust – whether that be a teacher, guidance counselor… [or] principal… There are people in the buildings that are put in place [so] we can keep these kids feeling like they belong, [and] that they’re an important part of the community,” Sharifipour said. 

Select Board

Several Select Board candidates also participated in the League of Women Voters forum. Incumbent Beth Casavant, Siobhan Costello-Weber, Carlos Garcia, and Rajesh Uppalapati shared the stage. James Brown did not participate in the event, but he submitted an opening statement. 

From the start of the forum, affordability and development were key discussion topics. 

“Demands for no more building, especially apartments, compete with people saying it’s harder to pay their taxes … Affordable housing options are lacking in Shrewsbury, and large-scale, multifamily housing units are seen as a drain on our resources. As a Select Board member, I worked to find balance, manage the challenges posed by 40B, and seek ways to mitigate the impacts of development rather than try to futilely attempt to prevent growth,” Casavant said. 

Garcia reiterated that affordability is an important issue for town residents.

“People all across our community are feeling squeezed by rising taxes and inflation,” he said. “As someone who comes from a low-income family, I understand intimately how decisions made at the local level can really impact families like mine. If we want to ensure that Shrewsbury is a welcoming community, we need to do all we can to help our residents, like expanding our commercial tax base and extending relief to those who need it the most, like our seniors.”

The Beal Commons project – a commercial and residential development proposed on the site of the former Maj. Howard W. Beal School – was also discussed.

Uppalapati said that his disagreement with the Beal Commons proposal inspired him to enter the race and that the parcel of land could have become a community center, a skating rink, a rental facility, or several other “better” uses that may have brought money to the town.

Costello-Weber criticized the local government’s handling of the situation. 

“This experience has shown us that there is a key difference between compromise and real negotiation,” Weber said. “You can come to a majority consensus without actually making a strategically beneficial decision.”

“The response we, as residents, got was, ‘Well, it was [Beal Commons] or nothing.’ I can tell you, as someone who negotiates contracts for a living, sometimes nothing is the right answer. Sometimes that’s what you need for leverage,” she continued. 

Casavant disagreed, explaining that she remains happy with her vote to approve Beal Commons, and she believes the project will become “a catalyst for bringing vibrancy back to the town center.” 

Garcia viewed the passage of Beal Commons as a learning experience. 

“I hope that moving forward, folks continue to be involved and engaged with the local government and be involved earlier on in the process so that their voices and their concerns are heard,” he said.

The A Better Shrewsbury (ABS) Candidate Forum, which was held virtually earlier in the week, also provided an opportunity for community members to hear from the candidates. The forum’s questions were oriented toward themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), including discussions about inequity in the school system and hiring diverse faculty and staff.  

The Select Board candidates’ discussion about public participation extended to the ABS candidate forum. 

“We do a lot as a town to put [ideas] out to the public for public input, and we don’t always necessarily get the feedback that we hope for. We do open meetings at the library… and we just get a handful of people who typically are always the same people. We would love to get more people involved in decision-making and helping us – guiding us – in a way the community wants to be driven,” Brown said. 

The ABS forum also asked a collection of DEI-centered questions. Candidates were asked what work needs to be done to make Shrewsbury more equitable, to give examples of instances when they had publicly disagreed with a majority opinion and if they believed accessibility should be a priority. 

Housing Authority

Though the Housing Authority candidates – incumbent Kathy McSweeney and Anand Sharma – did not participate in the League of Women Voters forum, voters had the opportunity to hear from McSweeney at the ABS forum. 

“Everybody has the right to safe, sanitary and affordable housing,” McSweeney said. “That’s why I ran for Housing Authority in 2018, and that’s why I’m seeking re-election in 2023.”

McSweeney pointed to the lack of affordable housing in Shrewsbury as a potential challenge.

“There’s just not enough affordable housing in town,” she said.

Voters will be asked to choose two School Committee candidates, two Select Board candidates, and one Housing Authority candidate on Election Day. 

The League of Women Voters forum was broadcast live on Shrewsbury Media Connection and will be posted to YouTube before Election Day. The ABS forum can be found here and here.

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