Meet the Holyoke mayoral candidates, part three

Sept. 2, 2021 | Danielle Eaton

HOLYOKE – Reminder Publishing recently reached out to the seven mayoral candidates and invited them to respond to a series of questions regarding issues presently facing the city and residents.

Previously, the first of three separate articles with candidate responses was printed. The following responses is the third part of the three-part article series.

Candidates, listed in alphabetical order by last name, are resident Gloria Caballero Roca, Blandford Town Administrator Joshua Garcia, resident William Glidden, resident Christopher Kosinski, City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, School Committee member Devin Sheehan and City Councilor Mike Sullivan.

Reminder Publishing (RP): What immediate actions would you take in your first weeks and/or months as mayor of Holyoke?

Caballero Roca: I would address the housing crisis; the crisis in education; jobs as a result of fomenting local businesses that will create jobs. Readjusting the tax code so as to attract local business to Holyoke which will to some extent address employment in the city.

Garcia: My campaign is focused on improving the way we manage our finances so that departments are adequately supported to carry out services. Therefore my first and immediate priority is to kickoff our FY23 budget setting process. In the municipal world, local governments start planning their budgets as early as November which is fitting since Election Day is November 2nd and it’s expected for the newly elected mayor to hit the ground running on November 3rd. My process will include meeting with the City Council to identify budget priorities, goals, and objectives. Simultaneously, I will work with our City Auditor to prepare an initial review and expenditure projections and work with our assessors to review revenue projections and be sure we are communicating this information to the Finance Committee of the City Council. Finally, each of the departments will receive instructions from my office for submitting their proposed budgets. From here moving forward, I will be meeting with each of the departments to get a strong feel of what is it they do well and where the gaps are to further prioritize our spending in preparation for the upcoming fiscal year.

Glidden: The new mayor will be sworn in this year, the day after the election. On day one, I would begin the budget process, starting by meeting with department heads and other City Hall staff to get a sense of their needs and priorities. I would also start to take action on the use of our American Rescue Plan funds. This once-in-a-generation infusion of federal money can have a transformative effect on our city – if used wisely, and in a timely manner.

Economic development is critical to our city’s future, and we need to get it right. That means updating our current city master plan, which is now more than two decades old, and was written for a world that no longer exists. I will begin this process immediately, with community participation. The need to do this is urgent, and so is the need to market Holyoke to the world, and to do so effectively, in ways that will serve the city’s interest in long-term, sustainable economic growth. Right away, I will work start working closely with our director of planning and economic development to come up with a strong marketing strategy.

Kosinski: I want to see Holyoke in charge of its own school system. The receivership has taken local control and accountability away from us and it has decimated our personnel ranks. We have an incredibly low teacher retention rate and have lost many Holyoke students to school of choice and charter schools. And when students leave, families lose their connection to their hometown because their friends, hobbies and even sports teams are elsewhere. Schools are directly tied to quality of life and should be the focal points of our neighborhood. I want to take back our schools, rebuild a great education system and give our community the connection and pride it deserves.

Lisi: In my first weeks as mayor, I would rebuild the team in City Hall, do an audit of our property values, and establish a Communications Director position.

The city has had trouble attracting and retaining a talented professional workforce in recent years due to below market compensation rates and low morale. Staffing deficiencies and high turnover impact the city’s ability to deliver basic services. Earlier this year, I passed a salary and compensation plan that more fairly compensates our workers. As mayor, I will rebuild the team in City Hall. I will reintroduce regular department head meetings, organize professional development trainings, and fill longstanding vacancies.

We continually hear that Holyoke has one of the highest commercial tax rates in the state. This is due to our comparatively low property values. As market and commercial activities in the city shift, it is worthwhile to systematically check, through an audit, that each property is assessed correctly and paying their fair share in property taxes.

Many residents complain that communication from City Hall is lacking. I will establish a Communications Director position to help the community stay up to date on city news, community events, and where and how to access city resources.

Sheehan: The next mayor of Holyoke will begin working in November (not the traditional January start) and I have a plan to begin this work immediately. My first actions in November will be working with the City Auditor to ensure free cash was certified. I will work with the Assessor’s Office so the City Council can be ready to set the tax rate in December. I will engage all city department heads so we can start planning for the fiscal year 2023 city budget. I would want meetings with our state representative and state senator so I can address some of the needs of the city and see what state funding could be made available. It is imperative to meet with the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a plan to exit state receivership of our schools. I will meet with all department heads to talk about the strengths and concerns of each department to put together a plan to help meet their needs. I also want to meet with residents and business owners about ideas for moving Holyoke forward. We have much to accomplish, and I am prepared to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Sullivan: As mayor, I will begin by meeting with School Commissioner Riley and start laying the path to take back control of our schools. I will also take steps to correct our unbalanced commercial tax rate to drive economic growth and secure millions of dollars in investments for local businesses. I will expand the natural gas line into Holyoke – the moratorium on natural gas forces our homeowners to install highly dangerous propane tanks in their backyards and is literally choking out the supply of clean burning natural gas to Holyoke residents and businesses.

RP: If elected, under your leadership while working with the receiver of the Holyoke Public Schools, where do you hope to see the school district in the next four years?

Caballero Roca: Back in the hands of the community, immediately. You get solutions to local problems from inside your local community. Solutions are not to be found outside the community.

Garcia: Certainly out of receivership through better test scores and graduation rates. As it happens, with Holyoke’s own Anthony Soto named superintendent/receiver, we’re more than halfway there. Additionally, in the next four years I look forward to having a new middle school, drafting a capital improvement plan for the schools, and have strengthening our arts and sports programs.

Glidden: Within the next four years, if not sooner, I believe our school district should be back under local control.

The point of having public schools is to provide a good education for all of our students. It’s a nice bonus that doing just that will help us end the state receivership and restore local control. To make that happen, we need a new building, but we need more than that. We need educational options that keep our students engaged and excited about learning. We know how to do that, and it’s not by forcing our talented teachers and students to spend the bulk of their time preparing for standardized tests. It’s by offering students classwork that gives them a reason to want to learn: an education that shows them how their new skills open up the world around them. We’re already doing that with our best programs, like our dual-language immersion program. I hope to see those opportunities expanded and offered to all our students over the coming four years. And I believe that if we do provide that kind of education, we’ll see test scores and graduation rates steadily rising.

Kosinski: In my first few weeks I would have a large listening tour which would include neighborhood office hours in every ward of the city, as well as other accessible locations to gauge community concerns and priorities. Secondly, I would meet with Mayor Murphy to ensure not only a sound and respectful transition, but to make sure I was aware of all pending and pertinent issues, timelines and guidelines. Third, I would meet with members of the city council to ensure we could find consensus on budget, legislative, economic development and quality of life issues. Fourth, I would meet with each individual department head to hear their views, priorities and concerns. Fifth, I would look at the mayor’s office budget to organize or reorganize staffing to best meet the needs of all the groups I had met with. Finally, I would establish listening days for all citizens at City Hall. I want to listen to what our community wants and put those wishes into action.

Lisi: Over the next four years, I would like to see an increase in net school spending, meaningful family engagement, and clear benchmarks for what the city needs to do to be released from receivership.

The city of Holyoke contributes only the minimum, “net school spending” required by law to the school budget. The remaining 87 percent of school spending comes from the state. Holyoke must increase its local contribution, if we want to create high-quality public education that will attract new families and businesses to our city. I would prioritize spending on enrichment programming for students and creating a salary structure that rewards experienced classroom teachers for developing their skills and remaining in-district.

The frequency of family engagement has increased significantly under receivership. However, we must find ways to ensure that those interactions are meaningful and that the district is responsive to family and caregiver voices.

One way we can partner with families and help amplify their voices is by working together to advocate for clear benchmarks for what the city needs to accomplish to be released from state receivership. Once there is clarity about the goals, we can focus family and community efforts in those areas to reestablish local control.

Sheehan: As mayor, I have a strong commitment to the education of our students in the public schools. As a lifelong resident of the city, I was educated in the Holyoke Public Schools. It broke my heart to see our schools enter receivership, but now six years later we must regain local control.

As a member of the School Committee, I already have a strong working relationship with the Receiver. I want to see the continued growth of our Pre-K programs as well as our dual language program.

Our graduation rate has continued to increase as we see more of our students be college and career ready. I would want to expand vocational education in Holyoke and continue to see Dean grow. We are taking important steps in Holyoke to create a middle school experience which is very important for student development. A main goal around our schools is also to see the district exit receivership. I will work with the commissioner, School Committee, educators, families, and community to restore local control. I will have a plan in place immediately to end receivership. Working together, I see our schools continuing to prepare our students for a bright future.

Sullivan: Under my leadership, we will bring our schools out of receivership with a dynamic plan to reboot and revitalize our education system. We will raise standards and expectations within our programs while providing the resources our children need to grow and learn so they can be successful in their lives. We will also take steps to reform Dean Tech and return it to prominence as a high functioning academy producing students who are ready to take on good-paying jobs in the trades. Lastly, we will evaluate the factors contributing to the high rates of ADHD, Autism and Asthma occurring in our children. These health issues may or may not be related to the function of our school department, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of our children, especially children of color who are disproportionately impacted by these conditions.

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