3 vie for two spots on Belchertown School Committee

By Maddie Fabian

For the Gazette

Published: 05-18-2023 4:36 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Monday’s town election will feature a contested race for the School Committee, as well as seven other uncontested positions for various boards and committees in town.

Voting takes place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Belchertown High School gymnasium.

Three candidates are in the running for two open positions on the School Committee. The candidates include incumbent Heidi Gutekenst, and two newcomers in Matthew Jackson and Lamikco Magee.

Gutekenst, current chair of the committee, said she’s excited to run for reelection and is proud of the committee’s recent work, especially around the antisemitic events at Jabish Brook Middle School.

“It’s a horrible thing that happened, but I’m proud that our district is addressing it and not trying to hide things,” she said, adding that she hopes to continue equity work “which will never really be done.”

Gutekenst has a history in early childhood education, having served as the school age director at Belchertown Day School and leading multiple Girl Scout troops in town. She now works with the Parks and Recreation Department in the town as recreation supervisor for camps and recreation.

If reelected, Gutekenst said she hopes to work with the town on the schools’ budget so that spending matches revenue.

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“I’m very much for the students of Belchertown. There’s not any one word, program or thing that I value most. I really look at the whole picture of everybody,” Gutekenst said. “I stand for our teachers and our staff… and I stand for the community.”

Matthew Jackson

Jackson said he’s running for School Committee because his daughter has dyslexia, and he wants to help make the process of diagnosing learning disabilities in schools less frustrating, more transparent and more efficient.

“It’s good to have good paraprofessionals in the school system because it’s tough for a single teacher to give the full support they need,” said Jackson, adding that he thinks it’s important to “give the parents a lot of say, support the teachers and interact with the administration.”

Jackson, who is currently a real estate agent in town, grew up in Belchertown. He went through the Belchertown school system and attended UMass as a fourth-generation student, and he has been refereeing and coaching the town’s high school basketball for over 20 years.

“I have a lot of roots in this town, whether it’s with the rec department or with school systems,” Jackson said. “I’m always out in the community, so it’s easier for me to talk to people than a lot of others.”

If elected, Jackson said he hopes to give Superintendent Brian Cameron more freedom.

“We hired him to be the boss, so I’d like to take some of the handcuffs off him and let him lead… He has a great personality so I’d like to see what he could do.”

Jackson said he also sees the value of different perspectives and wants to bring new opinions to the School Committee. One example of a differing opinion he has held, he said, is around COVID-19 vaccinations.

“A couple years ago, they tried passing something that vaccinated our kids without parental consent… I disagreed with that. I have no problem if people want to vaccinate; it’s just we shouldn’t be told what to do,” he said.

In response to antisemitic incidents at the middle school, Jackson said, “I don’t know exactly what was said, but I think one of the problems is we don’t educate the kids with what is actually going on throughout history… Nobody knows what happened in World War II until they actually take classes on it… I think they were just empty words that they didn’t understand, and they should be reprimanded but also educated.”

Lamikco Magee

Magee has 20 years of experience as an educator. She is president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, is active with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and has served on the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. She also served in the United States Air Force during the Persian Gulf War.

Magee is running for School Committee because she cares about the safety and well-being of students, as well as the quality of their education.

“I think that the most important thing is for students to be able to come to school and feel safe physically and emotionally, and to feel supported,” Magee said. “Schools belong to the community and the community belongs in the schools… When we see things going on in school, that just a symptom of something that’s going on in the community,” she said, referring to recent antisemitism.

Magee added, “We need to institutionalize how we educate our students so that they are able to recognize that we’re all human beings, and they will always be respected regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity, and regardless of how we identify.”

She said that she believes professional development for educators is a crucial step in institutionalizing how schools address issues like antisemitism.

Magee grew up in Massachusetts and attended Cold Spring School in Belchertown when she was young. She moved out of state to join the military, and eventually found her way back to Belchertown in 2017.

This year, she is a teacher leader at Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, which she said has given her new perspective on the operation of the school system outside of just being in the classroom. Her overall mission, she said, is “putting students first.”

“When I think about what to do, that’s always the first thing: put students first. And then just understanding that we have an obligation to treat each other as human beings.”

Other races

Lesa Lessard Pearson is running uncontested for Select Board, a position for which she ran against current Select Board member Margaret Louraine in October 2022. James Barry, current chair of the Select Board, will not be running for reelection when his term ends, leaving a seat open for the board.

Lessard Pearson, who has lived in Belchertown for nearly three years, said she believes the voice of new residents is underrepresented in town government.

“I think that welcoming the ideas, insight and experience of new residents can serve to inspire innovation, responsible business and community growth and transparency,” she said.

Lessard Pearson said she hopes to work on the town’s budget and structural deficit, beautification of the town, and creating a welcoming community.

The candidates for Board of Health are Kenneth Elstein and David Gottsegen, and elected positions for Planning Board, Moderator and Board of Assessors will take write-ins. All positions are three-year terms, other than the Planning Board which is five years.

Election results will be posted to the town’s website. More information is available at www.belchertown.org/clerk/.

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