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Newton School Committee race features three contested seats

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A half-dozen candidates for Newton’s School Committee are running in contested races in the city’s election Tuesday, as concerns mount over the condition of some school buildings and protracted talks with the city’s teachers union.

On Nov. 5, eight members of the School Committee, each representing one of the city’s wards, will be elected by citywide vote to serve two-year terms.

In the School Committee race, the only incumbent running for reelection is the board’s chairwoman, Ruth Goldman, who faces Galina Rosenblit in the race to represent Ward 6 on the School Committee.

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Due to term limits, Ward 4 member Diana Fisher Gomberg and Ward 5 member Steven Siegel are not running again. In their place are four challengers: Lev Agranovich is running against Emily Prenner in Ward 5, while Alexander Koifman is facing Tamika Olszewski in the Ward 4 contest.

In Ward 6, Goldman, 58, was first elected to the School Committee in 2013, and became chairwoman in 2017. She is also involved with talks with school unions, including the Newton Teachers Association.

“We want the teachers to have a good contract,” Goldman said.

At the high school level, parents and officials are working to improve services to address students’ mental health, she said. Goldman has emphasized her work to address the concerns of constituents.

“I’m available to constituents, I answer the phone when they call, I’ll meet with people,” Goldman said. “I’m willing to hear them out about any issue that is of concern.”

Rosenblit, 69, has about three decades of experience as a teacher, and currently works at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton. She previously also worked at other schools, including public schools in Brookline and Westfield.

In Newton, Rosenblit said she would make improvements to the schools’ math curriculum and how the district addresses drug and substance abuse, she said.

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“I think the committee would benefit a lot by having my experience... working in schools for many years, I understand how the system operates, and where the system’s shortcomings are coming from,” Rosenblit said.

In Ward 5, Prenner, 48, has worked on several school boards, including as a president of the Newton PTO Council. She has been working on an effort to implement later start times for Newton’s high school students, and would also seek greater support for mental health services, she said.

Prenner would also work to accelerate efforts to renovate and upgrade the city’s school buildings —currently, the city’s long-range facilities planning timeline extends into the 2030s.

“It is very important to have your finger on the pulse of what the School Committee is doing,” Prenner said, “because many of the policies and the decisions being discussed on a regular basis [and] the budget have direct impacts on the students’ experience.”

Agranovich, 49, runs his own accounting firm in Newton, and said he wants to review the school department’s financial records to identify potential cost-saving measures to help the city’s taxpayers.

“I hope to provide my expertise as an accountant to the benefit of the whole Newton population,” Agranovich said.

He also is concerned with mental health and stress experienced by high school students, he said. As a committee member, he wants to work to ease that stress on students.

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“We need to try to make the lives of our children a little bit more enjoyable and a little bit more flexible,” Agranovich said.

In Ward 4, Olszewski, 39, an attorney who focuses primarily in civil law, has served on several local school councils, as well as a commission on the city’s Human Rights Commission and is a board member of Families Organizing for Racial Justice.

Many people in Newton are pleased with the city’s school system, she said. But parents of younger children are concerned about issues like the condition of school buildings and making sure that there is equity in the spending at the local PTO level.

“I’ve been working collaboratively across our schools and our community, and that’s given me a great foundation — one based on proven commitment to be an effective member of our School Committee,” Olszewski said. “While our schools here in Newton are excellent, we can and should be working to make them even better.”

Koifman, 61, a computer engineer, is among critics who say there is an anti-Israel bias in how the high schools teach about the Middle East, which they claim attacks Israel, and by extension, also attacks Jews.

In November 2018, about 200 residents signed a petition demanding that the School Committee hold a public meeting over the issue and requested the board fire Superintendent David Fleishman and make changes to the curriculum. The committee didn’t take those steps.

In March, six Newton residents sued the School Committee, Goldman, Fleishman, the principals of both city high schools, and several teachers, and accused them of having “stubbornly refused to remove anti-Semitic and anti-Israel materials from the history lessons that they teach in the high schools of the City of Newton.”

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The case remained active until mid-August, when the plaintiffs filed for voluntary dismissal, according to court papers. None of the candidates on the ballot for School Committee were plaintiffs in the case.

“I was very disturbed by what was happening in Newton schools as far as teaching history of the Middle East and anti-Israel propaganda,” Koifman said. “You know if you compare Israeli soldiers with Nazis, that’s anti-Semitism.”

Koifman said the schools must offer a balanced approach in teaching students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fuller and School Department officials, including Goldman and Fleishman, have said there is no bias.

Koifman said he wants to improve the teaching of STEM subjects — science, technology, education, and math — and would like to see the schools encourage students to feel pride in the United States and its history.

“There is no other place like the United States... liberating the world from the Nazis, the communists, the Soviet Union,” he said, “and that’s not being taught.”

When Agranovich was asked in a Globe interview whether he believed there was an anti-Israel bias in the curriculum, he replied that he thought there shouldn’t be bias.

“Generally speaking, I don’t want to have in the curriculum... any anti-Israel bias,” he said. “I know this was supposed to be corrected. I don’t want to be involved in what was in the past, but in the future, I don’t want nothing in the curriculum [which is] anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.”

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In a Facebook post in June, Agranovich had said one of his “main policy goals is to eliminate anti-Semitism from Newton school curricula.”

Agranovich called the curriculum offered at Newton High Schools “troublingly agenda driven,” and said in the post that it had “the ultimate intent of instilling an anti-Israel stance into the student body.”

Alongside the contested races, incumbent School Committee members Bridget Ray-Canada of Ward 1, Margaret Albright of Ward 2, Anping Shen of Ward 3, Kathleen Burdette Shields of Ward 7, and Matthew Miller of Ward 8 are running unopposed for reelection this year. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller also serves on the board.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.