Getting to Know School Committee Candidate Michelle Ayer

As the 2020 Town Election date nears, (June 27th or you can vote absentee now!), the Anchor would like to help you get to know each of the candidates seeking positions on two important board races -- selectman and school committee.

Allow us to introduce you to our first school committee candidate, Michelle Ayer.  Michelle currently serves as the Chair of the School Committee and is seeking reelection.

Hingham, meet Michelle.

Michelle Ayer and her husband Andy at a fundraiser for BUILD, an entrepreneurship program for students in under-resourced communities.

Which of your qualities and experiences, prior or current, would benefit the school committee if you are elected?

My first term on the Hingham School Committee has been met with incredible changes and unprecedented challenges. We welcomed and supported new leadership at Hingham High School, Plymouth River School, Foster School, the Athletic Department, and a new Director of Student Services—and that was just year one! In year two, I was humbled to be elected as Chair of the Committee, particularly as we knew the challenges we faced as we said good-bye to our long serving Superintendent, Dr. Dorothy Galo, and initiated an intensive search for a new Superintendent. My business experience as a Managing Director of a commercial loan portfolio and skill set in building relationships helped lead us through a collaborative search process which relied on input from all  Hingham Public School stakeholders: parents, faculty, students, townspeople, staff, administrators  and elected and appointed officials. In year three, I was honored to be re-elected chair and the year was off to an auspicious start as we welcomed Dr. Austin to the district as our new Superintendent; gained acceptance into eligibility with the Massachusetts School Building Authority for Foster School; recovered from the fire at Hingham High School and the flood at East School; secured a new facility for our industrial technology (TRACES) program; and successfully completed the budget process for FY21. And then COVID-19—a term we had never heard of—upended our lives. Suddenly the things we took for granted—dropping children off at school on our way to work, face-to-face instruction, peer interactions—disappeared. But the work of the district went on in ways we couldn’t have imagined even 3 months ago. The next few years are going to be incredibly important for our schools, for our students, and for our town. We will need experience, perspective, and collaboration to see us through the challenges ahead. My experience on the committee, my perspective as a parent who has brought two children through the Hingham Public Schools, and my relationship building skills can serve the Committee and our community over the next few years, and I’d be honored to have your vote if re-elected.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the HPS at this time?

The current crisis has shone a spotlight on just how much we rely on our public schools: not only to educate our children, but to provide them with social interaction; to feed them; to provide a safe space so parents and guardians can go to work; to motivate them; to transport them; and to ensure their social and emotional well being. Hingham is not immune to the challenges that have been highlighted by this public health crisis nor the uncertainties that lay ahead-- economic, environmental, and the well-being of our students and staff. The likelihood that schools will look very different, physically and intellectually, is something that will challenge our district and our community as we all navigate a new normal that includes face masks, gloves, and social distancing. Whatever form school re-opening takes in the fall, our staff will face incredible challenges as they provide social and emotional support to students and families while simultaneously providing a top tier education. As a community, we will need to support our teachers and staff as they continue their phenomenal work on behalf of our children and recognize that they, too, are dealing with the impact of COVID-19. These challenges will require experienced leadership, mutual respect and collaboration, new ways of thinking, and historical perspective to provide our students with a quality education that also supports their social, emotional, and intellectual well-being.

Family photo from Michelle Ayer's son's graduation from HHS

What are your thoughts on balancing the needs of the schools within overall town budget limitations, especially during the COVID-19 challenge?  

Hingham is incredibly fortunate to have an engaged community, talented and highly qualified teachers, committed and caring administrators-- all of whom truly value education-- but we face the same challenges as all public schools: limited resources to cover increasing costs, unfunded government mandates, skyrocketing maintenance and capital costs, and ever-changing technology, just to name a few. As School Committee members, we have an obligation to advocate for our schools and for our students while also understanding that our schools depend on the financial stability of the town, which is a very delicate balance. This year, we made multiple presentations to present the funding requirements that our schools need to provide a 21st century education to meets the needs of ALL students. These presentations resonated with Board of Selectman, Advisory Committee, and the community, but the fact remains that revenues are limited so we must develop synergies and new ways of supporting our schools without an undue burden on taxpayers. One way to accomplish this is by increasing collaboration among town departments to consolidate programs and services: a recent example of this is Hingham Public Schools providing and transporting meals to community members with food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis and we are committed to finding other ways to collaborate with town departments to ensure our children receive a quality education. Because if we don’t invest in our children’s future, we put everyone’s future at risk.

What are your hopes for/ideas to enhance the HPS recently-updated Remote Learning Plan should school closures continue into the 2020-2021 school year?

At the May 18 School Committee meeting, Dr. Austin announced the implementation of a newly created Recovery Response Advisory Committee to develop learning plans for the fall. While curriculum development is outside the purview of the School Committee, I am honored to represent the School Committee on this panel of educators, parents, building principals, staff, and public health and safety officers as we determine how to ensure continuity of learning for our students, regardless of the where learning takes place. Over the past two months, the district has done an incredible amount of work and dedicated countless resources to the current remote learning plan. In the span of just a few weeks, teachers and staff developed new lesson plans, learned how to navigate new technologies, and engaged with students. In the meantime, families, including HPS staff, were adjusting to the new reality of multiple people working and learning at home, or losing jobs and revenue sources; caring for family members who were ill; all while dealing with a public health crisis that became deadlier by the day. We know the impact that this situation has had on our families and our staff and we appreciate the grace, compassion, and empathy that so many have shown as we struggle through this extraordinary time together. It has been incredibly stressful but…some good has come out of it: suddenly there is time for family dinners; zoom trivia nights with far-away family and friends; increased participation in Town government; a new found respect for what it means to be an essential worker; and a renewed appreciation for the connections that students and teachers have with each other.  So, my hope, no matter what school looks like in the fall, is that we will find ways to enhance these connections and remind ourselves that while we cannot replicate what was lost this school year, we have found a common purpose in protecting the most vulnerable among us.

If school resumes this fall as hoped, what are your thoughts about how to best  implement social distancing and other precautions to ensure the safety and well-being of all teachers, students, administrators, and staff?

There is still much we don’t know about this virus and how it will react over the summer and fall months, so we will rely on our Public Health officials to guide the schools in developing a comprehensive plan that will ensure the health and safety of our entire HPS community: parents, guardians, family members, students, staff, teachers, and administrators. I am heartened that Dr. Austin has proactively established a Recovery Response Advisory Committee and a related Facilities subcommittee that is already watching and learning from other countries that have reopened schools along with following state and federal guidance. The well-being of students and staff is always at the forefront of our decisions and I’m confident that we will have the appropriate measures in place to protect our HPS community.

What is the most important role of the school committee?

By law the role of the School Committee’s role is relatively limited, so I would answer that our most important responsibility is ensuring that every decision we make promotes student achievement. Achievement looks different for each individual child and that understanding is top of mind when we determine our budget, when we hire and evaluate the Superintendent, when we negotiate contracts, and when we set policies that will have a lasting impact on students and staff. Sometimes these decisions are questioned; sometimes they are unpopular; sometimes they aren’t understood; but they are always made with the best interests of students at heart.

Michelle Ayer at the March for our Lives event in 2018.

 What are your best/most fun memories from your childhood school years?

When I was a child, my dad’s work caused us to relocate several times so I attended 7 schools in 5 states during my K-12 years. I can assure you the movies don’t lie—it was never easy being the new kid in school but I was fortunate to have 5 siblings and we learned a lot from each other: that my brother Rick could be very intimidating if you made fun of his little sister; that what’s super cool in New Jersey is actually not cool at all in California; and that while moving is hard, we always had each other. Oh, and now that we all have kids of our own, we learned that our mom was a saint for filling out all those school registrations!
What was your favorite subject in school? English. I’ve always been an avid reader and I could read and discuss literature an entire school day, if they would have let me. Least favorite? Math. In 3rd grade I missed about 4 weeks of school because of strep throat and then having my tonsils removed and I missed the whole section on memorizing the multiplication table. It took me years to catch up from missing that 4 weeks. It wasn’t until I got to high school and had a phenomenal Geometry teacher that I didn’t break into a cold sweat every time the bell rang for math class.
What do you like best about living in Hingham? There is so much to love about this town but what I love the most is how much my two son’s appreciate living here. They are both in college (Hartford and NYC) and when they come home they always comment on how lucky they are to live in such a beautiful town, with such a rich history, and so many kind and caring neighbors. This really is a special place.

Michelle Ayer visiting her son, Evan, at the Drama Studio London

What is your favorite spot in Hingham?

World’s End—I’ve missed my walks there over the past few weeks and am eager to return!

If you could give one piece of advice to the class of 2020, what would it be?

When you care about someone, use these three little words as often as you can: “tell me more."

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