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Brunswick School Board chairman, legislators spar over aid cuts, e-mail remarks

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Brunswick School Board chairman, legislators spar over aid cuts, e-mail remarks

BRUNSWICK — The School Board chairman and members of the town's legislative delegation are feuding over a proposed $3 million slash in state education aid.

During the board's Feb. 10 meeting, Chairman Byron Watson questioned efforts by local lawmakers to prevent what has repeatedly been described by school officials as a disproportionate loss in funding.

Reading from a prepared statement, Watson said, “I wonder where the outrage is with our delegation that the community they represent is being hit twice as hard as any of our neighbors.”

In response, members of the delegation are claiming Watson never bothered to meet with them. They've also described as inappropriate and sexist a Feb. 5 e-mail message Watson sent to House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

“Let me start off by stating you are the most gorgeous member of the Legislature,” Watson said in the message, ending the first sentence with a smiley-face emoticon.

“I am not writing to hit on you though,” he continued, “I am actually hoping there is a way to persuade you to lobby in favor of seriously reconsidering the drastically disproportionate hit that is being laid upon the Brunswick School System.”

Watson's message elicited a sharp reaction from Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who called the correspondence “absolutely beyond the pale.”

“(Pingree) is one of the smartest people I know,” Gerzofsky said. “That woman is speaker because she is smart, not because she's cute and pretty. That's not how you address the house speaker. This ain't 1950.”

Rep. Charlie Priest, R-Brunswick, said Watson's remark was misguided.

“Your first impulse is to laugh because you can't believe it,” Priest said. “That's not the appropriate tone to take with the house speaker, especially if you want her help.”

Priest said he called Watson to express concern about the message, but said the School Board chairman saw nothing wrong with his comments.

Reached Monday, Watson called the lawmakers' remarks “character assassination.”

“I think they're playing politics with our children's future,” Watson said. “I don't think there's anything inappropriate with the e-mail. ... It's the same old elitist stuff from these guys. They think they're better and smarter than everyone else and they're completely avoiding the issue, which is the unfair treatment of this school system by the state. ... Instead of taking the fight to Augusta, they're taking it to me.”

Watson added that he received no indication that Pingree was offended by his remarks. He also questioned the timing of the legislators' remarks, which came shortly after his Feb. 10 comments to the School Board, and five days after the e-mail was sent.

Tim Feeley, Pingree's communications director, said he was taken aback by Watson's comments.

“I didn't know who Byron Watson was,” said Feeley, noting that Watson's message never indicated he is chairman of the School Board. “But I quickly found out.”

“In over a year working for (Pingree), I've never gotten e-mail like that from a regular citizen, let alone from a chairman of a school board,” Feeley added. “(Pingree) just sort of rolled her eyes at it. ... Maybe he thought he was making a joke, but it fell flat.”

Feeley said Pingree didn't address Watson's opening comments in her Feb. 11 response because she “preferred to focus on the budget.”

The e-mail kerfuffle is the latest dust-up between the town's legislators and elected town officials.

In December, Gerzofsky and the delegation drew criticism from several members of the Town Council after he blocked the appointment of Town Manager Gary Brown to the agency redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station.

But the latest tiff may contain a partisan component. Watson, a 30-year-old Brunswick native, has worked for Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and other local GOP candidates.

Watson this week denied that his criticism of Brunswick's legislative delegation – all Democrats – was politically motivated.

“This is about a bunch of grumpy old men who are threatened by my own record of accomplishment,” he said.

Watson said he doesn't plan to challenge members of the delegation as a Republican candidate in November, adding that they will be “running on their record,” which he said included supporting a school district consolidation law that will mean Brunswick's loss of $189,000 in tuition students from Durham.

“Brunswick school children are getting hammered,” Watson said. “... These guys are fighting to keep Gary Brown off (the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority) when they could have been seriously fighting for this town and this school district.”

Meanwhile, it's unclear how the war of words will impact the district's attempt to scale back the proposed cuts in state education aid.

Last week the School Board voted to create a citizen liaison to work with the delegation, but Watson said it may be too late.

“The time to fight was two weeks ago,” he said.

Priest and Gerzofsky continued to defend their efforts, adding that the delegation helped save Brunswick from consolidation – a law the district sharply opposed.

“(Watson's) remarks were unfortunate,” Priest said. “But I think it's best for everybody to put all that aside and work together.”

Gerzofsky said he is disappointed that the Brunswick School Board didn't contact the delegation for assistance.

“It would be awfully nice if the School Board invited legislators in to work on ideas instead of going to the television and newspapers to yell and scream,” he said.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net