Portland School Committee: 5 candidates seek 3 seats
PORTLAND — There are five candidates competing for three seats on the School Committee.
Voters on Nov. 2 will choose a new School Committee member for District 3, where current committee Chairman Peter Eglinton is not seeking re-election.
There are also three candidate competing for two at-large seats.
In interviews, the candidates weighed in on the challenges that face the public schools, including the expected loss of about $4 million in state and federal education revenue.
School Committee members serve three-year terms and make $3,000 a year; the chair makes $3,900 a year.
The District 3 race pits Laurie Davis, a former district employee and school administrator, against Frank Gallagher, an advertising and public relations consultant.
District 3 includes Stroudwater, Rosemont and Nason's Corner, as well as parts of Deering Center, Oakdale and Libbytown.
Both candidates have experience serving on municipal committees and said they believe the district is on the right track, noting the hiring of new leaders and improved fiscal stability.
Davis was elected last year to represent District 3 on the Charter Commission and has served on the city's Housing and Community Development Committee.
Gallagher, meanwhile, recently served on the city's Community Development Block Grant Allocations Committee and the CDBG Priorities Task Force.
If elected, Gallagher said he will be a conduit for community concerns and will maintain a website to foster communication with the public.
Davis said she is running to offer her experience with budgets and federal grant programs, to increase collaboration with the City Council and to make education a community-wide issue, rather than just an issue for parents.
Davis, 58, is a divorced mother of three children, two of whom attended city schools. She is director of upward bound at the University of Southern Maine and lived on Peaks Island for 23 years.
For six years in the 1980s, Davis worked as the city's senior federal and city program evaluator. In that capacity, she developed experience with federal grant applications and accountability.
"As a grant administrator, I have to produce outcomes within that financial constraint and there is never enough money," she said. "I'm kind of an educational policy wonk, so I think serving on the School Community would be fun."
To deal with an expected $4 million decline in state funding, Davis said the committee will have to find savings by closely examining programs that are working and determining which ones are not.
"We'll have to make some hard decisions, but I don't know what they will be at this point," she said. "Taxes are an important issue and it's a balancing act. It's about letting people folks know what we need to do and what it's going to cost."
Davis, who has lived in Portland for 32 years, said she will bring a broad perspective to the committee informed by her profession and her experience as a mother of Portland graduates.
"We need a world-class education system here in Portland," she said. "We have made huge strides in Portland and I want to contribute."
Davis has a Facebook page: Laurie Davis for School Committee.
Gallagher is a 44-year-old self-employed communications consultant. He is married to Noel Gallagher, an editor at the Portland Press Herald. They have three children, and the oldest attends Longfellow Elementary School.
Gallagher said he wants to make sure teachers have enough classroom supplies. He criticized the lack of classroom funding, which has forced teachers to send letters home to parents seeking donations and supplies.
"There's got to be a way to fix that," he said.
The district will have difficult decisions to make in light of an expected $4 million reduction in state and federal funding, but Gallagher did not offer any specific suggestions about how to close that gap, only saying he would involve stakeholders to reach a consensus.
"I am not there to shake things up or impose my vision," he said.
Gallagher, who grew up in Bangor and has lived in Portland for four years, said he believes he is the best candidate because of his leadership and communications skills. He plans to maintain his campaign website, GallagherforSchoolCommittee.com, to foster communications with the community and parent teacher organizations.
He said he believes that communication will be necessary as the city decides the fate of the Nathan Clifford Elementary School, which is scheduled to be closed this school year.
"I really do like talking with people to see what they think our priorities should be," he said.
Gallagher is also on Facebook: Frank Gallagher for School Committee.
Incumbents Jaimey Caron and Kathleen Snyder are hoping to win their second three-year terms over challenger Morton Soule of Presumpscot Street. As a resident of Cumberland in the early 1980s, Soule served one term on the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors.
Caron and Snyder have held leadership positions on the facilities and finance committees, respectively, and said they believe the district will be better off with the continuity of their service.
Soule, who worked as a high school language teacher in Portland for nearly 35 years, said he is running to keep local property taxes low.
Caron is a 45-year-old structural engineer, who was recently laid off. He and his wife, Denise, a nutritionist, have two children in city schools: a 12-year-old at Lyman Moore Middle School and a 10-year-old at Lyseth Elementary School.
Over the last three years, the committee has been focused on filling a nearly $2 million budget deficit left over from 2007 and hiring new leaders, including the superintendent.
Caron said those gains, as well as a renewed focus on long-term budget and facilities planning, has positioned the district to make great strides in the coming years, especially in drafting a comprehensive plan for the district.
Caron, whose website is CaronforSchools.org, said he is seeking re-election to help effect that change in the coming years.
"I think we're on the cusp of good things," he said. "With more turnover on the board I think we will lose some of the momentum we're starting to build."
Caron, a former Planning Board member, said the School Department is position to confront an expected $4 million reduction in state and federal aid, thanks to adoption of its first multi-year budget.
However, he said the School Committee will be forced to look for efficiencies across the district and to find ways to deliver valuable programs, while cutting those that are no longer relevant.
"We know what we're doing now is not working for us," Caron said. "The more we dig into (programming and policies), the more we realize there are opportunities there."
The committee has undertaken measures to improve accountability within the district, Caron said. He said he hopes the district will develop ways to gauge student achievement, rather than simply relying on state- and federally mandated tests.
Much of Caron's work has focused on school facilities. He said the opening of the Ocean Avenue School is an opportunity to "heal old wounds in the city," while giving students a modern learning environment. Other school improvements are on the horizon.
"I'm hopeful over the next year, we will see a lot more work come forward," he said.
Snyder is a 40-year-old mother of three children, ages 13, 13 and 10, who attend Portland Schools. She is a development program manager for the Maine Department of Correction and is married to Colin Snyder, a software developer.
Snyder said the schools will benefit from the continuity of her service, especially when it comes to the multi-year budget and comprehensive planning efforts.
The anticipated $4 million cut in revenue will present a challenge, Snyder said, but she believes the district is well-positioned to cope. Millions of dollars could be saved by changing how the schools deliver sports, music and other co-curricular activities, whose costs vary from school to school, she said.
"It keeps coming up at the 11th hour as potential cuts and it's not fair," Snyder said, noting the potential for alternative funding through corporate sponsorships, affiliations with semi-pro sports teams and other sponsors. "There is a direct link between kids doing sports and other activities and their achievement in schools."
Snyder, a city resident for 16 years, said she looks forward to hearing new proposals for increased efficiency from Superintendent James Morse Sr., who has now been employed for more than a year.
Snyder said there is a culture shift occurring in the district, with the high schools and middle schools working together as a team to find more efficient ways to deliver programs.
"They have never done that before," she said. "(Last year), they were talking as a middle school system."
Snyder said the committee will also need to study how the opening of the Ocean Avenue School will affect enrollments across the district, which could prompt the board to consider redistricting.
Beyond redistricting, the school system needs to continue to improve school equity, to attract new families to the city, she said – noting that effort may result in frank conversations with the community and City Council about increasing the local tax rate.
"We can't be under pressure every year to not have an impact on local property taxes," she said.
Soule, 65, is a part-time Latin teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School, a position he took after being a full-time teacher at Portland High School for 34 years. He and his wife, Margaret, a school librarian in Brunswick, have lived in Portland for 17 years. They have four grown children, the youngest of whom attended city schools.
Soule said he believes serving on the School Committee is a natural transition from being a teacher. He said the district's top priority should be getting Riverton Elementary School off the state's list of failing schools.
The district has received a $3.4 million grant to implement sweeping changes at the school.
Soule said he also wants to lobby state and federal officials to change the way the government allocates school funding. Currently, the funding uses property values as a basis for determining funding, but Soule said he would like the formula to account for the number of students who receive free and reduced-cost lunches.
Although similar efforts have failed in the past, Soule said he is optimistic.
"I think it can be done," he said. "I'm optimistic that people can look at Portland's situation and see we need new funds."
Soule, however, does not want to ask Portland taxpayers to increase their burden when it comes to school funding.
"I would like to keep property taxes as low as possible," he said. "We should be getting more money from the state and federal government, and be more aggressive in grant writing."
When asked why residents should vote for him, the Latin teacher turned to his area of expertise.
"Experientia docet," he said. "Experience teaches."
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or email@example.com