South Portland School Board candidates split on budget, high school renovation
SOUTH PORTLAND — West end residents on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will choose between two lifelong residents vying to represent District 5 on the School Board, a seat being vacated by Stacy Gato, who is not seeking re-election.
Political newcomers and lifelong city residents Alan Livingston, of Sandy Hill Road, and Tappan C. Fitzgerald II, of Massachusetts Avenue, are seeking Gato's seat.
Livingston graduated from South Portland High School in 1968 and later returned as a high school and middle school math teacher from 1973-1982. The 59-year-old is now a math teacher at Cheverus High School in Portland. His three children graduated from South Portland schools and he now has grandchildren in the system.
Fitzgerald works as the community relations manager at Hannaford Bros., a company he has been with for 24 years. The 41-year-old has two children in South Portland schools and has been a member of the Skillin Parent Teacher Association for about nine years. He also served on the school system redistricting committee.
School Board incumbent James Gilboy, of Barnstable Road, is seeking re-election in District 4, the area between Cape Elizabeth, Pleasantdale, Lincoln and Evans streets, and Cottage Road, Boothby Avenue and Ocean Street. He is facing Kendall Fassett, a Carignan Road resident who was one of four candidates for two at-large seats last year.
Fassett, 39, currently works as a tax accountant for L.L.Bean and has three children in the school system. Gilboy, 41, is completing his second term on the School Board, but this is the first time he has faced a challenger. He works as a real estate appraiser and has three children in the school system.
The candidates discussed their views on asking voters to support a more than $40 million renovation of the high school, an anticipated cut in state education aid and other issues facing the school system.
District 4: Kendall Fassett
Fassett, who is not enrolled in a political party, said the board will benefit from his skills as a tax accountant for L.L.Bean and his experience as an athletic director and coach in Vermont. He said the district needs to conduct a full review of all of its programs, so it can make informed decisions about the budget.
"We really need to figure out exactly what we value as a community, rather than just taking last year's budget and figuring out what we can cut," he said.
Fassett said he would push for greater transparency from school administrators by having them make more information available online. The district doesn't post meeting minutes on its Web site, he said, and that lack of critical information is preventing many parents and community members from playing a more active role in the schools. Seven School Board members shouldn't be the only voice in a city of 22,000, he said.
"It's really important for the board and the district to provide good, relevant information to the citizens," Fassett said. "I would like to see a plan for the dissemination of information. Let's not just fill the letter of the law."
Citizen involvement will be key, Fassett said, in determining how to proceed in light of anticipated cuts in state education aid. Involving citizens will create more community buy-in on the board's decisions, he said, as well turn up new ideas for dealing with old problems.
Fassett said the schools should hire an independent architect to review the current plan for a new high school, which has been worked on for more than three years. A peer review, even if it costs $20,000, would either validate the work of the facilities committee, which would give the plan credibility with the voters, or produce a better, more cost-effective plan.
"To me it makes perfect sense," he said. "This high school project is a huge roadblock for anything else getting accomplished. The board can't discuss many other issues without figuring this out."
District 4: James Gilboy
Gilboy, a Democrat, said he is running for re-election because he has three children in the school system with a fourth on the way, and he "fully supports public education."
Even so, Gilboy said he has no agenda and has the ability to consider issues with an open mind, as both a parent and a taxpayer. But when those views collide, he will likely side with the school administration's recommendations.
"I would almost always be on the side of the student and the teacher," Gilboy said.
With the anticipated cut to state education aid, Gilboy said all savings options would have to be on the table, since there is no savings account large enough to offset the loss of revenue. Some of those options would likely affect educational programing and may also include exploring the possibility of closing a school.
"I'd be doing an injustice to say (closing a school) wouldn't be considered," he said.
Gilboy said he fully supports the new high school plan being worked on by the facilities committee, which he said does not get enough credit for the work it has done. He complimented them for listening to the feedback of residents who voted down the plan in 2007. The committee eliminated a second gym and artificial turf field and began pursuing so-called green, energy-efficient technologies.
"I think they're doing everything they possibly can," Gilboy said. "Now, it's up to us, the taxpayers, to give our input. The longer we take, the longer the renovation itself is delayed."
Although the district has tried to budget more money for building maintenance, Gilboy said more needs to be done so the district does not fall behind in its elementary schools. He thinks the city and school should devote a certain, small percentage of the tax rate to building maintenance projects.
"Even when you are talking pennies (on the mil rate), that adds up," he said.
District 5: Tappan C. Fitzgerald II
Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said he is running because he is not happy with the direction of the school district and he wants to help give students the best education that taxpayers can afford. He pointed to the district's performance on the Maine Educational Assessment exams as an area of concern, because some schools and students are still not meeting the state standard.
"We have some schools that are currently on the watch list and there are specific reasons for that," he said. "It's not something there is a quick fix for, but we need to fix it quickly."
Although he participated on the redistricting committee two years ago, Fitzgerald said that class sizes remain an issue. Some schools, like Skillin Elementary, have classes of up to 25 kids, while other schools, like Dyer Elementary, have classes of less than 20. This variation in sizes across the district makes it difficult to ensure that all students are getting a quality education, he said.
Fitzgerald said he does not believe taxpayers are ready to approve a more than $40 million bond next June for a new high school. If a bond is pursued, it should be put to voters in November 2010, when voter turnout is higher, he said, because it will give the School Department more time to prove the plan is fiscally responsible.
"Voters in South Portland have traditionally voted to support realistic needs for its schools," he said. "The previous (high school) plan they put out was so grandiose people were insulted by it."
Fitzgerald said he was encouraged by the process undertaken by the School Board last year, when the state cut education funding, and he is confident that process will work again. That process, he said, included a line-by-line evaluation of the budget.
Meanwhile, he said, the district may have to reconsider its funding model for athletic and co-curricular programs to help relieve some pressure in the budget. Fitzgerald said he would encourage sports teams to look increasingly to their booster clubs for funding and would use the highly successful music boosters, which raise more than $100,000 annually, as a model.
"These are enrichment opportunities that need to be there," he said. "We just need to figure out how to fund them."
District 5: Alan Livingston
Livingston, a Republican, said he was motivated to run because of the facility issues affecting the high school and middle school. The district is penalized in the state school funding formula for having two middle schools, he said, so he would pursue a plan to consolidate those schools at a new facility at Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road.
Although more students would need to be bused, he said the district would save more money in administration and maintenance costs.
"There needs to be one middle school," Livingston said. "It may qualify (for state funding) if we say we are going to consolidate."
Livingston said the current renovation plan for the high school is too expensive for the voters to support. He believes voters will not approve a bond for more than $18 million, which would be enough to address the issues in the Annex, which has leaky windows, old heating systems and poor air quality – issues he said the school had when he taught there in the 1970s.
"(The facilities committee members') hearts are in the right place, but it comes down to what the community will support," said Livingston, adding that the School Department is not doing enough to educate the community about the high school's problems and the renovation plan. "It seems like when it gets time to vote they say, 'OK. Let's push it.'"
Livingston said he would like to see administrators present more of a line-item budget, similar to the municipal side, because the school budget "has money here, there and everywhere." He would also like greater transparency when it comes accounting for savings the district gets when a veteran teacher leaves and a new teacher is hired at a lower salary.
In dealing with a potential cut in state education aid, Livingston said his experience working in private and public schools will allow him to bring a teacher's point of view to the board, while acknowledging that funding for some programs and supplies will likely need to be cut. A closer examination of the data would be needed before making any specific recommendations for cuts, he said, while warning that teachers may be asked to do more with less.
"Maybe things need to be lean for a little bit," Livingston said.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or email@example.com