Election 2015: Cape Elizabeth School Board race an incumbent-free zone

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Three School Board seats are being sought by four candidates in the Nov. 3 election.

Elizabeth Scifres, John Voltz, William Gross III and Heather Altenburg are each running for the three-year term. There are no incumbents in the race – David Hillman, Kate Williams-Hewitt and John Christie III are not seeking re-election – but Scifres has previously served on the board.

Polls are open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Election Day at Cape Elizabeth High School. Absentee ballots are available on the town website and at Town Hall and are due back by Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.

Elizabeth Scifres

Scifres, who has lived in Cape Elizabeth for 11 years, is the varsity girls tennis coach at South Portland High School. She previously served on the School Board for one term, from 2011-2014, and lost her re-election bid last year.

Scifres said she’s running again because she cares about the schools and wants to move them forward.

“I am running for School Board to protect, preserve and improve upon what is working well in Cape Elizabeth schools, while supporting innovation and changes where needed,” she said.

Scifres, who has two children in the school system, said her experience on the board will allow her to jump right into the issues. She said she knows how to listen and how to make good decisions.

“I listen critically and deeply before asking as many questions as necessary, then make decisions,” she said. “I have positive working relationships with administrators, teachers, and other board members, and understand not only the role of a board member, but how a good School Board functions in this town.”

Last spring the School Board budget was cut when Town Council asked for a flat budget. Scifres said the “arbitrary” zero percent increase came “out of the blue.”

“Despite years of data showing that school budgets pass with great support in this town, despite citizens voicing their wishes for a compromise, not a zero percent budget, the Town Council forced the schools to make cuts and send a zero percent tax increase budget to the voters,” she said.

Scifres said the council shouldn’t have cut the budget and shouldn’t interfere in the future. She said the budget should only be voted on by the citizens.

“The role of Town Council in relation to the school budget is to respect the School Board budget process, carefully review that budget and process, but ultimately pass that budget along to the voters of Cape Elizabeth,” she said. “Maine State Law dictates that the voters shall approve the budget.”

Scifres said communication is important and needs to be improved.

“Clear, timely, effective communication – between the three schools, among educators, from school to home, from school to community – must be a priority,” she said.

John Voltz

Voltz, a consultant, has lived in town for five years and has two children in the school system. He’s never held public office, but has served on a corporate board.

Voltz said the schools are one of Cape Elizabeth’s biggest assets and he wants to play a more active role.

“I felt I could make a bigger contribution as a board member,” he said.

He said the schools in town are very good, but he wants to work on improving them.

“Excellent schools don’t happen by accident,” he said. “They need to be maintained.”

Voltz said the budget mandate by the council disappointed and surprised him.

“Whatever part of the process (Town Council) plays, the outcome shouldn’t have been a surprise,” he said. “I think there could have been more dialogue prior to the vote.”

Additionally, Voltz said in the future the School Board could clarify the reasoning behind the budget.

“The School Board can do a better job explaining what they’re doing,” he said. “Putting some of those numbers more clearly in context could have helped.”

After councilors said they wanted a zero percent increase, but before they formally voted on the matter, Voltz created a petition asking that the full budget be restored. Voltz said the issue became emotional last year and, going forward, he said the School Board needs to be civil with the Town Council.

“I want to be hard on the issue and soft on the person,” he said.

Other issues concerning Voltz include a lack of administrators in the district.

“I’m somewhat concerned that our administration is on the thin side,” he said. “High-performing organizations have a full and effective administrative staff. It allows them resiliency.”

Voltz said he also wants to get residents more involved with School Board issues.

“I would like to see a higher level of citizen participation, but there needs to be a better framework for that,” he said.

Voltz said he’d be a good School Board member because he’ll work hard for the schools.

“They’ll vote for me if they want someone who understands what’s excellent about our schools and wants to maintain that,” he said.

William Gross III

William Gross has lived in Cape Elizabeth since 1980 and has spent the last seven years volunteering at the high school as a physics tutor. He’s a retired engineer and has never held public office.

Gross said he’s running for the School Board because education, especially science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, is very important to him.

“I’m very interested in the academic performance of the schools, which is good, but I think could be better,” he said.

Gross said he thinks academics could be improved if the middle and high school teachers “integrated curriculum more closely.” 

Gross said he didn’t like the way the school budget was handled, but understands the Town Council’s right to have made that decision.

“It was completely within the purview of the Town Council to say they didn’t want to tax Cape Elizabeth citizens,” he said. “I think it was proper for Town Council to make that decision. I think it was a mistake to wait until the end because it blindsided the School Board.”

In the future, Gross said it would be better for the Town Council and School Board to sit down at the beginning of the process and set caps on the budget. He said the cap could then be sent to the superintendent of schools so he or she could work with the limits set.

Gross said family structure is the most important factor in student performance, but he had two other ideas for improving schools. He said the first is to improve the quality of the teachers. He said while they’re very good already, more can be done in terms of professional development.

Instead of sending teachers to conferences, Gross said teachers should work with and study each other.

“You improve teaching by having them study each other,” he said. “We have excellent teachers here.”

Gross said he would also like to start slowly extending the school year so students can spend more time in class. When the school’s capital improvement program ends in 2024, Gross said the board should use the $1 million surplus it will have to fund the extended school days. He said starting the transition now will make it easier to fully implement later.

Heather Altenburg

Altenburg, a yoga instructor, has lived in Cape Elizabeth for 10 years and has three children in the schools. If elected, this would be her first time holding public office.

Altenburg on Oct. 3 said she intended to withdraw from the race, but on Oct. 6 said she had changed her mind.

She didn’t provide a reason for almost dropping out. “Does it really matter? I am back in the running fully and with enthusiasm,” Altenburg said. “Cold feet, maybe?”

Altenburg, who used to be a teacher, said the experience she gained in her former profession would lend itself well to being a School Board member.

“I am best suited to serve on the Cape Elizabeth School Board based on many years of experience as an educator and parent,” she said. “It would be an honor to serve our community by capitalizing on these vast experiences.”

She said she is running for a seat on the board because she wants to “keep our schools strong.”

“An exceptional school system is the best investment to support a connected community while upholding robust property values for homeowners,” she said. “Strong schools are essential to any vibrant town.”

If elected, Altenburg said she would listen to residents’ concerns and wouldn’t push any certain agenda.

“My goal as a School Board member is to be open and receptive to the issues without presenting a personal agenda,” she said. “I am a strong listener and I will hear what families, as well as people who don’t have children in the schools, have to say and bring those interests to the board.”

Altenburg didn’t comment directly on the school budget cut, but said if elected, she will be open about the budget process and conservative with the numbers.

“In working with the budget, not only will I consider the needs of the school, but will also be very aware of the budgetary squeeze some families experience and look at every number,” she said.

Altenburg said she wants to continue developing “innovative learning strategies” at the school and do what’s best for students.

“Most importantly, if elected I will be open-minded on all issues with the best interest for our children, their futures, and our community,” she said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.


I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.