Familiar faces compete for Brunswick School Board

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BRUNSWICK — A former town councilor is attempting to unseat a two-term School Board incumbent, while a first-time candidate opposes a former board member’s third attempt to reclaim his School Board seat, in the contested races on the Nov. 8 local ballot.

A parent and former art teacher is unopposed for a third School Board post.

District 1

Byron Watson, who served on the School Board from 2008-11, abandoned a bid for House District 51 in August to launch a third campaign for the seat he lost to Rich Ellis in 2010 and 2013.

A parent of two children in the school system and the general manager of Canine Acres, he also coaches and referees a variety of school athletic teams, including soccer, basketball and track. His father is Town Councilor David Watson.

The centerpiece of Watson’s campaign is a proposed dual-enrollment program, which would allow students to gain credits toward an associate’s, bachelor’s, or vocational degree while still enrolled at the high school.

Watson would also like to see the high school absorb Harpswell students; he said their enrollment would increase school funding through tuition, as was the case when Durham students attended Brunswick before consolidating into Freeport schools.

Watson would like to see more accountability from the School Department. He claimed that the closure of Jordan Acres School in 2011 might have been prevented had the school properly maintained the roof after a ceiling beam fell a few months before the end of the spring semester.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has refuted that reasoning as rumor, and said the building was closed because the department could not afford more than $4 million of other maintenance the building needed.

Watson supports building a new elementary school, but criticized the Board for “kicking the can down the road” when making its decision, and for failing to properly research the final proposal. He called the proposed Jordan Acres location “absurd” because the configuration is too small and awkward, and would not allow for the school to expand athletic fields.

Instead, he would have the board look into an area near the high school on Maquoit Road.

During his previous tenure on the board, he served on the building committee for Harriet Beech Stowe Elementary School, which is “experience that is needed right now, otherwise the town could be taken for a ride,” he said, by escalating construction costs.

Watson chaired the Board for a short period in 2010 before losing the title after he sent what some called an inappropriate email to then Speaker of the state House of Representatives Hannah Pingree; the email began by calling her “the most gorgeous member of the Legislature.”

Watson continues to dismiss claims that the incident hurt his reputation among voters; during an interview he called the ordeal a “farce in the newspapers.” Instead, he insisted that his constituency is proud of programs like all-day kindergarten, which was implemented during his time on the board, and for never having voted to raise property taxes.

His challenger, Mandy Merrill, is a first-time candidate who has held leadership positions on several school committees and volunteered in her son’s classroom since 2005.

“It just seemed like a logical step to really be involved,” she said. “I know that I’m going to bring integrity to the School Board. Even though I’m a passionate person, I’m calm. It takes a lot to push my buttons.”

As the parent of a sixth-grader at the junior high, Merrill said she has seen what works and what doesn’t in the classroom. She would like to see more programs like the elementary school looping program, which allowed her son to stay with the same teacher for two consecutive years and develop strong bonds with his classmates.

Merrill is also interested in alternative learning programs that encourage “hands on, outside learning to help kiddos who struggle with straight-from-the-book learning,” but did not identify specific programs.

Merrill supports building and financing a new elementary school, and has attended at least one recent Facilities Committee meeting on the planning process.

“Kids perform better when they can focus on the teacher and not a building that has issues that should be fixed,” she said, adding that while the cost concerns her, a new school would, over the course of time, draw families and taxpayers to Brunswick.

Merrill works in retail management in Lewiston and is pursing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Southern New Hampshire University’s Brunswick campus.

District 2

Ben Tucker believes the school system is the “No. 1 long-term issue for the town,” and he hopes his perspective as a former town councilor will benefit the board’s future decision-making.

“I think I have a good understanding of how the town is run,” said Tucker, who served on the council from 2008-2013, and was vice chairman his final year.

Tucker said the board’s handling of plans to build a new elementary school” has been pretty good,” and, if elected, he would strongly campaign to build community support and transparency around what he admits will be an expensive project. (Costs for for a new school, coupled with necessary repairs to the Junior High School, are expected to be around $30 million.)

Tucker said he is passionate about acquiring greater state funding for Brunswick Schools. He criticized the state for “failing to meet its obligation” to fund 55 percent of public education, and argued that this failure puts Brunswick on the hook to raise property taxes to pay for education.

According to Superintendent Perzanoski, Brunswick receives around 33 percent of its operating revenue from the state.

Clough, who has served for two terms, said “persistence” is her defining leadership quality, and wants to see the School Department’s newly adopted Strategic Plan exist as a “living document” into the future, rather than sit on a shelf somewhere.

Clough said she initially ran for the School Board to get involved in developing the plan, which outlines goals for the next five years. She sits on the Strategic Planning Committee and considers the plan’s fruition a career highlight.

Clough’s interest in planning stems from her work outside of the board as an independent educational consultant; she also coaches students in standardized test preparation.

Her philosophy on the School Board has been to work collaboratively with the entire board and to avoid political distractions.

“I don’t think it’s my role as a School Board member to say, ‘This is my issue.” Instead, my view is that when a board has a common vision (to provide) for all children, we can work (together).”

Tucker made the decision to run for the Board independently of comments made by Clough at a School Board meeting last January, where Clough referred to those celebrating Jewish holidays as an “outside group.” (The board was discussing a proposal to add Jewish holidays to the school calendar, which members ultimately supported.)

He said the comments only “affected the timing of the announcement” to run, which he announced early last year because “(I) want(ed) people to know there’s an alternative,” he said.

Defending her comments, Clough invoked her philosophy as a board member.

“The reason I was asking those questions was, from my point of view, is that there will be children and families from all religious beliefs,” she said. “It’s a School Board member’s job to ask, ‘how is this going to be beneficial to all children? How is this one group going to benefit everyone?'”

District 6

Elizabeth Sokoloff is a first-time candidate for the School Board, but no stranger to schools: a parent at Coffin Elementary, she served on the Principal’s Advisory Committee, and is a grant reader for the Brunswick Community Education Foundation, which provides money to teachers who want to pursue special projects.

She also taught at a public high school in Monmouth for 14 years, where she helping establish the school’s arts program. New art programming was one of the factors that helped reduce the number of disciplinary actions and student drop-outs during her time there. “I feel like I’ve been at the helm of bringing about change in school,” she said.

She said she fully supports the board’s decision to build a new elementary school, and said that renovating Coffin (instead of building a new school) would be a Band-Aid solution financially, as well as a safety hazard to the students that would essentially have a new school “built around (them).”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.


Edited 10/11 to correct that Elizabeth Sokoloff is running for District 6.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.