Newcomer challenges incumbent for Brunswick School Board seat

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BRUNSWICK — Incumbent School Board member James Grant is facing a re-election challenge from newcomer Christopher Watkinson for at three-year term representing District 5 in east Brunswick.

Two other candidates are running in uncontested races: incumbent at-large board member William Thompson, and Sarah Singer, who is running in District 7.

Watkinson said the board isn’t making progress on important decisions and needs fresh eyes on the key issues it faces.

Grant, who has served on the board periodically for a total of 14 years, said he wants to keep moving on items that are still in their early stages.

The candidates have similar stances on major issues, including new school facilities, spending, and the growth of charter schools. 

Watkinson

A native of Topsham, Watkinson, 35, returned to the area from Boston 10 years ago, in part because he wanted to start a family in a place with a strong school system, he said. 

He is the technical director of Bowdoin College’s Studinski Recital Hall and teaches as an adjunct professor at the college. Two of his children attend Coffin Elementary School.  

“It’s safe to say I have a vested interest in the School Department here,” Watkinson said.

He criticized the School Board for what he called its focus on immediate issues without planning for long-term solutions, especially in its response to school overcrowding.

“In current years the solutions that the School Board has come up with are just putting one foot in front of the other,” Watkinson said.

He is opposed to moving fifth-grade students to Brunswick Junior High School in the 2015-2016 school year, a plan approved by the board in May.

Moving students creates another set of problems for the School Department, he said, including staffing, facilities and programming.

“If the goal is to make it a temporary move, it just adds another step of transition that is counter-productive to education,” Watkinson said.

The only “clear solution” to overcrowding is a new school at the site of the closed Jordan Acres School, he said. Less expensive options to repair existing facilities are likely to cost the town more in the long run, he added.

Watkinson, who was offered a seat on Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski’s school choice advisory committee, said Brunswick can learn a lot from Maine’s charter schools.

Specifically, the town could involve parents more in establishing curriculum, he said, with the goal of creating a stronger bond between students, families and the schools, to create an environment that will “pull more students into Brunswick, rather than drive them away.”

While the School Department is getting by with the funding it receives, there are some areas where the town could reorganize its budget priorities to get more money for the education system, he said. 

“Our No. 1 responsibility is to make sure students are getting the best possible education,” Watkinson said. 

Grant

Like Watkinson, Grant said school funding is “adequate for now,” but the Town Council may have to redistribute tax dollars to support the School Department.

“We’ve been very conservative in the last six years,” he said.

Grant, 48, was first elected to the board in 1992 and served until 2000. He ran unopposed in 2008 and again in 2011. 

He is employed as the technology leader for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative at Freeport High School, and owns a video and computer services company.

Grant is a former School Board chairman, and sits on the Maine School Boards Association board of directors and on a Department of Education commission studying the state’s education funding formula.

Several important issues in front of the board are “in their infancy,” Grant said, and he’d like to continue working on them.

He agreed the town’s only choice to deal with overcrowding is to build a new school, adding that short-term repairs will probably end up costing as much as new construction.

“Dollar-wise, it makes more sense to look towards a new school,” Grant said. “The question really, is, can Brunswick afford it?”

Grant, who voted in favor of moving the fifth grade to Brunswick Junior High School, said he was “pretty close to 50-50” on his decision and only voted for the proposal because he was assured it would end up being a positive educational experience for the students.

The vote was “not an edict” and grade configuration is “100 percent” the superintendent’s purview, Grant said. The proposal came from staff and teachers, not the School Board, he added.

Brunswick is now in “competition mode” against charter schools, Grant said, and needs to provide “superior” educational opportunities in order to keep pace.

A plan for a charter school under the auspices of the Brunswick School Department was scuttled last year after questions were raised about whether the board had violated charter school laws by negotiating to establish a school with a local business owner.

Grant said the idea was proposed because the state law is “so awkward to work with” that it is nearly impossible for a local school department to open a charter, leaving them at a disadvantage and unable to compete fairly against charters.

The fact that he does not have any children is an advantage because he can dedicate time to his board work without a strong emotional connection to the issues, Grant said. 

“Fourteen years on the board, I think, is a vested interest,” he said.

Thompson

Thompson defeated an incumbent in 2011 and is the board’s current vice chairman. 

He attended public schools in Brunswick and graduated from Colby College in Waterville. Before moving back to the area, he worked in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and was a substitute teacher in Brunswick schools. 

He currently works as a management analyst at the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management in Augusta. 

Sarah Singer

Singer is uncontested for the seat covering a rural-residential area in west-central Brunswick, bordered roughly by Bowdoin College, Church Road, Woodside Drive and Pleasant Hill Road.  

Michele Joyce, a two-term board member who currently holds the seat, announced in September she would not seek re-election.

Singer, a former labor organizer and lobbyist, gained attention in Brunswick school politics several years ago as the lead organizer for Brunswick Community United, a citizens’ group formed to support the school budget in the face of cuts to state aid.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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