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Budget, bond issues divide Falmouth School Board candidates

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Budget, bond issues divide Falmouth School Board candidates

FALMOUTH — Four candidates are competing for two seats in the June 11 School Board election.

The ballot has three first-time candidates – Clare Harrington, Caryn Bickerstaff and Susan Coughlin – and a repeat candidate from 2011, Michael Doyle.

The candidates bring a range of experiences and will vie for seats being vacated by Chris Murry Jr. and David Snow.

The candidates' opinions varied on the three significant school-related ballot issues: borrowing a total of $5 million for improvements to the roof, classrooms and heating system at Falmouth Middle School, and the $30.2 million School Department budget.

Doyle, well-known to residents, town and school officials because of his near-daily emails and frequent Freedom of Information requests, said he thinks the budget should be reviewed again to find cost savings that can reduce the tax impact.

He contends the tax increases in the last several years have been too steep and said inefficiencies in management are partly to blame.

"I'm not against taxing or paying teachers good money," he said. "I'm against wasting money."

Doyle pointed to an example of the School Department buying paper at what he said is above-retail cost, essentially overcharging taxpayers. He said stopping that practice, and others like it, could save the town tens of thousands of dollars every year.

In March 2002, Doyle, who is retired from the insurance industry and also formerly worked as a securities trader, pleaded guilty to misrepresenting and selling unregistered securities. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison with all but 14 months suspended, and was ordered to pay a $16,000 fine.

Doyle said he was duped into pleading guilty twice by his lawyers, who he claims were in on a "Ponzi scheme," "Bernie Madoff kind of thing" with him, although he was unaware.

And while he spent time in jail for committing the felony, Doyle said that's now behind him.

"You know what I like about America? Redemption and second chances in life," he said. "I made a huge mistake in listening to my lawyers and pleading guilty twice, but I haven't given up on trying to help the town of Falmouth."

Also, according to documents he provided, Doyle is a certified teacher, which he said probably makes him the only felon holding a license to teach in Maine.

Doyle said he supports the middle school bonds, but believes such a large expense could have been reduced significantly with better planning.

"When you get to the point and you're up against the wall and you need to fix the roof, I don't think you have an option. And, when the heating needs to be fixed, you don't have any choices there," he said, noting that if the School Department had maintained the roof and had regular inspections, the costs could be less. "These were things they knew were coming and just never budgeted for."

Doyle said the school budget needs more work.

"I am against the school budget as it stands because there's so much mismanagement," he said. "It has to be really looked at again."

One area where savings could be made, Doyle said, is if the top 100 Falmouth teachers took a pay cut to put them on the same pay level as their Cape Elizabeth peers.

"I don't expect that to happen, but I think it should be discussed in an honest, open forum," he said.

First-time candidate Harrington, who currently works in the Westbrook school system teaching low-performing math students, said she supports the budget and the bonds.

"I've seen a lot of school districts that don't plan well, and as a result it decreases the efficiency of their schools," she said. "I think (the School Board) is doing quite a good job of keeping costs at bay. I want to make sure long-range planning continues to be important. I hate to see knee-jerk reactions in education."

Harrington has worked in public education for the last 20 years in several capacities and said she hopes her experiences can be beneficial in managing Falmouth schools.

"I know it's financially difficult times, but if we don't prepare and plan to prevent the real big problems, we could conceivably end up paying more, and the kids' education suffers," she said, noting that she has two children in Falmouth schools. "I think just the fact that I am a teacher and have seen poor policy put in place and the effects of poor policy. I've seen extreme budget cuts and the effects on classrooms and students. I think that's a perspective some others may not have."

Still, she said the current board has done a good job avoiding devastating cuts to the schools and hopes to continue that trend.

While she said she doesn't have any specific goals or agenda, Harrington said she hopes to keep the School Department fiscally responsible.

Coughlin is also a teacher, and she said she does not support the proposed budget or the bond referendums. Citing budget increases in the last three, she said the all the items need another review.

"I'm not an expert by any stretch, but we need to keep the tax bill down," Coughlin said, noting one example is a position hired to bring tuition-paying Chinese students to Falmouth. "It may be a lot of little things that maybe aren't good at this point in time."

Despite wanting to maintain a tight budget, she said the teachers and staff in the district are vital and should not be cut.

Coughlin said the need and plans for the middle school should be looked at again and that the plan for the heating system at the middle school should have a thoughtful contingency plan if the bond is not passed.

"If it doesn't pass, what's the plan?" she said. "Do we need to start a 'coats for kids' drive for the middle school? I don't think so."

Coughlin said the main reason for her candidacy is to help shepherd the schools to be more financially responsible, despite the town's general wealth.

"This is just something I thought I would give a go at. Part of it is the financial aspect and watching taxes go up," she said. "We have a good school system, and I know housing prices are contingent on our schools, but you have to be careful and spending has to be brought in line. There are well-to-do people in Falmouth, but we also have people that are not. Taxes keep getting higher for them and that has to be kept in consideration."

Bickerstaff works in the telecommunications industry and has been a volunteer in the schools, mostly in the music department, where her son, who will graduate in 2015, has been involved.

If elected to the board, she said, her goal is simple.

"My most basic want for all this is to make sure that kids are still getting the best education they can," Bickerstaff said. "There seems to be a common theme among everyone who lives here, which recognizes that kids are our future and we need to continue to progress and continue to be educationally excellent."

Since moving from the Seattle area 10 years ago, Bickerstaff said she "loves" that the budget goes in front of the public for validation and is a big proponent of financial transparency.

Bickerstaff said she supports the bond referendums, because the school is aging and has been "pushed to the limit." She also supports the proposed budget.

"The School Board did an amazing job dealing with the factors they've been facing," Bickerstaff said, referring to state cuts and the potential shift of teacher retirement costs to local districts. "I think they did a good job analyzing each program and where they had needs. It seems to a balanced, financially responsible budget."

The board candidates will share the ballot with three uncontested Town Council candidates: Russ Anderson, David Goldberg and Claudia King. All the offices are for three-year terms.

Along with the candidates, the budget and bonds, voters will also have to decide on a proposed $11.7 million Route 1 infrastructure improvement project.

Polls will be open on Election Day from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at the Falmouth High School gym, 74 Woodville Road.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Doyle's emails

A selection of recent emails from Michael Doyle to the town of Falmouth and its School Department. They range from queries about town management, to Freedom of Access Act requests, to promotion of articles on his website. The Forecaster's FOAA request for emails received by the town in the past year from all of this year's School Board candidates yielded hundreds of emails from Doyle and three from all other candidates.