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Brunswick School Board incumbents face old, new challengers

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Brunswick School Board incumbents face old, new challengers

BRUNSWICK — Old rivals will face off in one School Board election, while the board's longest-serving member is challenged by a newcomer in another.

Incumbent Brenda Clough is uncontested for a third seat on the board.

District 1

In District 1, former board member Byron Watson is hoping to regain the seat he lost to Rich Ellis, now the incumbent, in 2010.

Watson, 34, who served on School Board from 2007-2010, is a life-long Brunswick resident and has two young children. He is the son of Town Councilor David Watson.

Watson is an insurance underwriter and an executive committee member of the Brunswick High School Alumni Association.

He has previously worked on several political campaigns, including for former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and has volunteered for the town's Parks and Recreation Department.

Watson said he wasn't planning to run until after former high school Principal Art Abelmann abruptly resigned in May, following a similar departure from a Colorado school in 2011.

"I think they clearly need to revamp the hiring process," he said. "I can't imagine how he got past the first stage."

Watson said he also wants to see improved leadership and accountability for maintenance and planning of school facilities. He said he found the roof beam collapse that contributed to the closure of Jordan Acres Elementary School especially troubling, which happened as he was departing the board.

"There needs to be some leadership and accountability for that taking place," he said.

Watson said he is concerned with the board's current plans to build a new elementary school where Jordan Acres currently sits while postponing renovations at Brunswick Junior High School. 

Instead, he said, he would like to simultaneously renovate Coffin Elementary School and the junior high school, but for less than the estimated $38 million price tag for full renovations.

"I think we can get it closer to $20 million," he said.

The estimate by PDT Architects for minimal renovations to both schools was nearly $30 million.

Watson, who said he prides himself in having never voted to increase taxes during his previous service on the board, said he would continue to vote for a school budget that doesn't have an impact on taxpayers.

He said he would achieve this by limiting spending to create a smaller, yet adequate annual surplus, collaborating with other school districts on transportation and other services, and working with the state to begin accepting students from neighboring towns.

Watson was ousted as board chairman in 2010 after sending an inappropriate email to former House Speaker Hannah Pingree, and his later reluctance to apologize for the message, which called her "the most gorgeous member of the Legislature."

"I fell victim to the informalities of email communication and I was new to politics at the time," Watson said, "and I learned a valuable lesson. ... I think some from the other side took it and made a bigger issue out of it than it was, and the rest is history."

Ellis, 45, has been on School Board since 2011. He moved to Brunswick as an infant when his father was stationed at Brunswick Naval Air Station. A graduate of Brunswick High School, he lives with his wife and two young children, who attend town schools.

He is a senior marketing manager for WEX (formerly Wright Express) in South Portland, and also volunteers for youth soccer.

Ellis said he's seeking re-election for three reasons: the School Department's continuing issues with budget and facilities, his professional experience, and his enjoyment of serving on the board.

"It involves difficult decisions, but it's good to know the work is having an impact on the community," he said.

As chairman of the facilities committee, Ellis said he's been deliberative when planning the future of Brunswick's school buildings. Earlier this year, Ellis encouraged the board to reconsider simultaneously renovating two schools for $38 million, and instead opting to look at building a new elementary school that would eventually replace Coffin Elementary.

"This is not a decision I want to move quickly into," he said. "We've been pretty deliberate about it. We've narrowed our scope in the full recognition that cost is a factor. The process is moving along, but it's far from completed yet."

When it comes to the last three years of tax increases, Ellis said what's important to consider is the decreasing financial support from state education aid and that the town was just starting to feel the impact of losing the former naval air station.

"When it comes down to swings in state revenue, it becomes difficult to do forward-looking financial planning," he said. "... That's what caused a big part of the problem. ... That inability to rely on what is supposed to be our most significant sources of revenues can stymie financial planning because you're putting out the fires on last-minute changes."

Ellis said he wants the board to continue its communication with legislators in order to lobby for more state funding and a reduced tax burden on local taxpayers.

However, at the same time, Ellis said he thinks the School Board has done well balancing the budget and evaluating programs.

"The board has done a good job in evaluating every single program and going through excruciating detail to evaluate whether something was need or whether we should continue," he said.

District 6

In District 6, incumbent Janet Connors, who has served on the board since 2000, is challenged by from political neophyte Daniel Hammond Jr.

Hammond, 30, who moved to Brunswick in the third grade, returned to town two years ago after earning a bachelor's degree in business management and working a few years as a consultant for residential oil companies in the northeast. He is married and has one daughter who lives with her mother in Georgia.

He is a supervisor in the carpentry shop at Bath Iron Works.

Hammond said he decided to run for School Board because he wants to take a proactive approach in becoming involved and making an impact in the community.

"It's one of those things where I think a lot of people have children and they say, 'OK, I need to get involved in my child's life,'" Hammond said. "Well, being back here now for two years, trying to get my feet set back, I decided to branch out and start (getting involved now)."

He said he would also like to bring a fresh voice to the board.

"Change isn't always good, but sometimes change is what's needed," Hammond said. "It's time to make changes."

Like Watson, Hammond said should be more accountability in handling school facilities, especially with the 2011 closure of Jordan Acres, which "plays to (his) heartstrings" because of his time as a student there.

"I just want to make sure that we know that decisions have consequences and actions need to be held accountable," he said.

While Hammond expressed desire to first explore options in renovating Jordan Acres, rather than building a new school, he said he would need to look at all the numbers first before making a decision.

"If the buildings are so far bad that we need an update, then it's good to start with a clean slate," Hammond said. "But the last couple building projects didn't necessarily stay on budget."

To better improve academics, he said he would first want to see participation increased in arts and athletics programs, and also an improved relationship between students and the Police Department, to help some from falling between the cracks.

When it comes to the budget, Hammond said he understands that it can be a "sticky subject, but if there's one thing taxes are worthwhile for, it's our children."

"We have to continue to invest," he said. "If you ever hope to solve global warming or any other problems that we have, it's going to be someone after our generation or after their generation. The only way to get there is to supply them with the tools to succeed."

Connors, 67, a retired teacher and lifelong resident, is the longest-serving member on the School Board. She is married, has three adult children, and three grandchildren who all live in the area.

Connors said when she first decided to run in 1999, she saw it as an extension to being in education for more than 30 years.

"I felt I could offer to the community my interest and background," she said.

Now, Connors said, it's not just her education background and familiarity with the area, but also her senior status on the board, that helps give the board historical perspective when making big decisions. 

She said she also doesn't have an agenda.

"It takes years of being on it to be able to effect change at all," Connors said. "It takes time. Having been on the board this long I have a perspective of the School Board's history and the School Department's history."

When it comes to balancing the budget, Connors said she always aims to keep taxes low, but recognizes that the state and federal governments have progressively been putting more of a burden on the tax base.

"I'm an advocate for my taxpayers. I always have been," she said. "I want to make an excellent school system at a reasonable price. ... (But) there are more and more costs of education being put on the property owner and I don't agree with that."

As for critics who said the School Board should have addressed facilities issues sooner, especially after Jordan Acres was closed, Connors said those problems weren't addressed due to budget constraints and the work and high cost of building the new high school.

"In 1998, we just opened Brunswick High School," Connors said, "and the thought of turning around to the public and saying, 'whoops, we need more schools'? It was a little overwhelming, and it still is now."

District 2

Clough, who has worked in education since the late 1970s, is an independent educational consultant  for students, parents and organizations.

Having taught and held administrative positions in schools in Maine and New Hampshire, Clough said she is seeking re-election because she is "interested in education and the issues facing public education today and how they may impact the education of students in Brunswick schools."

"We all want the best educational opportunities for the students in our schools," she said, "and I believe it is beneficial to have a diverse group of people serving on the board."

Polls will be open at Brunswick Junior High School, 65 Columbia Ave., on Nov. 5 from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall, 28 Federal St., or by request via the town's website at brunswickme.org or phone at 725-6658 until Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. Absentee ballots must be returned to Town Hall no later than 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.