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South Portland School Board appointment raises questions about oversight, superintendent's role

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South Portland School Board appointment raises questions about oversight, superintendent's role

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday night unanimously, and without discussion, appointed Jerald McQueeney to represent District 3 on the School Board.

The 42-year-old Clifford Street resident will serve on the board until the next general election on Nov. 2, 2010. McQueeney, who owns a Mill Creek insurance company and has two children attending Brown Elementary School, said making sure schools are properly funded is his top priority.

But the process by which McQueeney was chosen raises questions.

He was picked by the superintendent of schools, who is an employee of the School Board.

A School Board consensus for McQueeney was built by the superintendent through an informal straw poll of board members, conducted on the telephone, beyond the public's view.

And although the board never formally voted on McQueeney, or even met as a group to discuss his qualifications or those of at least two other candidates, city councilors were urged to appoint him at the School Board's "request."

When a School Board seat is vacated prior to the end of a term, the City Charter says it is the City Council's responsibility to appoint an interim member until the next general election.

South Portland is the only community in the area that allows councilors to appoint interim School Board members, who are elected officials. Other communities, including Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and Portland, hold special elections if a seat is vacated more than six months prior to a general election. Otherwise, vacancies are filled at the next general election. 

Although the charter allows the City Council to appoint an interim board member, who in this case will serve a full year and likely build an advantage for the next election, it is silent about the process of selecting an appointee. 

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said several residents expressed interest in the seat previously held by Michael Eastman, who was running unopposed for re-election when he died in September. The seat was not filled in November because Eastman's name still appeared on the ballot and he receive more than 7,000 votes, far more than any write-in candidate.    

Godin said this week that as many as 20 people expressed interest in the District 3 seat. Of those, only three remained interested after receiving additional information from either school administrators or current board members. 

A position paper presented to the City Council in advance of the Nov. 16 vote said "the Board of Education is requesting the council appoint Jerald McQueeney to fill this vacancy," language Godin said has been used in the past.

But the School Board never held a public meeting to discuss the candidates and the recommendation appears to have been made by the superintendent.

"We didn't vote on it, per se," Board member James Gilboy said. "It's the council's decision. If the City Council felt that another person might have been more qualified to do it, they have the right to choose that other candidate." 

However, the other candidates weren't even mentioned in the City Council's meeting packet.

Higgins Lane resident Jay Allen was another resident interested in the District 3 seat. Allen is the father of two children attending South Portland schools who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large School Board seat in 2008.

Allen is also a School Department critic, especially of last year's redistricting process, which he argued didn't seriously consider public input. Allen could not be reached for comment about McQueeney's appointment. 

Conceding there was no formal interview process for District 3 candidates, Godin said Allen was never really considered for the appointment because by the time he showed interest board members had been consulted by phone and approved her recommendation. She said McQueeney expressed interest the weekend of Nov. 7 and she didn't get notice of Allen's interest until Nov. 9 or 10. 

"We had a conversation; we didn't have a meeting," board member Karen Callaghan said of deliberations with the superintendent. "It sounds like it was a big huge secret thing, but I can tell you it was not. We looked for quite a while for a candidate for that position and finally someone stepped forward." 

Both Callaghan and Godin also faulted Allen for first expressing his interest to the City Council, even though the council ultimately makes the appointment.

Meanwhile, the city also appears to have given deference to Eastman's widow, Linda, who received several write-in votes even though she did not campaign for election. Even after Eastman declined an offer to be appointed to her husband's former seat, Godin said she called Eastman to make sure she was comfortable with the McQueeney appointment.

Godin would not speculate about what would have happened if Eastman had not approved of McQueeney.

In contrast to the School Board appointment, when the City Council appoints residents to committees, councilors review applications and interview the candidates. Mayor Tom Blake said this week that the city should reconsider the process for the School Board.

"I think we need to take a look at this," Blake said.

City Councilor Tom Coward said that ideally the city should have a formal process for selecting candidates. Coward conceded it seems inappropriate for the superintendent to be appointing one of her bosses.

"It's an unusual situation and ideally (the process) would be more clearly spelled out," Coward said. "(McQueeney is) not dependent on (Godin) for his continuance in office, so it's not like she can dismiss him at anytime."

McQueeney, who moved to South Portland in 2002, said he is not sure whether he will seek a full term next year, but will use this "unfortunate opportunity" to see if he is a good fit on the board. 

"I'm not a political person, so we'll see how it goes," said McQueeney, whose wife, Jennifer, is known as the "Popcorn Czar" at Brown School. "If I feel as though I am vital to the process, I will run." 

During his time on the board, McQueeney, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, said he will be a good steward of tax dollars, while making sure students get a quality education. 

"I come from a community that votes down the school budget because it's too low," 
McQueeney said. "Hopefully, we can maintain community support for the schools and make it a centerpiece of the community."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

This story was edited on Nov. 24 to remove incorrect information about the 2007 election of Ralph Baxter Jr. and Karen Callaghan to the South Portland School Board.