Scarborough schools advocacy group attracts members, criticism

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SCARBOROUGH — An organization of residents, parents and teachers hopes to engage the public as it examines what the town must do to protect and improve its educational system while grappling with a drop in state education funding that could exceed $2 million next year.

But the group is not without its critics.

In December, between 35 and 40 people attended the first meeting of Saving Excellence in Scarborough Schools (SESS), many in response to a flier describing “years of bare-bones funding” for the town’s schools.

The handout said Scarborough spends $933 less per pupil than the average school system in Maine, and less than the surrounding communities of Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Gorham and Westbrook; the district’s teachers earn less than teachers in many surrounding communities, and 62 percent of Scarborough’s property taxes go toward education compared with 72 percent in Cape Elizabeth, 71 percent in Falmouth and 82 percent in Gorham.

The group’s founder, Christine Kukka, said she wants to ensure the public has a voice in determining the town’s investment in education – an investment she said will pay off in the retention of quality teachers and staff, smaller class sizes, more course offerings and protection of property values.

But at least one resident believes the group has become a forum for disgruntled teachers to complain about salaries.

Kathleen Schuyler’s children have all graduated, but the Indian Rock Woods resident said she attended the December meeting because she had been very involved with the school system and was interested in remaining connected. According to Schuyler, more than a half-dozen Scarborough teachers, who are currently working without a contract, spent a good part of the meeting complaining about their pay.

“I felt the first 90 minutes I was being smashed over the head by four-by-fours, one after the other,” Schuyler said. “I know how much we’ve given to the schools and it’s a lot. (The teachers) should be happy they’ve got jobs – and well-paying jobs. It’s the best paying part-time job in the world.”

Schuyler said she would like to see teacher evaluations and performance reviews to make sure teachers are challenging their students. She also called for an administrative reduction that would include doing away with the assistant superintendent’s job.

When she asked participants at the meeting to raise their hands if they were not employed by the School Department, fewer than half of the hands went up, she said.

“(Kukka) has no clue she’s being used,” Schuyler said. “They have found the perfect scapegoat to push their agenda and she has no idea what she’s doing.”

But Kukka disagreed.

“If the teachers’ contract were settled tomorrow, we would all still be doing this,” Kukka said. “Our interest is the quality of education. … I think (the teachers) bring valuable information that we need to know as a community; I see no problem listening to their perspective of the schools.”

Kukka said only about 10 percent of  the more than 100 subscribers to the SESS e-mail list are teachers. Of that 10 percent, many are also Scarborough residents, she added.

Kukka also stressed the importance of gathering all perspectives in a town that she said has never had a strong collective voice. In Scarborough, parent-teacher organizations end after elementary school, eliminating that avenue of group communication. And, although several surrounding school districts, including Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, have conducted community forums to discuss priorities during a tough budget year, she said Scarborough Superintendent David Doyle did not respond when she requested department-sponsored community forums.

When asked about Kukka’s request for public meetings, Doyle said people are invited to attend School Board meetings and are encouraged to provide input via e-mail, letters and phone calls.

Since the request for community forums went unanswered, SESS has crafted an online survey for residents to prioritize not only school spending and programs, but those on the municipal side, as well. Questions ask participants to rate pay-to-play sports and foreign languages, and also asks them to weigh in on an across-the-board salary freeze for all town employees and whether police, public works and fire and rescue departments should be maintained, expanded or reduced.

Town Manager Tom Hall said he hasn’t seen the survey, but said salary increases scheduled for July 1 for police and firefighters were agreed to years ago as part of the collective bargaining process and “cannot be unilaterally changed.”

“I certainly will be sitting down with my unions to have that conversation,” he said. “But I don’t want to throw my employees under the bus until I see the results of the teachers contract.”

The SESS survey is available through mid-February on the Web site. Kukka said results will be released in late February.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected].