Write-in joins South Portland School Board candidates

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Five of the seven seats on the School Board are up for election Nov. 7, and a write-in candidate has emerged for one of them.

Running for the two at-large seats are incumbent Mary House, Stanley Beretsky, and Heather Johnson. Incumbents Matthew Perkins and Elyse Tipton, both of whom were appointed by the City Council, are unopposed in District 4 and District 5, respectively.

Gracie Johnston is running as a write-in candidate in District 2, hoping to replace Otis Thompson, who resigned Aug. 28. No one filed nomination papers by the Sept. 8 deadline.

When asked Wednesday night about the dearth of interested candidates, School Board Chairman Richard Matthews said the board has had trouble retaining people and finding residents interested in running because it has become a much bigger time commitment.

“The School Board has changed over the last five years, so it’s not just the Monday meetings anymore,” Matthews said. “It’s workshops, fundraisers, and other events. We’re really trying to be a part of the community.”

Questions posed to the candidates included what should be done about the city’s middle schools. Mahoney and Memorial schools have infrastructure problems, space constraints and need upgrades, which could require a significant amount of money. Fixing both schools or consolidating them has been discussed, and the state has agreed to fund improvements to Mahoney School.

House

House, 46, of 131 Elderberry Drive, is a married mother of three school-age children. She works as senior project manager at Woodard & Curran, an environmental consulting and engineering firm in Portland. 

“The most important thing to me is to give all of our students a strong, rich, diverse experience … give the students the most opportunity and choices that we can, and delivering that strong educational challenge to our students,” House said.

House said she is a strong supporter of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, known as STEM, and staying current when it comes to technology.

She said she is a big supporter of putting math coaches in all the elementary school, a goal the board met this year. 

House said for the middle schools, the board is still in the information-gathering stage and getting input from the public.  

“We are striving to come up with the best option,” she said. “The best outcome that best serves our students and community. We are still working on the answer to that question.”

House said she is “happy to talk with people anytime they have a question, concern or opinion. At the end of the day I will advocate for students.” 

Beretsky

Beretsky, 73, is married with three grown children and four school-age grandchildren. He is an adjunct professor of math at Southern Maine Community College, and has worked as a math teacher at the high school and middle school levels. He served on the Belchertown district superintendent’s advisory council in Massachusetts and was the chairman of the math department  at Belchertown High School.

“I am a true advocate of public schools. Public schools are part of a democracy. Educated people make a democracy,” he said. “Education is the great equalizer in financial situations.”

Beretsky said he would like to see both Memorial and Mahoney middle schools renovated, and exploring the option of having fifth- and sixth-graders at Memorial and seventh-and eighth-graders at Mahoney. He said this option might also save money in the elementary schools.

Johnson

Johnson, 43, of 84 Cochester Drive, is married with two children in elementary school and one in middle school.

She has owned her own marketing consultant business, Core Strategies, for about a year. Prior to starting her business she worked at Diversified Communications in Portland for 12 years.

Johnson said she wants to have a “united” community and that sometimes it feels like South Portland is split into “two sides.”

“My goal is to have a sense of community pride,” Johnson said.

She said she wants to make sure students are prepared for the future, acknowledging everyone has a different path or “true north.” Johnson said she wants to make wise investments in their futures, while being fiscally responsible.  

Johnson said she didn’t know what should be done with the middle schools, but feels the School Department needs to look at data. “It could make or break the future learning outcomes,” she said.

Johnson said she likes the “social, economic and ethnic” diversity of South Portland.

“I love South Portland. I have lived in other communities and always wanted to return. I am happy to have my children grow up in Maine, in South Portland,” she said.

Perkins

Perkins, 40 of, 70 Elderberry Drive, is a married father of three school-age children. He works at Strategic Media, a radio advertising agency in Portland.

He was appointed to the board in February after Libby Reynolds resigned in January after serving a little more than a year. Perkins ran against Reynolds in November 2015, losing by about 250 votes.

Perkins volunteers his time as a youth baseball coach for the South Portland American Little League. 

He said the biggest challenge is making sure we “provide the services needed by the English Language Learners,” because there is an increasing number of ELL students.

“We need to provide the ELL the help they need and help them and their families get acclimated to America, and South Portland in particular,” Perkins said.

He said there still needs to be much public input on what to do about the middle schools, but one proposal the board might look at is having the middle school house grades 5-8 instead of the current grades 6-8. He said this could alleviate some of the renovation concerns in the elementary schools.

“I don’t plan on leaving the board anytime soon,” Perkins said. “I want to be around for many years to provide the right direction.”

Tipton

Tipton, 57, of 35 Hall St., is married with three children. She was appointed following the resignation of Tappan Fitzgerald, who left with about about two years to go in his term.

Tipton is the director of advancement at Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland.

She said there is a “need to assess and implement the best educational strategies to increase the amount of students who meet the state standards of proficiency in literacy, math and science.”

“We are doing well and we can do better,” Tipton said.

On the middle schools, she said “the middle school process has us looking not only at the possibility of the middle schools, but also with the elementary schools. So let’s let all the discussion continue.”

“I think public education is the most important institution in America,” Tipton said. “I want to serve the best way I can to support an inclusive, safe and innovative high quality education system to ensure that all of our students can succeed.”

Johnston

Gracie Johnston, 60, of 109 Hillside Ave., filed paperwork on Wednesday, Oct. 11, to be a write-in candidate in District 2.

Johnston may not be the only one to conduct a write-in campaign in the days leading up to the Nov. 7 elections. Matthews, the School Board chairman, on Wednesday said eight people have contacted him about becoming write-in candidates. 

However, Matthews said Johnston was the only one he knows of who has officially filed paperwork to run as a write-in candidate.

Johnston is married with three children, one in middle school, one in high school, and one who is a South Portland High School graduate. She works as an account executive for WCSH. 

Johnston served as president of the South Portland Girls Volleyball Boosters and has held leadership positions in the Portland Rotary, Williston-Immanuel United Church and served as a board member at TheSharingFoundation.org.

“Having children in the South Portland School system,” Johnston said, “I strongly believe that I can make a difference in the community and ensure our children get the best education available.”

She is undecided on whether the city should build a new middle school or repair the existing schools.

“Building a new school would allow us to tap into funds that are available, which might be a wise choice,” Johnston said, although she emphasized she is not ready to make a decision.

“I would say more research needs to be done,” she said.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

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