Is the Bangor School Committee ‘all in favor’ after 300 unanimous votes?

Posted Jan. 21, 2011, at 8:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 22, 2011, at 3:20 p.m.
Eric Zelz | BDN Photo Illustration
Mary Budd
BOB DELONG | BDN
Mary Budd
Jeff Wahlstrom
Jeff Wahlstrom
Phyllis Guerette
BOB DELONG | BDN
Phyllis Guerette
Betsy Webb
Betsy Webb
Charles Bearce
Photo courtesy of Conall O'Brien
Charles Bearce
Martha Newman
Martha Newman
Phyllis Shubert
BOB DELONG | BDN
Phyllis Shubert
James F. Doughty
James F. Doughty
Robert Ervin
Caleb Raynor | BDN
Robert Ervin
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5p b/w news

From the beginning, Mary Budd was an outsider on the Bangor School Committee. She didn’t grow up in Bangor, didn’t know about the school department’s history, was unfamiliar with its catchphrase “academic excellence for all.”

In 2009, two years into her only term on the school board, Budd got a reminder of just how far outside the group she was.

She brought up a suggestion at a regular meeting about whether Bangor should consider allowing parents to observe instruction in their children’s classroom. The idea was quickly squashed by Committee Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette because Budd did not follow protocol for initiating the discussion.

In case Budd failed to get the message, Guerette showed up at her home one evening before the next school committee meeting.

“She told me in no uncertain terms that I should never voice opposition publicly, and when I asked whether she expected unanimity in every vote, she responded ‘Yes,’” Budd said.

The Bangor School Committee is not accustomed to opposition. In three full years, covering more than 70 meetings and at least 300 votes, the seven-member board has cast only unanimous votes. In fact, over the last decade, you could count the number of non-unanimous votes on both hands. One city councilor called the school committee the “bobblehead crew.”

While many school boards in Maine go several months without a dissenting vote simply because most votes are routine, Bangor’s streak stands out.

A recent Bangor Daily News review of years of school committee agendas and minutes, coupled with interviews of several former and current school committee members, revealed a deep-rooted system of control in which controversy and disagreement are avoided at all costs.

Budd, who lost her re-election bid last November, said the system still leaves her shaking her head.

“I learned quickly that anything short of unanimity was seen as a failure,” she said. “I never understood that.”

Jeff Wahlstrom, a school committee member from 2006 to 2008, also said he was told many times that his job was to support the superintendent. The rigidity of school committee meetings left him perpetually frustrated.

Guerette and Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb insist that Bangor’s committee operates no differently than any other community of similar size and demographics.

“It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to come with recommendations, and we have one of the best in the business,” Guerette said. “Anytime she brings something to us, we know she’s spent hours and hours coming up with what’s best. It’s hard to argue with that.”

It’s also hard to argue with the results. Bangor’s system has yielded educational achievements that have made the city the envy of school districts across the state.

However, a look at two cities similar in demographics to Bangor — Lewiston and Portland — reveals that Bangor’s streak of unanimous votes and lack of public participation is unusual. In both Lewiston and Portland, the last non-unanimous votes were last September. Both school committees also have a meeting structure that is much more open to debate and public comment.

Charles “Nick” Bearce, a frequent Bangor School Committee watcher who ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat on the committee, said he’s less concerned about unanimous votes and more concerned about the votes that never happen.

“If there is something controversial, they just let it die and hope it goes away,” he said.

History held over

It wasn’t always this way.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Bangor School Department was a mess. Schools were struggling. The school committee frequently clashed with the administration. Meetings lasted several hours. It was chaos, according to Martha Newman, who began her tenure in 1982 and whose name today is synonymous with the Bangor School Committee.

“I started in being appalled. There was no direction,” Newman, who stepped down in 2008, said in a recent interview. “The schools had no support.”

For the first few years, there was little Newman could do. She didn’t have the votes. Gradually, she began recruiting other school committee members who shared her philosophy. Women such as Phyllis Shubert, who recently ended a 24-year run on the committee, and later Guerette and Christine Szal, another current member.

Slowly, the committee began to change things. The tipping point came in 1988 when the board hired Superintendent James Doughty.

Doughty was given full authority to overhaul the department and the school committee offered full-throated support. The new superintendent delivered.

Graduation rates increased after he took office in 1987. Test scores jumped. Two separate governors even offered Doughty the state’s top education post. Today, a Bangor middle school bears his name.

In sharp contrast from the past, Doughty’s 13-year tenure was marked by stability on the school board. Newman held the position of school committee chairwoman the entire time.

Just nine days after Doughty stepped down in 2000, Robert “Sandy” Ervin — his assistant for a decade — took over. Committee members said maintaining continuity was paramount when they gave Ervin the job, and he continued the mantra that Doughty instituted: Academic excellence for all.

Current Superintendent Webb, who assisted Ervin for three years, has done the same since her tenure began in 2008, and the good results have continued. Bangor consistently is ahead of the state average for the New England Common Assessment Program, which measures academic progress.

For her part, Webb said she’s not opposed to any changes or discussion, but she also said her scope of authority is somewhat limited by federal and state policy.

Dale Douglass, director of the Maine School Management Association, said his group provides sample policies to school boards across the state, but said individual municipalities can do what they want.

“Superintendents work for the school board,” he said. “The board adopts policies that the superintendent carries out.”

In Bangor, the superintendent sets policy and the school committee offers support, although Webb said, since the city pays membership dues to MSMA, using their policy language is a fiscally prudent move.

Most agree that the changes to the school committee and to the department over the last two decades were absolutely necessary and nearly everyone seems happy with the results.

James Cox, who served two terms from 2001 to 2007, applauded the work of Newman, Shubert and others for finding a strong superintendent to set the tone and for continuing that tradition with Ervin and now Webb.

He wondered whether the changes have gone too far.

“Things needed to change and they did and it’s been great, but after awhile the status quo just doesn’t work,” Cox said.

Differences

That’s what bothered Budd the most. As a self-described reformer and challenger of the status quo, she felt as though new ideas were never welcomed.

Her attempt in 2009 to discuss allowing parents to observe instruction, something the parent of three thought would be helpful, left her feeling powerless, as did the at-home meeting with the committee chairwoman.

Guerette remembers that conversation differently and disputed Budd’s claim that she was told never to voice opposition publicly.

“I was concerned about my ability to run an effective board,” the chairwoman said. “I didn’t want her or anyone else to blindside members of the committee with something.”

Like Budd, Wahlstrom said his term on the school committee was marked by stifled debate.

“Votes were not questioned,” he said. “When anyone did question something that was brought forward, things moved quickly to get past any disagreement.”

Even in times of success, a lack of significant public discussion about matters of the Bangor School Department can create the sense that a system of checks and balances is absent. In most cases members of the public don’t even attend meetings, in part, Bearce said, because they know they will not be allowed to speak their mind.

Crowded meetings are not the norm in Lewiston and Portland either, but debate and dissent among school committee members is much more common.

In Lewiston, the school committee held 70 meetings and took just over 300 votes from 2008 to 2010. Twenty-one of those votes were not unanimous. Put another way, Lewiston School Committee members disagreed about once every four meetings on average.

Similarly, in Portland during the same time period, the school committee met about 80 times, cast approximately 375 votes and disagreed on 52 of them. Dissent was a little more frequent in Maine’s largest city, coming once every three meetings on average.

Closer to Bangor, the superintendents in Brewer and SAD 22 (Hampden, Winterport, Newburgh) said routine votes are common, but both agreed that three years is a long time to go without dissent.

Said Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee: “Sometimes a dissenting vote is a way to send a message. I’ve always felt like people should be voting their conscience.”

Last year in SAD 22, the district overhauled its substance abuse policy. Superintendent Rick Lyons said the debate was lively at times. The final vote was not unanimous.

It’s not just about unanimous votes either. Bangor’s committee structure is controlled and limited in a way that differs sharply from Portland, Lewiston and Brewer.

All three of those city’s school committees have student representatives who offer perspectives from those who might benefit from or be set back by policy decisions and also have non-voting city council representatives to provide a bridge between the municipal side and the school side.

Bangor has neither.

Guerette said having a city council liaison or student representatives is not something Bangor has talked about during her time.

Perhaps the most telling difference is this: Portland and Lewiston allow public comment during any major agenda item. Bangor allows comment only at the beginning of the meeting, and the parameters are narrow.

At the top of every Bangor School Committee agenda is a section on audience statements. It reads: “ … The School Committee may consider information but will not take action. Any presenter should use only the time necessary to explain the concern or request. The chairman of the School Committee may limit or suspend any presentation. No complaints or allegations will be allowed in public concerning any staff member or any person connected to the school unit.”

Current member Nichi Farnham, who came to the school committee from the Bangor City Council and also is a state senator, said it took her awhile to figure things out.

“I probably started out looking for controversy and discussion,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s really not set up to have issue discussions in public.”

As for the process for public comment, Guerette said it existed long before her and she doesn’t see the need for change.

“We believe it’s working quite well,” she said. “In general, people don’t show up for public comment, but we do everything we can to be welcoming.”

Avoiding controversy

Jan. 8, 2008, marked the last non-unanimous vote of the Bangor School Committee. Members voted 3-2 against a proposal to partner with the local YMCA to offer an after-school day care option for students.

Guerette, Shubert and Christine Szal voted to keep things the same. Budd and Farnham were opposing votes.

There have been other issues that have lent themselves to opposing views — just not in public.

Bearce and others have long criticized the school department’s refusal to participate in the state’s annual drug and alcohol use survey. The anonymous survey helps compile statewide data and often leads to state grant funding.

Instead of initiating a debate and listening to other ideas, Webb and school committee members explained why the system they have now is just fine.

“There had never been any discussion of drugs at the school board level,” Bearce said. “When was the last time they took a suggestion from the public and implemented it? Or even discussed it?”

Budd said if she wanted to initiate a discussion, it had to go through certain channels. It took her awhile to learn the ropes. If a community member brought up an idea, it was never debated on the spot.

“It was like ‘we’ll take it under advisement,’” Budd said. “But I don’t know that we did.”

After Budd’s first year on the board, she approached her colleagues about wanting to serve as vice chair. She was told quite bluntly that the leadership structure already had been decided.

Dan Tremble, who served perhaps the shortest term ever on the Bangor School Committee, was elected by Bangor voters in 2006 to serve on the school board. Shortly after he was sworn in, existing members, including Newman, said committee policy precluded anyone from serving on the school committee if they have an immediate family member working in the school system.

Tremble’s wife was an educational technician at Fairmount School, and he was forced to step down.

“My criticism was never about policy discussions or votes; it was about the long-term leadership of the board,” he said. “I didn’t think that was healthy.”

It doesn’t help public perception that the school committee elected Newman as chairwoman for 18 consecutive years and now has elected Guerette for four years running, Tremble said.

Webb, Guerette and Newman, however, all said statistics show that stability and continuity correlate to positive results. And Bangor’s results have been good for two decades and counting.

“It’s silly,” Newman said of criticism of her reign as chairwoman. “The chairman has one vote. I didn’t set priorities. People must have thought I was doing a good job. I never lost an election.”

Should things change?

Farnham said the biggest criticism she hears is the public perception that everything is done behind closed doors. She said she still struggles when trying to explain the school committee’s inner-workings to constituents.

“The notion of preservation is probably true,” Farnham said. “But people worked so hard to get schools where they were.”

Critics then say, “Why bother to have an elected body?”

Bearce, as close to a regular committee watcher as Bangor has, said by his estimation, the school committee spends most of its time patting itself on the back rather than discussing issues.

Budd and Wahlstrom agreed.

“It’s the difference between leadership and cheer-leadership,” Budd said.

Added Wahlstrom: “I was frustrated with my inability to engage the school department or the school committee in the kinds of strategic discussions that I thought were really essential.”

Although they are as pleased with Bangor’s results as anyone else, Budd, Wahlstrom and others believe Bangor could fall behind if the process doesn’t become more transparent.

Still, there is no strong impetus to change. Aside from a few past school committee members and an occasional complaint from the public, the school department is a well-oiled and successful machine. Results are strong, budgets are tight and policy updates are efficient.

“I’m convinced that this system is what keeps our department working so efficiently,” Guerette said.

Just this week, the state Department of Education picked the James Doughty Middle School as one of about 30 throughout the state to be studied as a high-functioning school.

And Webb said, despite the lack of debate and controversy, she feels challenged every day. She predicted that the upcoming budget discussions could produce some differences of opinions.

Even Budd, Wahlstrom and Bearce said Webb is much more receptive to new ideas and discussion than her predecessors, a sign that things could slowly be shifting.

“I think she’s been extremely proactive,” Farnham said.

There are other signs as well.

Historically in Bangor, school committee members served for many years in a row without challenge. Now there are term limits that restrict any member from serving more than three terms, although once they sit a year out, anyone may run again.

Just this past year, two first-time members — Jay Ye and Kate Dickerson — were elected.

“I would say that if people don’t like what’s happening, they have a chance to evaluate the school board through the ballot box,” said Douglass at Maine School Management Association. “It’s not like the opportunity to disagree doesn’t exist.”

• • •

School panel process, recent votes

School committees across the state have discretion over how they are structured and also about how to engage public comment. Bangor’s process is quite different from two similar communities, Lewiston and Portland.

  • Portland and Lewiston have city council liaisons to their school committees. Bangor does not.
  • Portland and Lewiston have student representatives on their school committees. Bangor does not.
  • Portland and Lewiston allow public comment on any major agenda item while committee members are discussing it. Bangor allows public comment only at the beginning of each meeting.

A sampling of Bangor School Committee votes during the last three years:

  • Approved teacher and administrator nominations.
  • Approved extra-duty assignments (i.e., coaches).
  • Authorized a change to natural gas for heating of Bangor High School.
  • Adopted fiscal year budgets with increases between 1.12 percent and 1.42 percent.
  • Adopted new policies governing school volunteers and video surveillance.
  • Approved monthly financial statements.
  • Accepted grants and donations.
  • Approved minor capital improvement projects.
  • Submitted resolution to Maine School Board Association regarding gifted-and-talented funding changes.
  • Oversaw expulsions and re-admittance of students.

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