June 22, 2018
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New ways needed for committee

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

I haven’t actually called her yet, but I’m seriously considering asking Bangor School Committee Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette to come to my house to set things straight.
I’m hoping it’s not too late, because my kids are already teenagers and therefore sometimes ornery, nearly always hormonal and often opinionated. My husband is diplomatic by nature, and me — well, heck, my entire career has been based on the belief that people’s opinions count for something.
We’re a mess, and I think Guerette and her predecessor, former Bangor School Committee Chairwoman Martha Newman, could really help us out — make us excellent.
And I would very much like to be excellent.
In case you missed Bangor Daily News reporter Eric Russell’s truly outstanding story on the apparent cohesiveness of our school committee, let me give you the highlights.
In three years, 70 meetings and 300 votes, the seven-member board has cast only unanimous votes.
In the past decade, there have been fewer than 10 nonunanimous votes.
One city councilor — and I can assure you he or she is not the only one to have done so — called the committee the “bobblehead crew.”
Bangor’s school system is the envy of most and has a reputation for excellence, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the department was a mess.
Newman was elected and began recruiting other school committee members who shared her philosophy, and things began to change.
Graduation rates increased after they hired Superintendent James Doughty in 1987. Test scores jumped, and the school committee was stable under Newman’s reign.
The mantra became “academic excellence for all.”
Current Superintendent Betsy Webb, Guerette and Newman all say positive statistics prove that stability and continuity correlate to positive results.
When whippersnapper and non-Bangor native Mary Budd got elected to the school committee a couple of years ago, she forgot to read the rule book and had the audacity to make a suggestion at a regular meeting. She wondered whether Bangor might ever consider allowing parents to sit in on their children’s classes once in a while.
Guerette squashed the vote entirely because Budd had not followed protocol. Then she showed up at Budd’s house.
Budd claims Guerette told her that she should never voice opposition publicly and that Guerette expected unanimity in every school committee vote.
Guerette remembers differently and said she only meant to tell Budd that she was “concerned about my ability to run an effective board. I didn’t want her or anyone else to blindside members of the committee with something.”
Unlike other similar-size school committees, the Bangor School Committee does not have a City Council liaison or a student representative.
Portland and Lewiston do, but Guerette says such an idea has never been brought up here.
Portland and Lewiston, if you can believe this nonsense, also actually allow public comment from taxpayers during consideration of any major agenda item.
Apparently, however, this would be a threat to the stability and continuity of the Bangor School Department. The school department’s “excellence” might be threatened.
If you want to say something at Guerette’s meeting — and I’m just guessing here, but I’m thinking it really is Guerette’s meeting — you must do so at the beginning of the meeting, before the committee discusses an issue, and the parameters for making comments are narrow.
“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.”
Honest to God, it says that right at the very top of every Bangor School Committee agenda, just in case some rebellious newcomer has the idea that he might want to participate in the process and have his opinions heard.
But here’s the best part.
When asked about the committee’s rules and attitude toward public comment at school committee meetings, Guerette said, “We believe it’s working quite well. In general, people don’t show up for public comment, but we do everything we can to be welcoming.”
How can you argue with that?
And that’s the simplest, saddest, yet most brilliant part of it all — we don’t.
Three years, 70 meetings, 300 votes.
Here’s an idea. Perhaps someone should make a call before the next school committee meeting to a committee member to ask whether an item could be placed on the agenda for a vote on whether the policy regarding public comment should be changed to allow public (taxpayer) comment to be held during the committee’s actual discussion of an agenda item — you know, when it would actually be relevant and considered.
Just a thought — an opinion — if, of course, it pleases the chairwoman.

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