June 18, 2018
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Bangor School Committee breaks unanimous vote streak; first split vote in 3 years

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — For the first time in more than three years, Bangor School Committee members were divided in a public vote, this time on a request to create an ad hoc committee that would explore alternative sources of school funding.

Member Kate Dickerson made a motion at Wednesday’s regular meeting to adjust the posted agenda so that committee members could discuss her idea. Nichi Farnham seconded the motion.

Without any additional discussion, Vice Chairwoman Christine Szal, acting in place of Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette, who was absent, called a roll call vote on whether to put the topic on the agenda.

The final tally was 3-3, which meant the motion failed. Farnham and Jay Ye joined Dickerson in supporting the motion. Szal, Warren Caruso and Beth Grant voted against the motion. Dickerson made the motion available on Facebook, where it has generated community comment.

Dickerson said the lack of debate, not the result, surprised her most.

“I sort of expected someone to at least ask a question,” she said Thursday.

Szal, in an emailed response to the Bangor Daily News, said in her opinion the school committee is small enough that an ad hoc committee is not necessary.

“As I suggested to Ms. Dickerson, she might discuss this matter with Superintendent [Betsy] Webb for possible inclusion on a future agenda,” Szal wrote.

Added Caruso: “We’ve got a great superintendent and administration. We’ve got to trust that a lot of times they are way ahead of us.”

For Dickerson and others, the creation of an ad hoc committee was more about engaging and encouraging outside ideas and input than taking powers away from the elected body.

The Bangor School Committee has earned a reputation as an elected body that votes in unison and rarely initiates discussion that could be controversial. Past members have alluded to a system of tight control in which the superintendent calls the shots and the committee offers unflinching support. The last nonunanimous vote had been on Jan. 28, 2008.

Dickerson was elected last November to her first term on the Bangor School Committee and has challenged the status quo unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions so far.

A couple of months ago, Farnham initiated a discussion about changing the way meetings are conducted. Dickerson thought it was a good idea and suggested creating a subcommittee to explore changes. Others disagreed. Guerette did not call a vote but instead settled the matter by instructing Superintendent Webb to come up with some ideas on her own.

“I don’t enjoy this,” Dickerson said of challenging her colleagues. “I’m not interested in making waves for the sake of making waves, but what I am interested in is going forward.”

Dickerson posted a recap of Wednesday night’s action — or inaction — on her Facebook page. Two people have responded so far.

“Hang in there Kate,” wrote Melissa Hodsdon White. “You are a breath of fresh air and there are people who like the way you think. It seems like a fairly well thought out and reasonable suggestion.”

Added Stephanie Harp: “I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to at least have the conversation about this. About everything! We need ideas here! You’re doing a great job, Kate. I knew you would.”

Caruso, however, said the Bangor School Department has a thorough 10-year plan in place that, among other things, addresses funding concerns going forward. Any further discussion, he said, needs to be done by the full committee, not an outside group.

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