BANGOR, Maine — After a third straight year of deep budget cuts and a public perception of members voting in lockstep and squelching dissension in the ranks, most wouldn’t be surprised if there were a scarcity of candidates running for Bangor’s school committee.
That’s not the case, however, as five candidates are vying for three open committee seats on Nov. 8: incumbents Christine Szal, Phyllis Guerette and Warren Caruso, as well as first-time challengers Terri Adam and Joe Knox.
Adam, 45, grew up in New Mexico and has resided with husband Steve, her son and daughter in Bangor for the last 12 years. She has worked at Eastern Maine Community College as assistant to the school president for eight years.
The general technology degree holder said running for a seat has been a longtime goal.
“I’ve been very interested, but was waiting for my kids to get a little older,” she said. “The board seems to me that it doesn’t lead. It just follows the direction of the superintendent. I’m very pleased with the job Betsy Webb has done, but I think the board should be the legs of the superintendent and find other strategies and ways to deal with the budget shortfall.”
Adam said she thinks new faces and fresh ideas would be beneficial to the committee.
“I was disappointed they voted down a request for an ad hoc committee to look for alternative funding,” she said. “I think that’s what the board should be doing. We should open things up more.”
Caruso, 46, is a lifelong Bangor resident coming off his first term on the committee. The head coach of Husson University’s men’s basketball team for 18 years and Husson’s current director of development has taught college classes.
“Initially my interest was about wanting to do more and expand my experiences along with serving the community,” he said. “Three years ago, I [knew] hardly anything and now I feel like I have a good understanding of our schools.”
He also understands running a business as the owner of the former Dana’s Grill for 29 years.
“I think I have a broad spectrum of experiences in the Bangor community and I think they’ve served me well for leadership, problem-solving,” he said.
Caruso has a public accounting degree, a business master’s, and is finishing his master’s in human relations. He and his wife, Nicole, have two sons who attend Bangor schools.
Guerette, 60, is a New Jersey native and 1968 University of Maine graduate who has lived in Bangor for the last 34 years. She and husband Dan have two sons and one daughter who have all attended Bangor schools. They also run family business Brogue Insurance.
Guerette is proud of serving during a period where the committee has become more publicly accessible.
“When I started, our meetings were at Abraham Lincoln School and not televised,” she said. “Now we meet in city council chambers, we have a public comment segment, we’re televised and all of our agendas and minutes are posted online.”
Guerette is running for her third term.
“We face many challenges, starting with loss of revenue. We’ve lost [more than] $4 million in funding the last three years,” Guerette said. “The thing that keeps me going, despite all the budget woes, is I feel like educating our young people is one of our most important tasks.”
Knox, 37, is an ed tech at Glenburn Elementary School. The West Gardiner native also teaches adult education. The volunteer coach for Bangor East Little League and wife Jessica live on Forest Avenue with their 8-year-old son.
“My greatest strength is coming into this as an educator who’s been in classrooms now for five years and on the front lines,” Knox said. “I come at this as a parent, an educator, and a taxpayer.”
Knox earned a journalism degree from the University of Maine.
“The biggest thing I tell my kids at school and at home is if you don’t know all the answers, you have to know where to find them,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers as a committee and I’d like to see things opened up with more viewpoints or perspectives from other areas. It seems a little too [exclusive] and I’d like to discontinue the notion that it’s kind of closed off.”
Szal says she’s not running with a “big issue or gripe” in mind.
“My impetus at first, as it is now, is academic excellence,” said Szal, who lives with husband Paul on West Broadway. “I just want to see that academic excellence is at the forefront and it happens at all levels. I feel our faculty is second to none.”
Szal, 62, has served four terms for a total of 12 years, the last three as committee vice chairwoman. If she wins a fifth term, she will not be able to run again due to the committee’s term limits rule.
“Challenges have changed, with funding a much bigger issue now,” said Szal. “And the news isn’t getting any better, based on information we got out of Augusta recently. We’re looking at trying to fund a grant writer and are spearheading a funding summit for November at the University of Maine.”