June 18, 2018
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Bangor School Committee mistakes unanimity for strength

By Catherine M. Dickerson, Special to the BDN

We teach our children to ask questions, explore new ideas and actively engage with each other and their teachers to learn, deepen their understanding and develop the broad perspective and base of knowledge for responsible citizenship. I’ve sought to apply the same principles in serving on the Bangor School Committee: asking questions, soliciting ideas and input from the community, researching promising initiatives and promoting vigorous debate and productive discussion to advance our mission.

Unfortunately, such is not the norm for the Bangor School Committee.

Legend has it that James Doughty accepted the offer to serve as Bangor superintendent in 1987 on the condition that the school committee permit him to lead without any interference. If that’s true, it may explain the culture of sycophantic passivity that has solidified within the committee over the past 25 years. Allowing a strong and trusted leader to lead, however, should not be confused with absolute deference. What has transpired over the years is the abdication of true leadership on the part of the committee.

Yet few seem willing to acknowledge the extent to which the Bangor School Committee has devolved and the negative impact of what one city councilor anonymously but memorably called the “bobblehead crew.”

Mistaking unanimity for strength, the committee’s so-called leaders have worked to ensure complete support for anything presented by the superintendent and hasty rejection of anything without the administration’s seal of approval. Such effort to stifle free expression and limit open discussion of pertinent issues is counter to effective governance, but worse are the repercussions of dissonance, which are counter to simple decency. For many years now, any member who has dared to go outside those established boundaries has been ignored at best, and bullied (in ways subtle and overt) at worst. In nearly two years on the committee, my public inquiries, suggestions and proposals have been greeted with such a lack of professionalism that I’ve lost faith in the system’s integrity.

I’ve resigned from the Bangor School Committee as a wake-up call to Bangor voters and a call to action to the City Council. It’s time to start asking the questions that the remaining school committee members are so reluctant or unwilling to ask. Does the 25-year-old governance structure of the Bangor School Department merit review, or is it sufficient to advance our mission of academic excellence for all? To the extent that the school department has fallen short of its goal to meet the needs of all students, are dramatically different approaches needed? If so, what is the role of the community and the school committee in exploring and advancing solutions?

Are we doing the best that we can for our students in every way possible? How do we encourage and support innovative programs with a basis of support in the community? What programs can we put in place that will support and encourage our teachers, thereby ensuring that we continue to have the best teachers for our students?

I hope that by advocating for our schools outside the current system, I may contribute more effectively to earnest dialogue around these and other questions. I remain hopeful that academic excellence for all is an attainable goal. Achieving our crucial mission simply requires true collaboration and real leadership.

Catherine M. Dickerson is a former member of the Bangor School Committee.

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