Candidates for Bangor school board stress quality of teaching

Posted Oct. 30, 2012, at 2:25 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The three candidates for Bangor School Committee have a lot in common. Each has three children, each was attracted to Bangor because of its schools, and each wants to play a part in future efforts to keep the school system strong.

The candidates — Mark Eastman of Elm Street, James Moore of Glencove Avenue and Sarah Smiley of Fifteenth Street — are vying for two seats that are opening up with the departure of committee members Beth Grant and Nichi Farnham, who is running for re-election to the state Senate.

The candidates made their cases for why they should serve on school committee during a forum Monday night at Bangor City Hall.

Moore, an attorney who is active in youth football, baseball and hockey in Bangor, moved to Maine 20 years ago from Washington, D.C., because of Bangor’s school system.

“I’m running for school committee because I’m very pleased with the education my sons have received here in Bangor,” he said.

Smiley teaches at the University of Maine and is also a syndicated newspaper columnist whose work appears in the Bangor Daily News. She said that to her family, “the school system represents what the rest of the community is like.” As a military wife, she has lived in several parts of the country. She said the fact that she’s an “outsider” might give her an objective perspective on the school committee and community because she doesn’t know “how things have always been.”

When asked what Bangor’s priority should be in education, Eastman, a work-at-home father, said the school district should seek to attract quality educators.

“A lot of my ideas and efforts on the school board would focus on teachers,” he said.

“Are we just making decisions that sound good, or are we getting input from teachers at all levels?” Eastman said, adding that he doesn’t want teachers to feel “forced into a bad position” by the committee’s actions.

Moore said two-thirds of the school district’s teachers will be of retirement age within the next decade, and the system needs to work to attract a new generation of quality teachers to Bangor.

Smiley said one of the school district’s greatest assets is its small class sizes, which allow teachers to get to know students and keep them interested and engaged in classes.

“We really found that here in Bangor, and I’d be interested in keeping that,” Smiley said.

An audience member asked the candidates for their takes on the Oct. 9 resignation of former school committee member Kate Dickerson, who cited a “culture of passivity” on the committee as her reason for leaving, and asked what they might do to address tension on the board.

“I think tension is good,” Eastman said. Tension, if handled correctly, can lead to well reasoned debate and new ideas for the school system, he added.

Eastman said he believes there is a disconnect between what the community thinks the committee’s role is and what the committee’s actual role is.

Moore said Dickerson may have seen her role on the board as “more active than perhaps the committee is designed to be.”

He said the school committee’s responsibility isn’t to manage schools, but rather to ensure other professionals, such as school administrators and Superintendent Betsy Webb, are making appropriate decisions.

Smiley said members of the public might not fully understand the role of the committee or how they can have their concerns heard and addressed by the school district.

“[As parents] we just want to know that if something goes wrong, if we want to change something, what do we do?” Smiley said. She suggested that having representatives from parent-teacher organizations attend school board meetings to act as a liaison between the school district and the public might help communication.

A third opening on the committee, created by Dickerson’s resignation, will not be filled until November 2013, when Dickerson’s term was set to expire. Because vacancy opened more than six months prior to the end of her term and fewer than 90 days prior to the Nov. 6 elections, the city charter states that the seat must be filled at the 2013 regular city election or, at the City Council’s discretion, in a special election.

The council announced last week that it wouldn’t hold a special election, in part because of the roughly $4,000 price tag.

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