PORTLAND, Maine — Two retiring Portland School Board members this week said the school department has come a long way in recent years, but plenty of work remains to put the city’s schools on par with the best in the state.
Board Chairman Jaimey Caron and member Kate Snyder are relinquishing their at-large seats after spending six years each on the board. Four prospective candidates have so far taken out nomination papers to replace them.
Caron and Snyder were elected for the first time in 2007. Both have chaired the panel.
The pair have overseen the hiring of two superintendents during their tenures. First was James Morse Jr., who left the job after three years in 2012. He was replaced by Emmanuel Caulk, who is beginning his second school year in Portland.
In their first year, the school department was on shaky financial ground, facing a $2 million deficit. It was eventually forced to ask the city for money.
“I joined the board coming off quite a bit of turmoil,” Caron said. Since then, the district has been trying to rebuild communication lines and regain public trust.
“The board over the last five or six years has been trying to build confidence and management for the district to put it on solid financial footing,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of planning and we’ve positioned the district in a way where we can begin to make some real change.”
Snyder agreed and said her first three years on the board were spent focused on putting together the financial pieces and building community confidence around the budget. She said it was a distraction from what should be the focus: student achievement.
“Now we have a good system and structure built in to manage the budget,” she said. “Now we can say ‘what is the budget doing for student outcomes?’ People serving on the board for the next few years will have a challenging and exciting time.”
Both board members emphasized the need for improving student achievement through not only quality education, but quality facilities. The ability of the district to make those improvements is vital to Portland’s future, Caron said.
“Education is not the first thing you think of when you think of Portland,” he said. “Portland has a lot of amenities, especially for young people. But without jobs and quality education, people are not going to stay here. They will when they’re young, but at some point when they start raising families, education plays a bigger role in their decision making and we hate see them move to house in the suburbs or chase a job opportunity out of the state.
“We don’t want to be a district where people send their kids because they don’t have choice, but because we’re a magnet for them,” he said.
And while the district has work to do, Snyder said Portland is making headway on attracting and retaining young families.
“Anybody would say the vitality and success of schools is paramount to the livability of a city,” she said. “So, no we’re not there yet, but maybe we’ll never be there. I would hope there is always something you can do better.”
The board and the City Council have clashed at times, leading to decisions that have not always been in the best interest of students, Caron said, particularly regarding the budget.
“In order to get some decisions we’ve wrestled to go through the council, it’s been difficult for us sometimes to get our needs through,” he said. “The council has so many things they’re considering that it’s hard for them over our 11 months of budget season to keep up with the depth of detail we’re dealing with on the school side. There’s some big questions and it’s hard for them to catch up to where we are in one month.”
He stopped short of saying the board should have more authority with regard to budgeting. Instead, Caron said he favors better communication and cooperation and suggested bringing together city and school departments such as finance and human resources, echoing similar calls from outgoing Councilor John Anton.
This year the budget season was exceptionally contentious.
One of the most controversial proposals came from Gov. Paul LePage, who recommended local districts pay for teacher retirements. For Portland, that amounted to about $1.4 million.
The school budget the board originally sent to the council did not include the extra costs for teacher retirement and gambled that the Legislature would come through and fund the costs. The council disagreed and asked the board to plan for the additional costs.
In the end, the Legislature eventually passed the state budget over LePage’s veto, and included the extra $1.9 million subsidy to offset some of the retirement cost shift.
Now a Sept. 4 budget referendum is necessary so voters can OK the additional funding.
Snyder said the budget dysfunction was less of a local problem and more of state issue.
“I don’t read into it as so much a School Board-City Council struggle or angst,” she said, noting the problem comes at the state level because the state budget is often not voted on until after the city, and sometimes the public, has already voted on local budgets.
“In my opinion, it never comes down to the council against the board. That’s not a way to run an organization,” she said. “What you want to do is achieve a level of discourse between all parties in such a way that people watching say ‘these people are being reasonable and are not just entrenched in something artificial.’”
Another challenge both board members have had to confront is how to handle deteriorating school facilities.
Recently, the council and board butted heads on the timing and nature of the board’s $70 million elementary school renovation plan, funding by a mix of local and state money.
Despite appeals from the board to hold a November referendum for about $40 million to renovate three of the schools in the plan, the council pushed back and ultimately set the vote for June 2014.
Caron, who began work on what is now the final renovation plan almost a decade ago on the Planning Board, said putting off the referendum only delayed the inevitable.
“A lot more politics crept into that discussion than was necessary,” he said. “If we really wanted to fight for it, we could have got it on the ballot [in November].”
Snyder said despite extra time she’ll have being off the board, there’s still more she hopes to accomplish.
“I would love to be able to serve on the board one more year to work through issues that we’re still knee deep in,” she said.
Caron said he hopes to focus more on family and work after he leaves the board, but didn’t rule out seeking future elected office.
“I’m going to take this time to recharge my batteries,” he said. “I’m not crazy about being a politician, but I have enjoyed public service.”
Candidates who could be vying for the two at-large seats include a range of former political candidates who have run for mayor, Legislature, City Council and the school board. They are Frederic Miller, Anna Trevorrow, Ralph Carmona and Peter Eiermann.
In 2012, Miller, of Mayer Road, ran as a Republican in state House District 117, but lost by a large margin to Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland.
Trevorrow, of Myrtle Street, challenged Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, in 2010 as a Green Independent candidate, but came up short. She ran unsuccessfully for School Board in 2008, and was the chairwoman of the Maine Independent Green Party in 2009.
Carmona, of North Street, a former mayoral candidate, initially took out nomination papers to run for City Council, but withdrew and instead decided to run for the School Board. He ran for mayor in 2011.
The only political newcomer is Eiermann, who lives on Concord Street.
Incumbent board member Laurie Davis is the only person to take out papers for the her District 3 seat, which includes Stroudwater, Rosemont and Nason’s Corner, as well as parts of Deering Center, Oakdale and Libbytown.
Nomination papers are due Sept. 24. To get on the ballot, at-large candidates need a minimum of 300 signatures; in District 3, they will need a minimum of 75 signatures.
Election Day is Nov. 5.