Carin Sychterz received unanimous support to serve as the Bangor School Committee’s chair at the new committee’s first meeting on Nov. 9. But the election of her second-in-command did not go as smoothly.
The final vote for the committee’s vice chair was 4-3 in favor of the panel’s second newest member, Marwa Hassanien. Hassanien, who was elected last year and is the first Muslim woman to serve on the board, narrowly edged out Susan Sorg, who was elected to her third three-year term last month.
The divided vote, and how it happened, highlighted a relatively new reality for the Bangor School Committee — that members of a body that used to go out of its way to avoid public disagreements are increasingly showing their differences in public.
When Clare Mundell, the committee’s newest member who was elected Nov. 3, asked if Hassanien and Sorg could introduce themselves before the vice chair vote, Bangor’s longest-serving school board member, Warren Caruso, said, “That’s not something that’s traditionally done.”
Both women went on to introduce themselves at Hassanien’s insistence. In the vote, the three newest committee members and Sychterz chose Hassanien while most longer-serving members backed Sorg.
“You could kind of feel the tension in the room,” committee member John Hiatt said. “It has never been like this.”
Nearly a decade ago, the Bangor School Committee had gone years casting only unanimous votes, had limited opportunities for public participation and strained to avoid public disagreements. Still today, community members have limited options for sharing their opinions at committee meetings, members aren’t allowed to share their own opinions on committee business on social media and there’s no student representative to the committee, unlike in many other school districts across Maine.
But the pattern of limited dissent and public debate has gradually changed in the last four years primarily due to a few new faces on the committee who have consistently questioned or disagreed with the majority in public meetings, prompting more public discussion on issues including student safety, the school department’s communicativeness and efforts to fight racism.
It’s that committee, more likely to disagree publicly and now with a stated goal of hearing from a broader cross-section of Bangor parents, that will enter a new year in which the Bangor School Department expects to hire a new superintendent to replace longtime leader Betsy Webb, tackle a budget likely to be complicated by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown and oversee efforts to fight racism in the city’s schools. Still, the Bangor School Committee limits public participation in its meetings and what its members can say publicly more than other Maine school boards.
More discussion, not much change
In 2011, a Bangor Daily News review of school committee records found that the Bangor School Committee had gone three full years casting only unanimous votes — at least 300 votes at 70 meetings. And in the preceding decade, the committee had cast at most just 10 votes with a dissent.
That pattern has let up in recent years, according to a BDN review of the last four years of school committee meeting minutes.
From Aug. 27, 2016, to Nov. 9, 2020 — the dates for which meeting minutes were available — the committee recorded 30 votes, out of 694 total, in which at least one member cast a vote against the majority. While that’s more votes with a dissent than the committee had previously seen in well more than a decade, the past four years’ minutes show that only three committee members out of at least 12 who served in that time cast the dissenting votes: Jennifer DeGroff, Hiatt and Hassanien.
“I was definitely not a part of the ‘unanimous on everything’ club,” said DeGroff, who opposed the majority in or abstained from at least 13 votes during her term from 2015 to 2018.
DeGroff, who did not run for reelection, twice opposed extending Webb’s superintendent contract and abstained from votes on some school department policies.
“I had a dissenting vote, and sometimes it was really disappointing to have a 6-1 vote when it should have been something with more discussion,” she said.
When Hiatt took DeGroff’s spot in November 2018, he replaced her as the only voice of dissent. He has cast dissenting votes almost 20 times in two years.
In September 2019, he voted against the school department’s affirmative action policy, saying he wanted to see a policy with input from people of color and people with disabilities. The next month, he opposed approval of the comprehensive emergency plan, which parents have criticized for being confidential. In that same meeting, he also opposed Bangor’s tutor compensation guide, asking the committee to increase tutors’ wages. And in June 2020, he voted against the meal price policy as presented. He wanted to add language ensuring that the school department wouldn’t go after families to collect debt for unpaid school lunches.
Through all these opposing votes, Hiatt questioned Bangor’s policies and started discussions, although he seldom succeeded in getting policies changed because he was the only one in opposition. Similarly, all motions Hiatt tried to make failed because he never had a second before Hassanien was elected in 2019.
“When I first got elected and sworn in, I felt like I was all alone. Being voted down 6-1 for a year was really frustrating,” Hiatt said. “It felt good to have Marwa on the committee because then I had a second. We kind of advocate together now.”
In a February 2020 meeting, Hiatt and Hassanien made motions to conduct a special committee workshop on suicide prevention and then form a task force to address the issue after Bangor High School announced a student’s death by suicide over the intercom, going against expert advice.
For Hiatt, it was the first time since his 2018 election that a motion he made received a second, but it still failed after everyone but Hiatt and Hassanien opposed it.
‘We hear them’
Much of the debate on the school committee has stemmed from Hiatt wanting to be closely involved in addressing the school department’s challenges.
But Bangor School Committee members have generally deferred to the superintendent to conduct day-to-day business. Over the four years for which the BDN reviewed meeting minutes, the minutes show most members followed Webb’s recommendations for approving policies, budgets and staffing changes, generally with little questioning. Webb did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
“I think a good school committee stays out of the day-to-day activities of the district,” Caruso said, “and how we do that is, we ask people to communicate with the superintendent, and if they’re not successful then the committee might need to be involved.”
That approach — through which the superintendent speaks for the school department so it has one voice, to the point where members can’t share their opinions on committee business on social media and have rarely responded to community members’ input during committee meetings — has contributed to an impression that the committee is closed-off and not responsive.
That’s something Sychterz said she plans to address as the new chair.
“Somebody will come to a school committee meeting and they’ll make a statement, and then the perception is that we don’t do anything about it,” Sychterz said. “I think we’ve all decided, as a committee, we’re going to work a little harder to make sure that people know that we hear them, we recognize their concerns and we’re doing something about it.”
In an introductory workshop for the new committee on Nov. 10, members discussed ways to seek additional public input, such as hosting community forums or holding meetings at individual schools. Opportunities for public input are more limited in Bangor than in other large Maine school districts because community members can only make comments at the beginning of meetings, they can generally only address items already on the agenda and they can’t speak about individual administrators.
But that workshop at which the committee spoke about being more accessible was not recorded or broadcast.
The Bangor School Committee routinely doesn’t record or stream its workshops — which are different from full meetings where the committee takes votes — even though the proceedings are public. By contrast, the Portland Board of Education broadcasts all workshops and special meetings.
In another contrast with many other school districts across Maine, Bangor still does not have student representatives on its board, unlike other large Maine school departments such as Portland and Lewiston and smaller neighboring districts including Brewer and Regional School Unit 22 in the Hampden area.
And when it comes to hearing from members of the public at meetings, Bangor stands out for its restrictions.
In December 2019, a handful of Bangor parents attended a school committee meeting to share their concerns about Bangor High’s intercom announcement of a student’s suicide. Caruso, who was chair at the time, read out restrictions on public comments at the start of the meeting, including limits on the number of commenters, how long they could speak and the topics they could address. He reminded attendees that they could make no complaints or allegations against any Bangor School Department staff during public comments. When parent Marcella Kenny tried to raise concerns about Webb, Caruso instructed her to “be careful.”
In Portland, the Board of Education gives community members a chance to join the discussion on all motions made during board meetings, and it also allows public comment in workshops, according to Chair Roberto Rodriguez. The board also holds public hearings on important issues, such as its vote to remove school resource officers from city schools.
Portland’s school board members also are not forbidden from sharing their opinions on committee proceedings on social media, unlike Bangor’s. In Bangor, when the school committee discussed the social media policy in September 2019, Hiatt tried to oppose it, but everyone else supported it.
“When all the realities and challenges we’re facing in our classrooms are easily conveyed to the community and when you have transparent processes, it’s a win collectively,” said Rodriguez, who attributed the committee’s growing openness in part to a generational shift in board members. “And the way to do that is easily accessible meetings, inputs from the community and so on.”
Mundell, the Bangor committee’s newest member, could be part of that shift in Bangor as a parent who questioned school committee actions in public before her election to the body last month.
“After going to most meetings for two years I saw just how the insularity really hurts the community, because the committee members don’t know what’s going on in the community,” Mundell said.
She said she hopes the school committee’s new commitment to being more open translates into seeking public input for the superintendent search, through public forums and surveys to gauge what community members want in a new leader.
Kathy Harris-Smedberg, who took over as interim superintendent when Webb left at the end of October, said that her goal is to present information to the committee clearly so members can make a decision. She expects disagreement, she said.
“I think the biggest thing is that sometimes we have to agree to disagree and sometimes we have to understand that how people come to a decision is different from other people, and that’s OK,” she said.
Caruso, who has served on the committee for all but one year since 2008, acknowledged that there’s more debate on the committee now than when he started serving. But it’s all in service of the same goal the committee has always had, he said.
“We’ve got a diverse group of personalities in how we view the world and how things should be done, which in some cases is very healthy,” he said. “But when it comes down to it, we all have the same goal in mind: to represent our students and our families and put them in the best situation to be successful in our school district.”
While Bangor’s academic success is indisputable, with even the city’s low-income students regularly outperforming their peers statewide on standardized tests, Mundell found when she was knocking on doors for her election that many low-income families did not feel that the school committee had heard their voices or addressed their concerns.
“We have great numbers for our schools. And if that’s all you’re looking at, and you’re not hearing from other people in the community, then we’re doing great. But that’s not the whole picture,” she said.
Completing that picture, Mundell said, requires that the school committee go out of its way to solicit input from low-income families, whose children make up about half of Bangor’s enrollment. Parents from affluent families are more likely to become involved in their children’s schooling and advocate for their kids in settings such as school committee meetings.
“It can be intimidating for someone without a lot of resources who maybe didn’t have a great experience themselves in the school system to come to a meeting and speak publicly about concerns,” Mundell said.
In Portland, Rodriguez said the Board of Education is working on ways to hear from a broader cross-section of parents.
“We must be aware that we’re not always hearing from everyone in the community. There is a lot of privilege that comes along with being able to do that,” Rodriguez said. “Don’t let that loud voice in your email inbox deter you from listening to people that you normally wouldn’t.”