From left: At-large school board candidates Jaimey Caron, Frances Frost and Susan Hopkins (photos/courtesy Caron, Frost, Hopkins)
Voters’ Guide: School Committee At-large
The candidates on issues past, present and future
By Chris Busby
The race to be the next citywide (at-large) representative on the Portland School Committee has been a relatively quiet affair despite the fact this is one of the fall’s most evenly matched campaigns. All three contenders to replace departing school board member Tae Chong have strong backgrounds in public service, and each would bring a particular strength to the body in charge of overseeing the operations and direction of the city’s public schools.
Jaimey Caron served for nine years on the Portland Planning Board. The technical knowledge he’s gained during his engineering career and years on the planning board could be valuable as the school board tackles major renovations of the elementary schools. As the sole candidate in this race with kids in the public schools, he’s also got that extra incentive not to screw things up.
Frances Frost has previous school board experience, both in Auburn, where she also served on the city council, and here, where she was the East End’s elected representative to the school board from 1994 to 1996. As a former “special assistant for public and legislative affairs” for the University of Southern Maine, Frost also has experience working with the people in Augusta whose decisions have huge impacts on this city’s schools.
Susan Hopkins is an attorney who’s specialized in matters involving immigration and child welfare and protection. Portland’s sizeable population of immigrant and low-income students continues to present challenges to the school system – challenges Hopkins’ experience is well suited to meet. The board also seems to get lost in ever-more complicated legal thickets these days, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have another lawyer around (especially one who could work on public stuff for free).
For more on the candidates’ backgrounds and the shape of this race, see our earlier coverage.
The fact that this contest, with its parallels to the at-large council race, hasn’t proven to be nearly as contentious is testament to the personalities involved. In person, Caron, Frost and Hopkins are all pleasant, polite, humble and respectful people, and behind the scenes of their campaigns the same decorum reigns.
Below are the candidates’ answers to our Voters’ Guide questions this year. The questions reflect issues either recently before the board, currently under its consideration, or with the potential to arise in the next few years.
The question of whether the school budget process should be guided by a budget figure determined by the previous year’s budget, adjusted for inflation and enrollment, was decided by the board itself while Voters’ Guide interviews were being conducted. The board voted 7-to-2 in favor of this new approach, which its proponents hope will make each spring’s budget battles less confusing and contentious. Opponents worried that setting such a figure could amount to capping the school budget (even though this figure would not be a spending cap) without giving due consideration to new spending needs that could come up mid-year.
Still awake? Still undecided who you’ll vote for this Tuesday? Then read on…
Does the military have too much access to students?
Jaimey Caron: “Everybody should have equal access. The system is not well defined – traditionally, some groups tend to have more [access to students] than others. [The military] should have no more or less [access] than any others.”
Frances Frost: All access to students by outside groups “must be monitored, managed and [there must be] public information as to what the process is and how it’s administered. The military… has been a vehicle for young adults leaving high school to consider as a career choice. To close it off completely, one has to consider it as closing off that choice. Under no circumstance do I think the military or any recruiting entity should be able to get personal information about students or have free access to a school without permission of the parents.”
Susan Hopkins: “They definitely did.” Is interested in a current proposal to limit military access in Portland schools, and a pending Supreme Court case that could likewise limit such access.
Is teachers’ pay (including benefits) too low, too high, or just about right and fair?
Caron: “I would say they tend to be too low, but part of raising teachers’ pay is being able to demonstrate to the taxpayers how the system is performing, what’s at stake and why it’s important to have a strong education system in Portland.”
Frost: “I think the best school systems — that deliver the most for their students, their families and the citizens — hire and retain the best teachers, and the best teachers have to have commensurate salaries. Portland’s salaries are stronger than they have been, but I don’t think we can assume that that issue won’t need to be a constant issue, always before the school board.”
Hopkins: Teacher compensation is “pretty fair. I think it’s competitive. We’re attracting really good teachers.”
Should the words “under God” be in the Pledge of Allegiance?
Caron: “I don’t have an objection to the phase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Frost: “I don’t want to borrow trouble. That’s the law of the land…. I’m content to let it stand as it is. I mean that as a matter of public policy. My own personal preference is of no concern, because it would never be a part of my deliberation.”
Hopkins: “I think we have the option of saying that or not.”
Should the school budget be tied to inflation and enrollment?
Caron: “It’s one data point that needs to be considered when putting the budget together, [but] we need a variety of indicators, statistics and metrics to determine what the budget is.”
Frost: “Planning of the budget must always be done in the reality of what are the resources available to Portland’s public sector. I’m glad [the proposal] is being considered by the School Committee now.” Would have considered using factors other than inflation and enrollment had she been considering this proposal as a board member.
Hopkins: Yes, but the board should also “look at the demands the federal government is putting onto our school district.” Notes the unique budgetary impact refugee students and the district’s high percentage of students with special needs have on the budget.
Should “intelligent design” be taught in science classes?
Frost: “Intelligent design is not science, so it should not be taught in science classes.”
Is there enough emphasis placed on abstinence in sex education courses?
Caron: “The schools shouldn’t place too much emphasis on any one area. The sex education program should be supportive of the families’ values.”
Frost: “I don’t know the degree to which abstinence is stressed in our current curriculum, and I would want to know that immediately upon taking office. However, I think sex education is the tantalizing name for health information, and I am a strong proponent of good, factual, true information about health, life and good choices.”
Hopkins: “That’s been the focus in Maine all along…. We have a realistic sex-ed program.”
Are art and music education suffering from a lack of funding?
Caron: “There are a number of programs that are struggling, partly due to financial issues, but some due to lack of enrollment and lack of community support. The school board needs to look at programs and prioritize around those that fit best in the educational program and are supported most in the community. My hope would be those kinds of programs would be funded appropriately.”
Frost: “The answer is almost always yes. We have a fear of ever weakening the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. What we have never grown fully to appreciate or known how to integrate is the arts within that core curriculum…. We shortchange ourselves when we shortchange those subjects.”
Hopkins: “It’d be good to have a greater focus on those programs in the younger grades,” but they are not necessarily under-funded.
Should corporate advertising be allowed in any form in schools or at athletic fields?
Caron: “I would not be opposed, so long as it’s consistent with the educational mission. I’m not in favor of exposing kids to outside influences just for money.”
Frost: “I do not know the answer, but it should be discussed and considered.”
Hopkins: “I don’t like corporations buying the loyalty of a school, saying, ‘We’ll buy your football uniforms if you just have Coca-Cola products in your school.’ It’s government promoting products, and I don’t think we have any business being in that area.”
What’s the single most effective way to improve education?
Caron: “I don’t think people really understand what the schools do…. For me, the biggest thing is helping people understand what’s at stake, what we’re doing…. Once you understand what the schools are doing… then people can be supportive of it.”
Frost: “It usually comes down to smaller classrooms, better teachers, better supported teachers. The most effective way is to address that constantly, with the best use of real community resources.”
Hopkins: “Ensuring that all students have a rigorous curriculum,” not just those performing at the top or the bottom of their class.