Voters’ Guide 2006: Portland School Committee District 2

Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2006
Local election coverage 

District 2 School Committee candidates Robert O'Brien (left) and Stephen Spring at a televised forum. (photo/Chris Busby)

Voters’ Guide: Portland School Committee District 2 
Two gorgeous guys, one school board seat

By Chris Busby 

Stephen Spring was sleepless with worry two Tuesdays ago. And in some bedroom in Buxton, I picture Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz awake in the wee hours as well, mind racing with thoughts of all the attention the following day would bring. 

“Mr. Nemitz, the New York Times is on the line. Mr. Nemitz, it’s Larry King. Mr. Nemitz, Oprah’s people are on line one and they refuse to leave a message!”

With the public’s fingers still inky from the Mark Foley “Pagegate” scandal, the star columnist for Maine’s largest newspaper had seemingly uncovered another gay-sex-and-youth scandal, this one in sleepy Portland, Maine!

Spring, the incumbent District 2 Portland School Committee candidate, had run an ad in a gay newspaper, The Companion, promoting his run for a second term. The ad featured a picture of the candidate, as Nemitz described him, “leaning on one elbow with his tie loosened and a distinctly come-hither look on his face.” 

Beneath the photo were the damning words: “Gay, Green, and Gorgeous on the Portland School Committee.” (There was a bunch of other stuff in the ad, too, like accomplishments and background info, but none of it was hot.)


Come whither? The ad in question. (image/courtesy The Companion)
Come whither? The ad in question. (image/courtesy The Companion)

Gorgeous? Together with the “provocatively posed picture,” in Nemitz’s mind this was using sex to promote one’s candidacy for a position overseeing the education of children! The Companion, Nemitz noted, is distributed free around Portland, so anybody, even kids, can pick it up and be exposed to this come-on from a gay elected city official. 

It “remains to be seen what kind of homophobic hay the Christian Civic League of Maine might make out of the gay School Committee member who uses sexual innuendo as a campaign strategy,” Nemitz wrote in his column, published Wednesday, October 25, page one of the local section.

“Mr. Nemitz, Oprah’s people say it’s got to be tomorrow!”

But the hours wore on that Wednesday, afternoon gave way to evening, and still Oprah’s people didn’t call. What happened? Had the world’s sense of moral indignation finally atrophied and fallen off from overuse? Or was it something simpler?

Like Spring’s explanation that “gorgeous” isn’t necessarily a sexual term in the gay community. “If you’re gay, ‘gorgeous’ means ‘fun’ and ‘exciting,'” he told Nemitz. “It really doesn’t have any sexual connotation.”

Incumbent school board member Stephen Spring. (photo/courtesy Spring)
Incumbent school board member Stephen Spring. (photo/courtesy Spring)

Or the fact the Herald didn’t run the “provocatively posed” picture in the paper or post it online, so readers couldn’t see Spring’s “come-hither look.” Or the fact Nemitz could only find one outraged parent (a Democratic activist, it turns out), and one outraged public official, Democratic State Rep. Herb Adams, who lost his school board seat to Spring three years ago despite being a hot hunk of a historian himself. 

Or maybe it was because Spring’s opponent in this race, the dreamy (and straight) Robert O’Brien, didn’t see a problem with the ad. 

Robert O'Brien. (photo/courtesy O'Brien)
Robert O'Brien. (photo/courtesy O'Brien)

Rather than calling down the wrath of the Christian Right, Nemitz got complaints from the Christian Reasonable, who castigated him online for assuming all of Christ’s followers are reactionary homophobes. Seen a few days later at a local cocktail bar, Spring, looking sharp as usual, was clearly relieved. No phone calls from right-wing radio hosts. No reaction at all, really, to Nemitz’s column.

Besides, I guess, this Voters’ Guide. Oh, well. Better luck next time, Bill.

Oddly, given Nemitz’s low opinion of the local Green Independent Party, he didn’t point out the part of the ad that’s clearly inappropriate: the “Green” part. Though school board races aren’t necessarily sexless, they are supposed to be non-partisan. 

But O’Brien’s not bugged by that, either, though he’s not above lodging a shot over it. “I think his party affiliation is well known,” he told The Bollard. “It’s pretty public how Mr. Spring worked with other members of that party” on the school board. “It’s been criticized in the public and the press. It’s a distraction.”

Lest we be further distracted by all this, here’s the lowdown on this race.

Spring, 42, is a facilitator for the National School Reform Faculty, an organization that Spring said “focuses on issues of social justice and education.” He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education from the University of Maine at Orono, a master’s degree in science and educational leadership from the University of Southern Maine, and he’s currently a student at the University of Maine School of Law.

He and his partner live on the West End. District 2 also includes the Parkside neighborhood and parts of the Libbytown and Oakdale neighborhoods.

O’Brien, 26, is a meter reader with Central Maine Power, a job that he says is paying for his continuing studies at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management. He already has a liberal arts degree from Bates College.

O’Brien also lives on the West End, and is engaged to be married next year. (Sorry, ladies.) He is president of the West End Neighborhood Association and current vice president of the Irish American Club.

The candidates’ answers to our Voters’ Guide questions are below. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity. We also took out all the hot sex stuff, in deference to sensitive newspaper columnists who may still be reading this Guide.

Should high schools have a system of ranking and weighted grades?
 Agrees this issue should be further discussed by the board’s Policy Committee, but the past policy should stay in place while a new one is being considered. 
Spring: “No. There’s nothing in three decades of professional literature that supports that, at all. The heart of the matter is this: the weighted-grades thing gives energy and fuel to sorting kids out of more rigid course curriculum. It gives the protected class a reward for being in a certain place – people who know the rules, who are educated, white, all the things that give [one] privilege.”

If consolidating elementary schools would save money but lead to an increase in class sizes, would you support consolidation?
O’Brien: “No. I’m against consolidation of elementary schools. I think they should stay in the neighborhood.” 
Spring: Said other factors should be considered when looking at school consolidation. Added, “I’m an advocate of smaller class size. The ideal is 16 kids per class. If closing a school would really help us to get there, maybe,” but is doubtful that’s realistic.

Are you open to corporate sponsorship of school events or facilities, like athletic fields?
O’Brien: “If it’s benign enough, especially if it’s a local sponsor. There needs to be a lot of tact and consideration.” For example, “not Pepsi.”
Spring: “No…. Free things from corporations are rarely ever really free.”

Do military recruiters have enough access to students?
 “I agreed with the School Committee policy that they have equal access with other college recruiters. In a time of war, it’s understood they’re more aggressive, they do have more pressure on them to recruit. We should make sure parents are aware of that.”
Spring: “Yup. They had too much before, and now they have enough.” [As a board member, Spring pushed to change school policy to limit visits and access by military recruiters.]

What, if anything, should be done to reduce the concentration of poor students in certain schools?
Spring: Uncertain.

Is harassment a serious problem in our high schools or media hype?
 “I think we’ve all been through school, we’ve all met with bullies. I think a lot of it is human nature, but the biggest problem is the language being used and the populations being targeted.” Notes that remarks targeted at refugees are different than comments made within a homogenous group of students. Said those trying to address this should be “careful not to be too heavy-handed. It has to be a cultural change. It has to be at their level.” 
Spring: “For me, it’s like, ‘Of course, this is America'” – harassment is a problem. Applauds students for bringing the issue to public attention and helping to improve the situation. 

Should Portland high school and middle school students be encouraged to ride METRO buses to and from school?
 “It’s great if it’s viable.”
Spring: “Absolutely.” Favors efforts to make METRO buses the “primary means” of transportation for high school students, but not for middle schoolers, who he said should always have the option of school buses.

Should foreign languages be taught at the elementary school level?
 “If we have a budget for it, go for it.” Advocates for an examination of the effectiveness of the entire foreign language program. 
Spring: Yes. Called the removal, for funding reasons, of the past program “one of the worst things I saw happen” on the board. “I’d like to reinstate it, not just revisit it.”

Is it acceptable for two or more school board members to discuss school policy outside official meetings?
 I think that’s a matter of semantics. If you bump into each other in the parking lot of Hannaford and you’re talking shop, that’s one thing. If you sit down at a meeting and start devising policy, that’s different,” and unacceptable. 
Spring: [Was a participant in the informal Lincoln Park discussions that raised this issue with the board.] “That’s so weird. The statute would make you think no, then… you hang around and bump into groups of three or four or five public officials all the time, and they’re not talking about the Red Sox.” Said criticism of such discussions is “used at times for political advantage when you think someone’s not following it [the rules regarding meetings].”

Should the phrase “under God” be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance?
 “I certainly wouldn’t fight for it personally. In high school… some teachers enforced it more than others. I think I was the only person to say it out loud. I don’t believe the state should have any one authorized religion, but I think ‘God’ is a pretty benign and encompassing term.”
Spring: “I don’t know if I am the only one who doesn’t utter those two words when we recite that before the School Committee meetings.” Favors making it clear to students what their options are: “They can be silent, they can not stand up, they can not say the Pledge at all.” But removing the phrase is “not a priority at all.”

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