Voters’ Guide 2006: Portland School Committee At Large

Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2006
Local election coverage 

At-large school board candidates (from left): Sarah Thompson; Kevin Gardella and Teri McRae at a televised forum. (photos/courtesy Thompson; Chris Busby)


Voters’ Guide: Portland School Committee At Large 
Three-way tangle for the city-wide seat

By Chris Busby 

OK, we give up. This sexy school board theme is played out. Other than the cheeky reference to the fact there are three candidates in this race, there are no sex jokes to be had in covering the campaign for this at-large seat on the school board. Sorry, we’re just not gonna go there.

These are decent people. One candidate, Teri McCrae, is so upstanding she’s Republican. Another, Kevin Gardella, is an earnest young man who just became a father; and the third, Sarah Jordan Thompson, is a loving mother and wife who dedicates time to her kids’ school’s PTO. So much as we’d like to spice this one up, you’ll just have to decide who to vote for based on the dry facts.

McRae, 50, is a feisty fiscal conservative who represented District 4 (East Deering) on the board from 2002 ’til 2005, including a stint as chair of the Finance Committee. McRae was elected Cumberland County Register of Probate in 2004, and ran a lackluster school board re-election campaign the next year, leading to her defeat by first-time candidate Lori Gramlich, who took 61 percent of the vote.

McRae’s got more fight in her this time, and is sticking to her fiscal guns. Just as she supported the controversial tax cap proposal on the ballot in ’04, she’s unashamedly pro-TABOR this year. Married, with a son who attends Deering High, McRae works as a financial controller for a company based in New York. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brandeis University and a master’s in finance from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. 

Thompson, 36, is a first-time candidate running with the support of Jonathan Radtke, the former school board chairman whose at-large seat is up for grabs this year (Radtke decided not to seek another term). Thompson received an associate’s degree in business administration this past May from the University of Southern Maine, and works as a territory manager selling manufactured goods wholesale to the retail market. 

Thompson is vice chair of the board of the Portland Education Partnership, a non-profit that works to support public education through volunteerism and partnerships with local businesses and other non-profits. An active member of the parent-teacher organization at Longfellow Elementary School, she worked last year on the Portland public schools’ math curriculum task force. 

Gardella, 29, is a direct-care worker at 75 State Street, an assisted living facility for the elderly in Portland. As mentioned, he and his partner just had a baby boy. Gardella holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USM, and is currently pursuing a nursing degree at Southern Maine Community College. 
An artist and member of the Green Independent Party, Gardella is making his first run for public office. 

The candidates’ answers to our Voters’ Guide questions are below, edited in some cases to make them appear sexier – um, I mean for clarity and length. 

Should high schools have a system of ranking and weighted grades?
 “No, I don’t think that accomplishes much. Rather than testing, we should devote more energy to what kids are learning in classes.”
McRae: “They should have a system recognizing academic achievement. Varsity isn’t just for athletics.”
Thompson: “I think that we certainly need to reward excellence… but I’m concerned that part of our population in Portland feels the system discriminates against them. We need to work out a system that’s still rewarding excellence, but not making anyone feel discriminated against.”

If consolidating elementary schools would save money but lead to an increase in class sizes, would you support consolidation?
Gardella: “I don’t know that those two things have been interlinked, but community schools need to be in communities and need to be kept open.”
McRae: “I never want to increase class size.” Is dubious of the idea of closing schools to save money. Advocates for a more systemic analysis based on current assets and needs.
Thompson: “We need to exhaust all avenues before we go down any route of consolidation and closure.” Is not convinced consolidation will result in savings, and stressed the need to weigh any savings against the disruption of a neighborhood and a learning environment.

Are you open to corporate sponsorship of school events or facilities, like athletic fields?
 “Only if they’re local,” and even then any proposal “would have to be scrutinized.”
McRae: “I have no bias against it. I’m happy to hear about it.”
Thompson: Uncertain. Would need to research and study the pros and cons.

Do military recruiters have enough access to students?
 “I personally don’t think the military has any place recruiting in schools – no more place recruiting in schools than any other group of people. They shouldn’t be in there using school time telling kids how great it would be if they could be military personnel.” 
McRae: “I have no knowledge to the contrary.”
Thompson: “I think that if we give them access, we also need to give other organizations access, as well. It’s one option of many for students. All access should be fair and equitable.”

What, if anything, should be done to reduce the concentration of poor students in certain schools?
 “I think what we need to do is look at what’s causing all our families to move out of Portland. That’d be a study I’d support if elected.”
McRae: First look at why students in those schools are not performing well, if that’s the case. Consider other factors before considering sending students to different schools. 
Thompson: “We shouldn’t interfere with any sort of mixture. It’s where the students live and where they feel comfortable…. All the children should have the same access to all of our schools,” should a family wish to send their child to a different public school.

Is harassment a serious problem in our high schools or media hype?
 “I don’t really think it’s hype. It’s teaching people to address this problem in a constructive way.”
McRae: “I didn’t follow it all, but there’s a certain amount of that stuff goes on in life…. The thought that we can eliminate all of it and make everyone be nice to everybody is a pretty extreme goal. We put an incredible amount of resources toward [this issue] and I’m not sure we get much, because life is life. There’s nothing I can do to make everybody be nice to everybody all the time.”
Thompson: “I don’t know if I can say firsthand whether there is harassment. I’ve seen some reports come through. Where we are a diverse city, we need to take into account where one may see discrimination and another may not.”

Should Portland high school and middle school students be encouraged to ride METRO buses to and from school?
“Yes. We should do as much as possible to get people in the habit of learning to use public transit.”
McRae: “Absolutely.”
Thompson: “I think anytime we can do away with duplication of services, then certainly it should be considered. But I think we also need to take into consideration the safety of students.” Also concerned about the ability of current METRO routes to meet students’ needs.

Should foreign languages be taught at the elementary school level?
McRae: “It’s not the biggest problem we have with foreign language.” Is more concerned about some middle school students needing to retake the same language classes in high school. 
Thompson: “Definitely.”

Is it acceptable for two or more school board members to discuss school policy outside official meetings?
“Yes, I think that’s fine…. It’s such a small city. How can you avoid running into school board members?” 
McRae: Yes.
Thompson: “No. I think we need to, first and foremost, follow policy. We convene at a certain place and time and include the public in all of our discussions. But side meetings outside of that, I don’t feel [are] appropriate.”

Should the phrase “under God” be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance?
“No, I don’t think that’s diminishing the education [students] have in schools.”
McRae: “I don’t care. It’s not something I would ever spend my time on. It’s not a School Committee issue.”
Thompson: “I don’t have a problem with it being there. If a child does not want to salute the flag or say the Pledge, they do have that option. They do have to stand, but don’t have to say the Pledge.”

%d bloggers like this: