“Utter partisan malarkey”
Party-line vote denies Meiklejohn school board chair, again
By Chris Busby
For the second consecutive year, members of the Portland School Committee chose their leadership by a party-line vote. And once again, partisan tensions between registered Democrats and Green Independents on the supposedly non-partisan board snarled its process and forced the delay of a key decision – in this case, the selection of a chairperson to head the board’s Finance Committee, which plays a major role in determining the school budget.
“Utter partisan malarkey.” That’s how District 3 School Committee member Jason Toothaker, a Green, characterized the 5-4 vote that gave John Coyne, a Democrat, the board’s chairmanship during a tense caucus last night.
Coyne, who’s now in his second year representing Deering, North Deering and Riverton (District 5), got the nod over Ben Meiklejohn, a Green Independent Party leader entering his sixth year as one of the board’s four at-large representatives.
Toothaker and fellow Greens Susan Hopkins and Rebecca Minnick – the newly elected District 1 (East End) representative – voted for Meiklejohn. The four registered Democrats: Lori Gramlich, outgoing board chairperson Ellen Alcorn, and newly elected members Robert O’Brien and Sarah Thompson gave Coyne the nod, despite his relative lack of experience.
A year ago, Alcorn, then in her second year as an at-large representative, attained the chairmanship on a party-line 5-4 vote over Meiklejohn. This was followed by a second party-line vote that gave outgoing District 1 representative Otis Thompson the chairmanship of the Finance Committee over Green Stephen Spring, who lost his District 2 seat (the West End, Parkside and parts of the Oakdale and Libbytown neighborhoods) to O’Brien last week.
After last night’s party-line vote for Coyne, Alcorn and Meiklejohn were nominated by members of their respective political parties for the Finance Committee chair. The angst in the room was palpable – and Alcorn’s appointment to the post by a second party-line vote seemingly imminent – when she suggested the board postpone the vote until sometime next month.
“Obviously we were kind of at a tense moment as a group,” Alcorn said today. “When it became clear it was once again going to become this divide on the [School] Committee, I instinctively didn’t think we were in a very healthy place to make a decision on who to chair the Finance Committee.”
Alcorn clearly had no appetite for a divisive caucus last night, and sought to move the appointment process along with minimal discussion. However, Meiklejohn and the Greens repeatedly asked for opportunities to speak about the selection process and query nominees on their qualifications, and Alcorn allowed further discussion to take place.
Given the opportunity to address colleagues before the vote, Coyne gave brief remarks in which he said he hoped to continue work the board accomplished last year, and do more “marketing” of public schools, in hopes of attracting more students. Meiklejohn spoke at length about promoting “the collective social continuum of learning,” from kindergarten to adult education, and detailed his experience as a board member, including past stints as chairman of the board’s Policy Committee and Legislative Committee, and as a member of the Finance Committee.
Meiklejohn acknowledged there is “clearly a perception of divisions” on the board, and said he would work to bridge and erase those divisions as chair. In any case, he noted, a simple majority of five members can vote to remove the chairperson at any time should they feel his or her leadership is lacking.
Meiklejohn also urged his colleagues to reestablish the informal system of succession the board followed when he began his tenure, whereby the past year’s Finance Committee chairperson is elevated to the board chairmanship the next year. That pattern was disrupted when outgoing at-large member Jonathan Radtke attained the board chairmanship for a second year in 2004, after at-large member Kim Matthews moved to Westbrook and relinquished her seat, Meiklejohn recalled.
The Greens rankled their donkey-party colleagues last year over several issues, from their objections to the magnitude of Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor’s raise to their insistence that they have the right to meet and discuss school matters outside of regularly scheduled board meetings. Meiklejohn said Alcorn told him his well-publicized actions during and outside board meetings led her to support Coyne’s bid for the chairmanship.
Coyne, by contrast, has been an exceedingly low-key board member during his first year in public office. A juvenile probation officer, he has seldom spoken at meetings. His term thus far has been most notable for his support of the system of weighted grades in high school rankings, support that never wavered even when the rest of the board voted to abolish the system on grounds it discriminates against minority students. (The system has since been reinstated while a new one is considered.)
O’Brien cited that steadfast position in explaining his support for Coyne’s chairmanship. He and Thompson also spoke of the public’s loss of respect and trust for the board in the wake of its performance this past year – the implication being that this was the Greens’ fault.
Minnick said she supported Meiklejohn based on his experience and ability to facilitate discussions – a skill she’s seen during Green Independent Party meetings. Asked if she felt the vote for Coyne was partisan, she said, “I hate to dig that hole on my first day, but it was obviously a party-line vote, so I was disappointed.”
“We’re supposed to be making evidenced-based, data-driven decisions,” Hopkins wrote in a post-vote e-mail to The Bollard. “So I voted based on what the nominees presented as evidence regarding their tenure, philosophy of professional development for the committee as a whole, knowledge about the role of the chair and fluency in Parliamentary Procedure.”
The Greens expressed hope the board will be able to work together under Coyne’s chairmanship, but couldn’t hide their bitterness last night.
“I think we can move forward as a board, but I feel we did the community a disservice by not choosing the right chair for the job,” said Toothaker, now in his third year on the board. “I don’t see how someone with Ben’s experience doesn’t get that position.”
The board was able to approve two major items last night. It approved a new three-year contract with O’Connor – this time, with no raise – and a three-year contract with the teachers’ union, the Portland Education Association. The teachers’ contract does include a big pay raise, one amounting to a nearly 13-percent increase over three years, once so-called “step increases” are factored in. The base salary increases are three percent in the first year, two percent the next year, and one percent the year after, with no change in health insurance benefits.
The new agreement with educators replaces the former system of raises that was based on years of teaching experience with a new system based on educational and professional development, such as college credits teachers earn or participation in educational workshops.
The union is expected to ratify the new contract later this month.