HALLOWELL — Andrew McPherson has said he’s running for City Council partly because he’s dismayed by recent property tax hikes.

But the chairwoman of Regional School Unit 2’s school board, whose budget was a factor in forcing an 8 percent tax increase in Hallowell this year, sees a contradiction in McPherson’s conservative message.

Team Hall-Dale, the volunteer group he formed more than nine years ago, has failed to raise the money it pledged, so Hallowell and Farmingdale have not recouped funding for the lion’s share of upgrades to Hall-Dale Elementary School.

Team Hall-Dale hoped to raise $558,000 by June 2004 to fund upgrades to the school that the state wouldn’t pay for, including a larger gymnasium, library and cafeteria. The $12.4-million school opened in 2006.

To date, the group has handed over approximately $241,000, about 41 percent of the goal.

Over the past year, Mayor Charlotte Warren — a supporter of McPherson’s council bid — has pledged to help Team Hall-Dale raise its target amount.

But little, if any, progress has been made, and it has opened political wounds in the city.

McPherson, a Chamberlain Drive engineer, said earlier this month that Team Hall-Dale had a few thousand dollars in its bank account, and fundraising will restart soon.

Warren said she remains ready to help and optimistic McPherson will carry out his goal.

But a plan Warren conceived to revive the group last November hasn’t gotten off the ground and in 2009, Hallowell and Farmingdale funded most of the upgrades from their.

RSU 2 board Chairwoman Dawn Gallagher, a Hallowell resident, said that makes McPherson’s budget criticism hard to hear.

“As a private citizen, I am utterly dismayed that someone would condemn the school budget when that someone is responsible for a $300,000 pledge that the RSU is now paying for,” she said.

Warren said, however, Gallagher’s criticism is rooted in old political battles.

Footing the bill

In September 2004, the $558,000 for upgrades to the elementary school, on Hallowell’s Winthrop Street, was authorized by voters, who also allowed the district to accept up to $600,000 from Team Hall-Dale.

McPherson, then a city councilor, rolled out Team Hall-Dale earlier that year. Minutes from a school board meeting on Sept. 1, 2004, say McPherson reported $400,000 in donations and pledges.

Later that month, the Kennebec Journal quoted him at a public hearing as saying “this school won’t cost anyone here any more money.” McPherson then said he had more than $300,000 in written pledges.

While the money Team Hall-Dale has donated has gone toward paying some debt from the upgrades, McPherson has blamed the lack of money on a shrinking group of volunteers and an economic recession that caused pledges to dry up.

Team Hall-Dale’s first donation to the district — $175,000 — came in 2006. Another $40,000 came in 2007.

Until the 2009 formation of RSU 2, that was all the group gave. Absent more money, Hallowell and Farmingdale residents voted in June 2009 to fund the outstanding amount for the upgrades, according to Virgel Hammonds, RSU 2’s superintendent.

After that vote, the RSU could use nearly $342,000 from School Administrative Unit 16, the former school district for Hallowell and Farmingdale, to pay off debt for the upgrades into the future.

Hammonds said that pool of money has been drawn down upon to pay over the past years, with annual withdrawals in the ballpark of $40,000.

Between 2009 and July 2012, $75 came in from Team Hall-Dale. Then, in August 2012, another $26,000 came in. That money has been put toward debt service, according to Hammonds.

Still, any future amount of money Team Hall-Dale raises isn’t guaranteed to solely benefit Hallowell and Farmingdale students.

Hammonds said if the group were to give RSU 2 more money, it would likely go to retain programs district-wide, though that would be a school board decision. RSU 2 covers Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond.

Despite not having the Team Hall-Dale money during tough budgetary times, the superintendent isn’t passing blame onto McPherson and volunteers.

“Everyone had the best interests at heart of the kids at Hall-Dale,” Hammonds said. “It’s hard to point fingers at anybody.”

No action on new plan

Warren in November wrote a fundraising plan for Team Hall-Dale that was submitted to the City Council. It said she would oversee creation of a website for the group.

Nearly a year later, Team Hall-Dale doesn’t have a website.

It said a local business person, whose name hasn’t been made public, “donated all costs” associated with a direct mail piece soliciting donations.

That never went out, McPherson said, and he doesn’t know if the business person was contacted.

It said Warren would set up an online fundraising mechanism and a Facebook page.

Team Hall-Dale has neither.

It said Warren would also become a signatory on Team Hall-Dale’s bank account “to ease the administration burden” on McPherson.

The mayor said that hasn’t happened either.

But she likened McPherson’s inaction with Team Hall-Dale to a number of personal and public goals of hers that “keep getting pushed down to the bottom of my priority list” because of other personal and professional pressures.

“But I know that once I put in the elbow grease, I’m going to achieve my goals,” Warren said. “Andy knows a lot of people. He can get these dollars.”

McPherson acknowledged delay on putting the plan Warren wrote into action, but he expects online fundraising to begin soon. He said a revived group of volunteers may meet by month’s end.

“I just can’t do it by myself,” he said.

Playing politics?

Though McPherson faces criticism from Gallagher, the school board chairwoman, about his opinion on the tax increase, he says it wasn’t about the school budget, which he hasn’t read.

“I didn’t criticize the school budget, I criticized the tax increase,” he said. “Hallowell can’t control the school budget.”

The best he can do, McPherson said, is run for council to save residents money. He’s running against George Lapointe, a Middle Street resident who served as Maine’s commissioner of marine resources from 1998 to 2011.

On Sept. 3, he entered the race, well after Lapointe. Hallowell’s assistant city clerk, Daniel Kelley, said he got his nomination papers in the morning and returned them with the necessary minimum of 50 signatures in the afternoon.

He got some help — from Warren and two councilors, David Bustin and Mark Walker. Both are Warren allies. Walker, running unopposed to replace her as mayor, has her endorsement.

Bustin was appointed to the council by the mayor earlier this month to the seat that McPherson and Lapointe are running for in November.

Before McPherson announced, Warren said she was ready to appoint Lapointe ahead of the election, but she said she appointed Bustin to avoid favoring one opponent over the other. Though she supports McPherson, she said Lapointe would also make a good councilor.

Still, Gallagher criticized Warren’s signature gathering for McPherson. His signatures were gathered and submitted on Sept. 3 — the deadline for signatures set by the city charter.

“Mr. McPherson’s last-minute signature drive, which was conducted by the mayor, who stated in public meetings that she supported the budget, was plain politics,” Gallagher said. “Our children deserve better than playing politics with education.”

Warren called Gallagher part of “a small group of Hallowell residents who hate me and hate Andy” after years of political clashes in the city.

“Everybody involved in politics in Hallowell knows who my haters are,” she said.

“They’re a couple of them,” she said, referring to Gallagher, who is married to Councilor Phillip Lindley, and Councilor Alan Stearns.

Warren called Stearns “a bully” after his vote last week against Bustin’s appointment to the council. It passed the council 4-2, with Stearns and Lindley dissenting.

Stearns said he voted that way because he felt since Bustin and Warren gathered signatures for McPherson, Bustin wasn’t a truly impartial candidate for the council.

“If Charlotte thinks that a public vote and public discussion at a council meeting is bullying, I offer no apology,” Stearns said in an interview Friday. “I think she should expect public dialogue, public votes, public scrutiny and public accountability.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
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