SCARBOROUGH — It’s one of the most anticipated and compelling local elections in southern Maine, and it’s shaping up to be a referendum on a controversial superintendent and educational policy that could determine the direction of the town’s public schools for years to come.

Fifteen candidates are running for five seats on the seven-member Board of Education, after the town’s first-ever recall election removed three members in May, in a community that’s more familiar with uncontested school board races.

The unprecedented interest follows an extraordinary public battle between Superintendent Julie Kukenberger and former Scarborough High School Principal David Creech. His sudden resignation in February – and subsequent claim that she forced him to leave – inflamed a townwide conflict that continued through his departure in June. And it probably won’t be resolved on Election Day, Nov. 6.

While most of the candidates say they want to reunite the community and move one of the state’s top school districts in a more positive direction, conflicts likely will persist over the superintendent and her policy agenda.

A public battle between Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, above, and the high school principal led to townwide conflict.

One of the board’s first tasks in December will be to consider extending Kukenberger’s contract, which runs out in June. A board made up of members who had no part in hiring her in April 2016 will have to decide whether to keep her. None of the candidates say they’re sure she should remain, and a few are certain she should leave.

“You gotta get rid of the superintendent. She’s gotta go,” said Mike Marcello, 53, a radio executive who is among the candidates. “What happened this past year was really outrageous. We have a great community and one of the best school districts in the state, and yet we had chaos.”

Moreover, all of the candidates harbor concerns about the adoption of a highly controversial proficiency-based education model and grading system, which was Kukenberger’s pet project. The 1-4 grading system has been especially contentious, leading to a hybrid of the traditional 0-100 grading system.

Since the state dropped the mandate for a proficiency-based diploma – a move approved over the summer by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage – most of the candidates say the education model should be reconsidered. Some say parts of the program should be dumped altogether.

“I’m for excellence, not just proficiency,” said candidate Betsy Gleysteen, 55, a systems project manager and data analyst at Maine Medical Center.

Gleysteen said her daughter was “demotivated” by proficiency-based grading at Scarborough Middle School, so she’s attending a private high school until their concerns about the grading system at Scarborough High are addressed.

THREE SCHOOL BOARD RACES

Actually, there are three separate school board races on the ballot. One race drew 10 candidates, who are vying for three seats with three-year terms: Marcello, Gleysteen, John Cloutier, Sarah Leighton, Leroy Crockett, Nick Gill, Annalee Rosenblatt, April Sither, Lori Lavoie and Quinn Stewart.

A second race drew three candidates for a one-year term: Alicia Giftos, Benjamin Howard and Stacey Neumann. And a third race drew two candidates for a one-year term: Amy Glidden and Emily Read.

In a special election held in May, about two-thirds of townspeople who voted decided to remove Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea, three of the board’s longest-serving members. Beeley’s three-year term would have ended this November, and Lyford’s and Shea’s three-year terms would have ended in November 2019.

Other members whose seats are up for grabs this election are Jacquelyn Perry, who is termed out of office, and Mary Starr, who decided not to seek re-election. The two remaining board members – Hillory Durgin and Leanne Kazilionis – each have served one year of an initial three-year term.

Some candidates have been endorsed by the Road to Renewal, the group that organized the recall effort and led protests seeking to oust Kukenberger instead of Creech, who is now interim principal of Winthrop High School. The group has endorsed three of its founding members – Sither, Giftos and Glidden – as well as Gleysteen and Gill. It also has endorsed Don Hamill and founding member Paul Johnson in a four-way race for two Town Council seats.

“It’s time to elect representatives that will work hard for everyone in Scarborough, who will listen to their constituents and do more than give lip service to their concerns,” the renewal group wrote. “We believe the candidates we have endorsed are best suited to move us all forward in a direction that makes sense and that we can all be proud of.”

ALLIES AND ADVERSARIES

This election also has made surprising allies of people who normally fight over the school budget, which the town struggles to approve each year.

Concerned Taxpayers of Scarborough, a group that usually campaigns for budget reductions, has endorsed Sither, Giftos, Glidden, Gill and Rosenblatt, as well as Johnson and Hamill for the council.

“They are all committed to several principles that we believe are essential to re-establishing trust in town and school governance: transparency, objective decision-making (and) responsiveness to public concerns,” the taxpayers group wrote. “While we may well have honest disagreements on specific issues in the future, that is less important than creating an environment where all viewpoints can be shared, valued and appropriately considered.”

ADDITIONAL ENDORSEMENTS

Meanwhile, Supporters of Scarborough Schools has endorsed candidates who will be “independent and effective leaders.” The group formed several years ago to promote school budget funding, largely as a counterbalance to the taxpayers group. Its current leaders have endorsed Cloutier, Leighton, Lavoie, Read and Neumann (a founding member), as well as John Dittmer and incumbent Robert Rowan for Town Council.

“We believe their personal qualifications and experience will be beneficial to the town’s efforts to move forward and continue to ensure Scarborough’s school department is one of the best in the state,” the supporters group wrote.

While other candidates have won individual endorsements from friends and community members, one for Stewart stands out. The 2017 Scarborough High School graduate and longtime political activist was endorsed this month by the High School Democrats of America.

Scarborough Sharing Trust on Recall Matters, a group that formed to support the targeted school board members and Kukenberger amid the recall effort, did not endorse candidates.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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