AUGUSTA — Two former school board members are vying against each other to make their return and fill a vacant at-large position.

Both Tom Connors and Amanda Olson say they have the skills and experience which could help Augusta’s schools and the Board of Education.

Tom Connors, member at large, speaks during budget debate an Augusta school board meeting March 23, 2016 in the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Connors, 60, who works in substance abuse and mental health services for the state Department of Health and Human Services, served on the school board from 2016 to 2018. He said he wants to return to the board because he enjoyed serving on the board and learned a lot during his previous tenure.

Connors said schools are vital to the growth of Augusta and he wants to be part of that.

“I think we made some forward progress in some areas but some were left unfinished,” he said of the school board. “I’d put the kids first. With good schools, we’ll get more families.

“I want Augusta to be the best school system there is,” Connors added. “Using technology, supporting teachers, both financially as well as giving them the tools they need, would make the schools better.”

Amanda Olson, Augusta Housing Authority executive director, in the kitchen of an apartment at the former Hodgkins Middle School in Augusta on Nov. 10, 2016. The building was redeveloped by the Augusta Housing Authority as apartments. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Olson, 40, who when she served on the school board from 2013 to 2015, resigned from her previous at-large position on the board in 2015. She said she resigned then because she took a job as executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority. Olson said she quickly discovered, after looking at its financial projections, the nonprofit housing assistance organization needed her full attention and would be a nearly around-the-clock job, so she pulled back from her involvement with community organizations and resigned from the school board.

Since then, she said, the Augusta Housing Authority has stabilized and is no longer a job that requires her to work late into the night regularly, so she wants to recommit herself to the community, including returning to the school board.

“I found it very rewarding and thought I was able to make a positive difference there,” Olson said of her first school board stint. “The school board sets the direction of the district, so now more than ever we need dynamic leadership at the board level.

“I think we have incredible potential in our district to be a leader in education,” she added. “In order for that to happen, the board needs to be supportive and empower the superintendent to do some new and innovative things.”

Olson, a graduate of the University of Maine at Augusta, and her husband Andrew have a small farm producing exotic mushrooms in Augusta and, between them, have five children.

She said the biggest challenge facing the school system is how to continue to meet the needs of students with such diverse needs with limited financial resources. She said that will require creative thinking and problem solving, skills she said were required for her to return the housing authority to financial sustainability.

Connors, a graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, and his wife Stephanie have two kids.

He said one of the biggest challenges facing local schools is Augusta has a very “high needs population” among its students, including students from other countries for whom English is not their first language, and special education students, which is good in that they create a more culturally diverse school community. But he said its important the general population of students, as well as gifted and talented students, also receive a quality education in Augusta. He said the schools need to make better use of technology, because they have computers but aren’t fully utilizing them in the classroom. He said the system needs an information technology manager, and should expand science, technology, engineering and math programming, including robotics.

Last year Connors was part of the majority, 5-2, school board vote that rejected a proposal which would have added holidays for six religions to the school calendar to help keep educators aware of those holidays as they planned special events, a proposal advocates said was meant to try to accommodate students of all faiths by avoiding, when possible, having special events at school on the same days some students would be observing religious holidays, though the proposal would not have added any of those holidays as days off from school for students.

Connors said the proposed change to school policy wasn’t the result of a complaint, that he has great faith that teachers and administrators have been and will continue to be inclusive to all groups in Augusta’s schools, there are aspects of scheduling within a school year, such as state testing requirements, that teachers, administrators and coaches can’t change, and there was no apparent need for the change in policy. He said if a need for change arises or the situation changes, he would be open to discussing the topic again.

Olson said there is no doubt that school staff in Augusta go above and beyond to accommodate everyone but said that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a policy put in place to recognize the need to make accommodations for cultural and religious diversity in schools. She said the school calendar should be representative of the school community and now, without the policy placing religious holidays on the calendar, she doesn’t think it is representative of the community.

The winner of the two will serve until December 2020, completing the remaining time left of an at-large seat previously held by Jason Bersani, who resigned from the board.

Residents will also vote, in a secret ballot Tuesday, whether to approve the $31 million school budget, as adopted recently by city councilors when they approved the overall city and school budget.

Polls in Augusta are expected to be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the following locations: Ward 1, Buker Community Center; Ward 2, City Center, Council Chambers; Ward 3, Augusta Civic Center, north wing; and Ward 4,  Cony High School band room.

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