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Four in June for two spots on the Falmouth School Board

Four candidates are running for two three-year seats on the Falmouth School Board this year. Voters will choose from Bridget Cronan, Robert Kline, Tiffany Skillings and Leslie Zamer on June 11.

There are no active incumbents. Whitney Bruce and Nicole Bezanson are leaving the board after reaching their term limits.

During a candidate forum last week co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Portland Area, the candidates spoke about what they hope to accomplish if elected, their approach to the budget, opinions on the work of the district’s Intercultural Awareness and Inclusion Committee, and the proper role of cell phones in school settings.

Cronan

Cronan

Bridget Cronan has worked in early childhood education for much of her professional life, including as a teacher at a child development center in South Freeport. She has one child enrolled in the Falmouth Public Schools and another child who is not yet of school age. She graduated from Falmouth High School.

At the May 22 forum, Cronan emphasized her background as an educator and her commitment to investing in good educators.

“I am a product of quality education. Quality education cannot happen without our teachers. Our teachers and staff need to feel supported,” she said during her opening statement.

When answering a question about how she would approach controversial issues on the board, she said she would try to be humble and open-minded while still “following a process.” She said this process includes clearly identifying the problem and gathering input from stakeholders, as well as seeking expert advice as needed.

Cronan and the other candidates were asked about the successes to date of the district’s Intercultural Awareness and Inclusion Committee in advancing equity and inclusion and what that committee’s focus should be moving forward.

A few years ago, the commission and district leadership pushed for an equity audit, the results of which were published in a report in January 2022. The audit revealed a number of troubling issues, Cronan said, including the finding that “(e)educational experiences, opportunities and expectations for students are inconsistent across teachers and classrooms.” Cronan said teachers need to work together to better align their course content.

When it comes to budgeting and easing the burden on taxpayers, Cronan said she would like to see the budget process begin sooner and would support the creation of a joint City Council-school board finance committee to look at the budget looks.

Overall, however, she is not pushing for major changes to the budget.

“I would hate to see drastic measures taken in our budget that would jeopardize our ability to provide a quality education to our students.”

Candidates were also asked what they thought was an appropriate cell phone use policy for schools in Falmoutha topic of public conversation in recent weeks.

At a recent board meeting, members of the group Falmouth Parents for Thoughtful Technology advocated for more restrictive policies around cell phone use in schools. The group is calling for a nationwide ban on cellphones in schools and urging parents to sign a pledge that would allow them to wait to provide smartphones to their children until after eighth grade. A similar initiative is taking place in Scarborough.

Cronan said the move toward more restrictive policies would necessitate a “collective community shift” in Falmouth’s culture toward personal technology use in schools.

“COVID has made them kind of essential parts of our process,” she said. “Now we have to look at ‘where can we take them out of our day?’

Klijn

Klijn

Robert “Bob” Kline has a professional background in the field of employment law, school and construction law. In 2023, he earned a certificate in construction technology from Southern Maine Community College. He is the parent of a former Falmouth student.

In an emailed statement to the Northern Forecaster, Kline identified three key challenges facing Falmouth schools: declining school enrollments, employer demand for trade workers (as opposed to “knowledge workers”), and “opposition to climbing local property taxes.”

School department data shows enrollment fell from 2,127 in fiscal year 2019 to a projected 1,956 for fiscal year 2025.

During the candidate forum, he said he would like to see the school board take a more active leadership role, rather than a more “advisory role.”

When answering a question about how he would approach controversial issues in governance, Kline said he is guided by three principles: “know who you work for,” communicate transparently and honestly, and “talk the talk.”

As part of his response he brought the Falmouth Education Association – the union representing teachers, librarians, nurses and school counselorswhich he said “violated the construct of good faith” during contract negotiations last year. He said he disagreed with the way the school board responded to the incident.

In terms of education priorities he wants the board to pursue, he said he would like to see more opportunities for hands-on learning and tech-oriented education.

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, Kline said he supports DEI initiatives in businesses and schools, but has “sometimes questioned the cost of DEI and the effectiveness of DEI.” He said he has surveyed school leadership about how they measure the effectiveness of DEI efforts. He said the chief inspector’s response was “not responsive.”

He was also dissatisfied with leadership’s response when he asked why the district is spending more per student compared to Cumberland-North Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth.

Kline indicated he would support a cell phone ban for Falmouth schools.

Skills

Skills

Tiffany Skillings is the clinical director of a midwifery program where she focuses on policy development. She has one child in Falmouth schools.

Increasing public participation in school board meetings, elevating student voices and supporting teachers through professional development are among her broad goals she mentioned at the forum.

Her background in health care has given her the ability to think with a clear head and take a “calm approach,” she said. She said she practices humility and is committed to always thinking about how a process or outcome can be improved.

“I know I was very interested in being able to read the full equity audit report,” Skillings said. “I can’t say I was completely surprised by the findings… but I was so grateful that these issues were brought to light.”

She emphasized that data collected by the auditor showed that no children of color other than Asian students were receiving gifted education.

She also said she felt the research was flawed in some respects.

“I’ve gotten feedback from teachers and from other administrators (who said), ‘Well, this is an area where there’s no problem. The equity audit report didn’t reveal a problem.” The real problem, she said, is that “the data is just not broken down in a meaningful way so that we can say this group is experiencing this compared to another group.” .”

She also believes the budget process should start earlier, but echoes others in saying it makes sense for the majority of the budget to go toward investing in and supporting teachers and school staff.

When it comes to cell phone use in schools, Skilling said she sympathizes with parents who say they want to make sure they can contact their children in an emergency. But she is keen to integrate insights from researchers who have found that technology has a “harmful” effect on children.

“This is an area where I think community voices are very important, student voices are important, but I would also love to read what the research tells us.”

Zamer

Zamer

Leslie Zamer has a professional background in accounting and has two children in Falmouth schools.

She would spend her first year on the school board listening and learning, she said. She emphasized her commitment to respectful communication. “Good people can disagree” but can still compromise through cooperation, she added.

Zamer said she was impressed by the district’s ability to instill “compassion” in its children and their peers, and its emphasis on teaching students that they are “bigger than themselves.” “That comes from the teachers,” she said.

She said she was “shocked” by the 2022 equity report, which, in addition to the other findings above, documented that hate speech and microaggressions are “very prevalent” in Falmouth Schools. She commended the district for initiating the audit and taking steps to make the school environment safer and more inclusive.

She agrees with other candidates that a large portion of the school budget should be spent on teachers and staff and on retaining the best talent.. She also talked about identifying wants versus needs, and said budget cuts and refinements should be done with a “scalpel,” as opposed to a “sledgehammer.”

On the issue of cell phone use in school, Zamer said she thinks people have “legitimate” reasons to disagree on the issue, and that “a ban does not equal compliance.”

“We all know this. They banned tobacco, they banned drugs. I’m sure some of that happens at school,” she said.

The board will have to work with teachers and administrators to find a solution that is actually enforceable, she said.

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