ELLSWORTH — Voters will have their choice when voting in local elections Nov. 3, as five candidates have stepped up to fill two open seats on the Ellsworth School Board. Current Chairwoman Brenda Thomas is not seeking re-election, although one-term incumbent Robert Hudson is running. While the impact of COVID-19 on education and education funding is foremost on the candidates’ minds, they also highlighted other issues and challenges when interviewed by The Ellsworth American.
An Ellsworth resident since 2011, Elizabeth Alteri grew up in Deer Isle and received her bachelor’s degree from the New England School of Communication in 2007. After a four-year stint as news producer for News Center Maine, and two years with The Ellsworth American, Alteri is now volunteer recovery coach coordinator for Healthy Acadia, a Zumba teacher, and parent of three children, two of whom attend Ellsworth schools. She seeks to join the school board “because I think [it] needs new blood. It needs some fresh perspective.”
Foremost for Alteri is how the district handles COVID-19 issues, followed by board transparency and overhauling the district’s current report card. “The immediate thing is that now we’re in a hybrid learning system. We have some fantastic educators who are doing, in essence, triple duty, working seven days a week.”
While acknowledging difficulties imposed by COVID-19, Alteri noted, “It’s never been widely publicized what’s being discussed at any given school board meeting,” adding: “There are a lot of things that are discussed that appear to have already been decided” from private meetings among the superintendent and board chair- and vice chairman. “Watching school board meetings, it seems like there’s some members in the know and some not.”
Alteri may not be “hugely versed” in budgeting but does some tracking in her current position and took business courses in college. “I’m also a pretty fast learner, and I love to know what’s going on and where the funds are going.”
One change Alteri would like to see is more educator involvement. “It’s important that there’s a line of communication between the board and educators. They’re the ones on the front line every day.” She added, “I wouldn’t necessarily say break the chain of command, but I think that it’s important for teachers to know that if the buck stops at the principal or the superintendent, that they can go to a board member and not have to be concerned about repercussions.”
Born and raised in Gouldsboro, Kelli Casey has lived in Ellsworth for 15 years and is MDI Hospital’s employee engagement coordinator. She has a seventh grader in the middle school and has two children who are Ellsworth High School graduates. A volunteer youth coach for Ellsworth schools for 10 years, she seeks a board seat because “I feel that my years of experience as a parent and coach provides me with a lot of insights into the challenges our teachers and students are facing. Kids and teachers deserve people who are willing to put in the work with them to see that opportunities are provided.”
The biggest challenges facing the school district Casey sees as COVID-19 related: “We’re in unprecedented times. We’re educating kids during a pandemic. How are we going to bring [them] up to speed? How are we going to support our teachers along the way? What resources will be available to our kids and teachers moving forward?”
At present, Casey sees education as “not available or chopped up. In my mind, it’s affecting the integrity of the education system.”
A focus on teacher resources is another challenge ahead, Casey said, especially selecting the right technology from the wide range of resources available, as is a collaborative approach to decision making, with parents contributing to principal, superintendent and board discussions and decisions, as happened with the 2020 high school graduation celebration.
Transparency as a board member is ‘the utmost important job [they] have,” Casey said. “The decisions [they] make impact our students and ultimately our community. We can’t be transparent enough.”
While Casey’s budgeting experience falls within the health care sector, “I’ve been a part of meetings and committees that talk about how monies are allocated,” she noted. “Taxpayers want to know: where is the money going?”
The biggest change Casey would like to see is greater teacher involvement with decisions around education. “Our teachers are professionals and experts in their fields. I feel they should always be included in decisions regarding the education of our children. That’s not happening. They’re the experts; listen to them.”
Raised in Oxford Hills, Joel Horne attended the University of Southern Maine and moved to Ellsworth in 2003. An installation and repair technician with Consolidated Communications for 23 years, Horne has also served as his union’s steward since 2003. WIth an eighth grader in the middle school and a son who graduated from EHS in 2018, Horne is the middle school wrestling coach and a past vice-president of the Little Eagles Wrestling Club.
He seeks a school board seat because he’d like greater local control of the district. “It still seems we’re running our school system based on the federal government’s belief in [the] Common Core, going in a direction I don’t think really prepares kids for the future.”
Students not planning on college should receive as much educational focus as those who are, he said. “School is for everyone. We need to cater to what makes an Ellsworth graduate succeed in all sectors of the world, not just prepare kids for the college track. Preparing students for the future—that’s our job, period.”
The hybrid learning model in place under COVID-19 is another challenge, Horne said. He advocates in-school learning every day, calling teachers “front line workers,” and points to surveys sent out by administrators returned “overwhelmingly” in favor of every day, in-school learning.
Horne also sees the superintendent’s role as in need of attention. “It seems as though the superintendent is running the school board. My belief is, it’s the school board’s job to direct the superintendent.” Asserting there have been “private meetings” between the superintendent and board chairman and vice chairman, Horne said, “You have three people on the board being cut out. The superintendent is going beyond what I feel his role is.”
Finally, Horne would like the board to address the overall cost-per-pupil when drafting the annual budget. “When you look at the total budget and the number of actual kids being educated, you’re looking at almost $30,000 per student…It would be one thing if our kids were performing at or above the national standard, but they’re not.”
A one-term incumbent, Robert Hudson has also served on the Ellsworth Recreation Committee and as an Ellsworth volunteer firefighter. He seeks re-election because he “really want to see what we can do to move this district forward and help the kids even more.”
Hudson holds a bachelor’s degree in applied science from University of Maine, and has lived in Ellsworth since 2002. He retired from the Navy, and the Navy Reserves, in 2010. His two stepdaughters are EHS graduates and a grandson just started kindergarten.
COVID-19, particularly how to protect students and staff during the pandemic, is the biggest challenge facing the district, Hudson said. But budget shortfalls, stemming from state financial issues, will also need to be dealt with, as is “securing funds for the kids we have with special needs. That’s a huge output.” Hudson points to a trend of families moving into the area because of “the outstanding special needs we provide. It’s just figuring out how to fund those needs.” Hudson’s Navy experience has “put me in positions of responsibility for budgets and personnel,” he said.
If he could change one thing in the school district, Hudson said he would like to see a greater focus on hands-on experience, as offered through Hancock County Technical Center. “I think it’s important for kids to understand that gong to college isn’t everything. It’s just as important to learn the trades. We need those trades in this community desperately. I’d like to put my focus there, if I’m re-elected.”
Hudson believes in transparency from the board, and would like to see community involvement at board meetings continue. “You’d hate to think that COVID is the reason we’ve had so much recent interest, but I hope it sticks after this, that people are more involved and more interested in what’s going on…I really think that the best way for Ellsworth to continue to grow on its current path is folks who look to relocate, and look for strong school districts. I really want Ellsworth to be one of those districts.”
A Pembroke native, Kelly McKenney has lived in Ellsworth for nearly 20 years. Two of her children graduated from EHS and two are still in school. A part-time realtor with Acadia Realty Group, McKenney holds a bachelor’s degree in community health education from University of Maine at Farmington, is a school board alumni, and current treasurer of the PTF. She also was Ellsworth school health coordinator for 10 years and a former Union River Healthy Communities board member.
McKenney seeks to return to the board out of love for the schools. “I don’t have an agenda. I’m not running because there’s one thing that upset me. I’m running because I want to serve my community and, more importantly, help ensure that my children and all the children of Ellsworth have the best possible education.”
Her budgeting experience comes from her one board term and overseeing federal and state grants as school health coordinator, as well as when she served as the Head Start health manager for Hancock and Washington counties.
COVID-19 poses “huge challenges” for teachers, with both in-school and remote teaching taking place, she said. “We’re asking the impossible, in my opinion, from our teachers,” with the hybrid model leaving children home to do online school alone, while parents are at work.
“Key stakeholders, especially parents and teachers,” should be involved in major decisions and major changes, like those that arose from the pandemic, McKenney said. “Families and teachers are the ones that are most affected by the pandemic and this [hybrid] model that [was] chosen. However, they were not at the planning table and should have been.”
She also views the superintendent evaluation system as inefficient, stating “I would like to see a 360-degree evaluation model put in place,” and a quicker background check process for teachers nominated for a position, so they don’t take a position elsewhere.
The school climate calls for more communication and collaboration, McKenney said, “not only [for] our students but also our staff, teachers and administrators.“ She suggests an annual school climate survey that is reported back to the board.