ELLSWORTH — Local elections are set for Nov. 2, when voters will choose two School Board members, one to fill a three-year seat and one to finish the final year in the term of former Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander, who stepped down in June. Incumbent Abigail Miller faces a three-way race against newcomer Joshua Dudeck and 2012 candidate Casey Hardwick for the three-year seat, while Tara Keeleen Young runs unopposed for the one-year term.
The American asked each candidate why they decided to run and what challenges they see ahead for the board and schools.
Joshua Dudeck is an attorney who handles residential real estate mortgage closings. He moved to Ellsworth with his family six years ago from Buffalo, N.Y. The city schools were a prime reason for relocating here, he said.
“I’m running because I’d like to make a difference in the community,” Dudeck said. “I can’t actually promise I can do that, but I feel in any government body, new people, perspectives and ideas are the lifeblood of democracy.”
Dudeck served on the board of Buffalo nonprofit The Pet Emergency Fund and volunteers at the elementary-middle school when he can, most recently with the school’s community garden.
He sees the number one issue facing the board as “this ever-increasing descent into tribalism that we seem to have experienced as a nation. No one can see eye to eye … There’s no room to compromise. But we don’t live in two separate countries.”
A second issue is the “general apathy among the voting public who are impacted by the board’s decisions: the parents of kids going to the schools,” he said. “And the unwillingness to participate in the process unless something big, like masking, appears.”
However, his two children, in third grade and sixth grade, have had a positive experience in the school district, he said: “Wonderful teachers, nice friends, no reports of issues I felt the school should address but did not. The schools are relatively well run with opportunities [for students] to succeed academically.”
The board can be most effective first, through increased transparency with the community, and second, having the public understand that the board’s constituents are the students, Dudeck said.
“All decisions need to be made with their best interests at the forefront,” he said.
Regarding school safety during the pandemic, Dudeck said: “I believe that the people who are best equipped to answer questions of public health are people who have spent their lives and their time receiving training and education in public health.”
He concluded, “That said, especially in a rural state like Maine, where our population is relatively low, there should be some room for public health decisions to reflect actual conditions in the area.”
A Penobscot native, Casey Hardwick is an Ellsworth High School graduate, married, with her youngest child a junior at EHS. She is seeking a seat on the board in part because she can offer a different perspective, she said.
As a teenage mother — one of about seven pregnant students her senior year — Hardwick said, “I had to fight cats and dogs to put in a daycare at EHS.” And with one child previously enrolled in the one-time EHS alternative education program, The Fourth Door, Hardwick said, “I can bring that outlook, the different kinds of support needed, to the board.”
She started attending or listening remotely to all board meetings once she decided to run.
“Generally speaking, I feel our board does a good job with what they have in front of them and the restrictions imposed,” she said.
Hardwick also said that School Board members should have “longevity within our community.” When asked what “longevity” meant to her, she replied, “at least 10 years or more.” Hardwick, herself, is a 25-year resident of Ellsworth.
Current board challenges are the “atmosphere of the community and how to navigate that to a successful ending,” and the curriculum, Hardwick said.
“Once you dig in, there’s concerning items” in the social-emotional learning program, she said. “What I’m hearing is people feel social-emotional learning is really critical race theory.”
In their basic forms, social-emotional learning seeks to make students competent in self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness and relationship skills. Critical race theory is a college- or graduate-level curriculum on equities across race, gender and socioeconomic class.
Hardwick added, “I really, truly feel everyone is equal regardless of where you sit. Everybody deserves the same treatment.”
She also would like to see classes that prepare students for adult life brought back into the curriculum, such as business and home economics.
Transparency is another of Hardwick’s concerns. “There has to be more transparency in the agendas, so the public knows that is to be discussed,” she said. “If you do go to a School Board meeting, you sit there and don’t know what’s going on.”
The “masking situation” is also why her name is on the ballot. “I feel what is coming down from [Maine Department of Education] is very contradictory of itself and to what the CDC is reporting,” she said. “I do my own research. I take my information directly from the CDC for anything COVID-related. And I firmly believe personal choice is a huge, huge factor, and personal choice should not be conditional.”
Hardwick volunteers at sporting events and other school activities, she said. A Realtor by profession, she is president-elect of the Acadia Council of Realtors and sits on the board of the Mid-Coast Board of Realtors and the Maine Association of Realtors.
Abigail Miller is seeking a second term because “there is still so much work to do,” she said. “We had wonderful things in the works, and then COVID hit. The need suddenly became keeping the wheels from falling off every day.”
Miller moved here with her husband 16 years ago from Florida, where she was in management with a Fortune 500 company and volunteered at local schools. She spent five years substitute teaching in Ellsworth schools and eight years in the Parents, Teachers and Friends (PTF) group, with one term as secretary. She has a daughter enrolled in Ellsworth Middle School.
The continuing pandemic is the biggest challenge the board faces, she said. “COVID, COVID, COVID. It dominates every conversation, every meeting, [affecting] policies, curriculum, everything.”
“Getting through it safely with all the kids getting an equitable education is paramount,” she continued. “And to get our staff through without leaving teaching.”
The challenge for schools is “bringing our kids up to speed to be at the place they need to be by graduation,” she said. This means hiring more ed techs and continuing math and reading recovery, she said, so students are prepared to graduate and walk into the workforce.
Board transparency is critical for Miller, who said that when she joined the board in 2018, board workshops were held behind locked conference room doors in the district office, and she was reprimanded for posting school and board information on Facebook.
“Being transparent and being available — it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle or who you are, you email me. I’m going to listen to you and answer you. I’m going to be honest, actual and straightforward,” she said.
Staff retention is a board focus, Miller said. She also would like to address the 20 minutes allowed for student lunchtime.
The board’s role in protecting students during the pandemic should be tailored to local conditions, she said. “The CDC is making recommendations of the lowest common denominator of the highest risk,” she said. “The U.S. CDC recommendations are based on highest caseloads in places like Florida. The state recommendations are mostly based out of Portland and high-population areas with high transmission rates.”
She added, “I’m OK masking students — but not until the very last case in Florida is gone.”
Tara Keeleen Young, one-year term
An Ellsworth resident since 1999, Tara Keeleen Young is seeking a seat on the School Board because “I have kids in school, and I’m concerned with the kids remaining safe as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. I just want to do everything we can to keep kids safe and healthy and in person — keeping them in school so they can stay engaged.”
Young is married, with three children enrolled in high school. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and is the Drug-Free Communities coordinator for Healthy Acadia. A former PTF member, currently she co-chairs Downeast Restorative Justice and serves on the Ellsworth Pride board
She sees managing the pandemic as the board’s biggest issue. This not only means keeping the overall community safe, but “keeping everyone connected and engaged, and making sure that as people have lost jobs and transitioned [that] kids have their basic needs met. It’s very hard for kids to learn if they’re hungry or worried or tired.”
Retaining teaching staff is also a challenge, Young said. Anecdotally, she has heard teachers leave Ellsworth for districts offering higher pay, smaller class sizes or both.
“It’s important that we have good teachers, and they want to stay in our school system,” she said.
Board communication should be open and effective among members, with “good work” done at the committee level, she said. And it is important for the board to hear from the community to know what their concerns and issues are and to be transparent in its decisions.
For Young, the board’s role in determining health and safety guidelines for students during public health emergencies, like the pandemic, “means always following CDC guidelines or being more stringent, depending on what our conditions are. I could go for more, but I wouldn’t go less than the CDC recommends,” she said. “I work in public health. I respect what the CDC puts out there.”