November 15, 2012

Maine Voices: Ex-school board member says Greens unfairly characterized

By BEN MEIKLEJOHN

The continued characterization by the Portland Press Herald of the Greens' former run on the Portland School Committee (2001-2009) as a "largely disastrous stint" is unfair and biased.

It inappropriately casts blame for the financial setbacks of 2007 in a partisan fashion towards a minority faction of that committee.

As finance committee chair, I persisted to unravel problems and find solutions.

I fielded complaints from central office staff about the unprecedented amount of budgetary information I was requesting.

I sought to obtain as much detail as possible.

My predecessors had given central office stamps of approval, rarely questioning the generalized summaries they were given.

I sought guidance from Teri McReigh, former school committee member and accounting expert on how to really dig.

By May of 2007 I had uncovered a possible area of concern.

The red flag came in April, when a budget report showed we were 75 percent of the way through the fiscal year and had expended 75 percent of the budget, making everything seem "on course."

However, the debt and loan consolidation line of the budget (one of our highest expenditures) was well below 75 percent spent.

Knowing that debt payments are paid twice a year (one in June), I became concerned about that line becoming 100 percent spent and throwing the total annual expenses higher than April's report suggested.

The debt line is a fixed expenditure that cannot be changed.

After much pressing, administration admitted by May that there was indeed a projected $1.7 million over expenditure.

An emergency meeting with Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor, City Manager Joe Gray and Mayor Jim Cohen was held to discuss the problem and devise solutions.

Gray and Cohen suggested we "keep it in house" and not "go public" until the audit was officially done in October, even though the shortfall was certain.

I wasn't interested in concealing information and protested that I would go public, with or without them.

I proposed budget freezes and reductions on specific lines to offset over-expenditures in energy costs and staff salaries and benefits.

Unfortunately, the committee's Democrats did not take action on balancing the budget in May or June, when we had an opportunity to do so.

They wanted to take their time, come up with "long-term" solutions and let the budget fall apart, blaming Greens along the way.

In my six years on the committee, I enjoyed widespread public support for all but six months of that tenure. There are successes that we achieved together -- Greens, Democrats and Republicans.

We opened up two new green schools, stopped the spraying of pesticides around schools, and started the expeditionary learning-based Casco Bay High School, for which the Greens' support was critical.

We made recruitment policy equitable, ensuring that military recruiters did not have unfair advantages in accessing our students than college and other career recruiters.

We instituted student representatives to the committee, a policy which I authored.

Even the schools' current sustainability plan is the result of work I initiated as finance chair.

These were not "political" actions, they were decisions serving the interests of students.

The Portland Press Herald is culpable for its bias against Greens.

While a Democratic school board member in Sagadahoc County sent pornography to a thousand PTO members, and another Democratic mayor in Auburn was indicted for gross sexual misconduct, the PPH deemed it more relevant to run a front page article about a traffic infraction (which later got dismissed in court with little fanfare by the paper).

Interestingly, years later when current school board member Elizabeth Brooks was pulled over for operating after suspension, there was not even mention of the incident.

I hold no regrets for mine or other Greens' service on the committee.

The financial collapse did not occur "because of Greens."

It occurred because the whole committee habitually rubber stamped the administration without question.

Although I am forced to "wear the hat" for the schools' financial problems, they would've happened had I never been on the committee.

My role in uncovering financial discrepancies in unprecedented ways, being transparent, open and honest with the public and devising solutions toward a stable track for the future are qualities for which I am proud, regardless that your paper has chosen to attribute blame to me as the cause of those problems.

Hopefully, this sets the record straight and opens an opportunity for school board member-elect Holly Seeliger to conduct her business with fair and unprejudiced reporting by the Portland Press Herald.

Ben Meiklejohn was a member of the Portland School Committee from 2001-2007.

 

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