SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council and School Board on Monday caucused to choose their respective leaders.

The School Board voted unanimously to elect Ralph Baxter as the 2011 chairman, and the Council voted 4-3 to elect Rosemarie De Angelis as the city’s mayor.

Both panels will take their formal votes during the inauguration ceremony scheduled for Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

Over the next year, both leaders will attempt to improve the relationship between the panels. The issue has been raised in several public forums and was widely reported by council candidates during their campaigns.

Although both panels are elected by residents, some complain that councilors have a history of viewing the School Board members as their subordinates.

School leaders, meanwhile, have resisted past efforts by the council, which sets the bottom line for school spending, to delve deep into their budget, which accounts for about two thirds of all city spending.

The issue of the city-school relationship was particularly prominent during the council’s mayoral caucus at the Community Center on Monday night, when De Angelis and Councilor Maxine Beecher campaigned for mayor. 

Beecher earned the support of Councilor Tom Blake and Councilor-elect Alan Livingston, a School Board member. Beecher cited her support of the high school bond and her respect of the board’s budgeting authority.

“It’s not our job to tell them where to spend their money,” Beecher said. “We’re not allowed to line-item.”

De Angelis, a former school teacher and union leader, argued that she has always been a strong supporter of the schools and her skills as a facilitator would be useful over the next year.

Meanwhile, Mayor Tom Coward said De Angelis’s experience working for the district would prove valuable during budget discussions.

“She is the only one on the council who has worked in the School Department (so) she knows where to look,” Coward said. “I think she’s not afraid to ask the tough questions. I think that’s the case – that tough questions need to be asked.”

De Angelis said on Tuesday that she worked as a high school teacher for the district for about 25 years and was heavily involved in the teacher’s union for the last six years of her tenure.

De Angelis said she resigned from the School Department in 2002.

De Angelis admitted that she often clashed with the superintendent during contract negotiations and her 2003 election to the City Council brought trepidation among school officials, who perceived her as having “an axe to grind.”

“And I didn’t,” De Angelis said of that perception. “I’m a strong supporter of school budgets, but not without questions.”

Livingston questioned both Beecher and De Angelis about what their top three priorities would be as mayor and how they would better communicate budget guidance to School Board members.

“Last year, for budget guidance, I never saw a more demoralized School Board,” Livingston said of the night they were told to hold the line on taxes.

Playing off of Livingston’s campaign of “building bridges,” Beecher said “I don’t have to build bridges. They’re already there.”

De Angelis said she will literally seek more equal ground for budget discussions by having councilors sit mixed in with School Board members. She would also look for efficiencies, such as consolidating the city and school finance departments.

“We need to look more like a team, rather than opposing teams,” she said.

Baxter, meanwhile, said he would like to see the two panels maintain a dialog throughout the year, possibly holding joint meetings once a month.

While concerned about De Angelis’s past stance on some school issues, Baxter said he is confident the two leaders will be able to work together towards the best interests of the city.

“Certainly, Rosemarie has made herself clear about how she feels about some school issues and it concerns me,” he said. “But I really think we can work together. Her and I go back a long ways and I think the two of us can work through those issues.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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