SCARBOROUGH — How candidates feel about Superintendent Julie Kukenberger and her push to adopt a controversial proficiency-based education model and grading system is a defining factor for most of the 15 people running for five seats on the Board of Education.

There are three school board races on the Nov. 6 ballot.

One race involves 10 candidates vying for three seats with three-year terms on the seven-member board. They are John Cloutier, Sarah Leighton, Leroy Crockett, Mike Marcello, Nick Gill, Annalee Rosenblatt, Betsy Gleysteen, April Sither, Lori Lavoie and Quinn Stewart.

Three candidates – Alicia Giftos, Benjamin Howard and Stacey Neumann – are competing for one seat with a one-year term.

And two other candidates – Amy Glidden and Emily Read – are competing for another seat with a one-year term.

Both of the one-year terms resulted from a successful recall election in May that unseated two members who each had a little more than a year left in three-year terms. A third recalled member was nearing the end of her term, and that seat is one of the three-year terms up for grabs.

A first-time superintendent with just over two years on the job, Kukenberger’s contract will expire June 30. State law requires the school board to meet in December to consider extending her contract, which pays a salary of $147,677 for the 2018-19 school year.

Two current members who will remain on the board – Hillory Durgin and Leanne Kazilionis – each have served only one year, so they weren’t on the board that hired Kukenberger in April 2016. The board must have a superintendent – Kukenberger or someone else – under contract by June 30 for the 2019-20 school year.

Most of the candidates say they have concerns about Kukenberger’s performance during the past year, but they would withhold judgment on whether to extend her contract until they have full access to information that hasn’t been available to the public. Some are more supportive than others.

Cloutier, who owns a motel in Old Orchard Beach, said he has been impressed by Kukenberger “in general” and believes the school board failed to provide adequate leadership. While he didn’t support the recall because it wasn’t “worth the disruption” it caused, he said a stronger board could ensure a culture that values teacher and student input and allows success to rise from the ground up.

“I think she’s going to be a great superintendent someday,” said Cloutier, 44. “Whether we want to stick with her until then is the question.”

Sither, 37, said she’s not willing to wait. She’s a former teacher and stay-at-home mom who believes the school board lost its way and allowed an eager, inexperienced superintendent to push through controversial initiatives, including new start times, without considering the impact on students, teachers and the wider community. She called Kukenberger’s implementation of a proficiency-based education model “disastrous” and said the community doesn’t “owe her the time to fix all of her mistakes.”

“Too much has happened,” Sither said. “If I had to decide today, I would absolutely not extend her contract. She’s supposed to be a leader. Can she lead after all this? It’s very difficult for me to imagine a path forward with her as superintendent.”

SCHOOL BOARD SHARES SOME BLAME?

Mike Marcello, a 53-year-old radio executive, also said he’s not willing to wait for Kukenberger to correct her mistakes, although he believes the school board shares some blame. He said the board hasn’t been listening to the public for years and often fails to use common sense, pointing to the passage of controversial new school start times.

“She may be a great superintendent one day,” Marcello said. “She hasn’t been in Scarborough.”

Rosenblatt, 74, is a former school board member who works as a consultant in labor relations and human resources. She said she wouldn’t prejudge the future of Kukenberger’s contract based on her public performance alone, although she said the superintendent seemed “tone-deaf” to a variety of concerns raised by school staff and the community.

“I haven’t seen her (written) evaluations and seen whether she reached the goals set for her by the board,” Rosenblatt said.

Gleysteen, a systems project manager and data analyst at Maine Medical Center, also said she wouldn’t prejudge Kukenberger, noting that a superintendent search would be expensive and time-consuming. Gleysteen, 55, said she would seek facts not available to the public before deciding the contract issue, but she found it troubling that the teachers union voted “no confidence” in Kukenberger’s leadership. The vote was 185-91, with about two-thirds of eligible union members casting ballots.

Gill, 38, is an administrator at York County Community College. Gill said he believes Kukenberger is qualified and intelligent, but he questions whether she is the person who can move the community through the current controversy and renew trust in district leadership.

“Right now I would have to say she’s not,” Gill said, although he allowed for the possibility that a stronger board “could make a big difference” in Kukenberger’s performance.

Giftos, 47, is an assistant state attorney general who has extensive experience in children’s issues. She said she’s concerned that Kukenberger influenced the school board in setting its goals and disregarded input from teachers and parents in the rush to make problematic policy changes.

“At this point, I have significant concerns about (Kukenberger’s) leadership and management,” Giftos said. “If I’m elected, I’ll have to go in with an open mind.”

Howard, an engineer who is running to improve the school budget process and restructure the teacher contract, said he believes stronger voices on the school board would help Kukenberger be more successful.

“I think she’s an extremely smart woman with great ideas,” said Howard, 25. “I don’t have enough information about what happened to make a decision about extending her contract.”

Read, who is director of communications and development at the Children’s Dyslexia Center, said she would withhold judgment of Kukenberger’s performance until she had more information about a situation that “had many moving parts” and decisions that weren’t “made in a vacuum.”

“I do think it will be a difficult conversation,” said Read, 44, especially because none of the people who will decide on Kukenberger’s contract were among the board members who hired her.

Leighton, Crockett, Lavoie, Stewart, Neumann and Glidden also said they had concerns about Kukenberger’s performance but would withhold final judgment until they had more information and decide whether to extend her contract in collaboration with other board members.

PROFICIENCY-BASED EDUCATION

All of the candidates have concerns about the adoption of a highly controversial proficiency-based education model and grading system. Since the state dropped the mandate for a proficiency-based diploma in July, most of the candidates say the education model should be reconsidered. Some say parts of the program should be dumped altogether, especially the 1-4 grading system, which has morphed into a complicated and confusing hybrid of the traditional 0-100 grading system.

Leighton, 32, is a data manager who returned to Scarborough last year hoping to run for public office and give back to her hometown. She said she wants to restore widespread community engagement in the school district and believes it’s time to “press pause” on proficiency-based education.

“I think it was a failure in execution,” Leighton said. “I think we should pull out the best bits and pieces that might be good for the district, which is still up for debate.”

Crockett, 49, is an account manager at Troiano Waste Services. He believes the district should have “pumped the brakes” on the proficiency-based education model and grading long before now. He’s concerned that Scarborough students aren’t being pushed to strive and that many people feel they aren’t being heard.

“We spent so much money on (proficiency-based education) and we did it too fast, without enough involvement from the bottom up,” Crockett said. “You get the buy-in if you actually include people in the conversation.”

Lavoie, a 39-year-old real estate broker, said she sees some benefits to the proficiency-based education model, but she believes it was developed too quickly without considering teacher feedback and in a way that spawned fear and confusion in the wider community.

“I think we need to put on the brakes and go back to square one and ask basic questions of why, how and when,” Lavoie said. “Look at the data. Why is it better for kids than what we do now?”

Stewart, 19, is a recent Scarborough High graduate who works in retail and is taking a gap year from college after the recent death of his father. Stewart said the move to a proficiency-based education model suffered from aggressive implementation, confusion and the disregarding approach of district leadership.

“At the very least, it needs to be delayed until we figure out how to implement it,” Stewart said. “We should suspend the (hybrid) grading system until we figure out how everyone benefits from it.”

REVIEWS OF BENEFITS, DECISION-MAKING

Neumann, who is a lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, said she believes proficiency-based education struggled to get a foothold in Scarborough because many people felt it was forced on them. She noted that education based on standards is nothing new; it has just been reframed and renamed.

“This is a good opportunity to stop and explore what works and what doesn’t,” said Neumann, 40. “I don’t want to abandon standards-based education, because it’s not really new.”

Glidden, an English teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco, said she has significant concerns about the proficiency-based grading system. She wants to develop an ad hoc committee to examine and recommend improvements to the board’s decision-making process.

“I believe it would be a huge mistake to continue down the path (with a 1-4 grading system),” said Glidden, 52. “We should value the voice of teachers in deciding the best way to grade.”

Cloutier, Marcello, Gill, Rosenblatt, Gleysteen, Sither, Giftos, Howard and Read also said they have various concerns about the proficiency-based education model and grading system and believe it should be reviewed by the new board.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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