Friday, February 26, 2021

Two weeks to the School Board Election

It's an exciting school board election this year in Oyster River. In about half of the years it's two races with only the incumbents running, snooze.  This year on the ballot we have eleven candidates, for four school board seats. (Maybe ten now, there's a rumor someone dropped out, see below.)   

There's a glut of information on the races; I'll guide you through all that before I give you my picks.  I'm going to keep it unbiased until then; please skip to the end if you just want to know who I'm voting for.

The Oyster River Cooperative School District Board

Let's start with some background before we get to the candidates. The Oyster River School Board has seven members: three town-specific seats (one for each of Durham, Lee and Madbury) and four at-large seats.  To run for a town specific seat, you must reside in that town. Any eligible voter in any of the three towns can run for the at-large seats. 

The seats all have three year terms. But this year the winner of the At-Large seat only wins a one year term.  That's the remainder of Dr. Kenny Rotner's term.  Kenny sadly passed away last summer; Yusi Turell was appointed by the board to serve the five or six months until election day.

The important thing for voters to know is: Every Oyster River voter can vote in all four races. I'll say it again: Every voter can choose a candidate for each of all four seats.  The school district ballot is the same in all three towns.  You don't need to live in Lee to vote for the Lee representative to the school board.

Election Day Information

Election Day is Tuesday March 9, 2021.  Eligible citizens in the three towns can vote a school district ballot.  Vote at your local town polling place like any other election.  It's best to register ahead of time if you're not already registered, but same day registration is available.  It's best to bring ID, and if you need to register, proof of address like a utility bill, but you can still vote even if you don't bring these by signing an affidavit they'll give you.

The school district election is combined with the town elections; they all count as municipal elections.  In addition to the school board ballot you'll be given a ballot specific to your town when you vote. Besides voting for people, each of the ballots contains ballot questions; we'll focus on the school board candidates here and get into the school district ballot questions in the next post.  

Generally polls are open in Lee and Durham from 7 am to 7 pm with Madbury open from 11 am to 7 pm (that's an edit; I had 7:30 before; the shortened hours are a change).  This year due to the pandemic there are changes; Lee is doing Drive Through Voting at the Lee Transfer Station. Here are some useful town links:

Durham voting informationballotcandidate profiles
Lee voting informationcandidates, ballot questions
Madbury voting information. The same link has the ballot questions, which are voted on in town meeting after the polls close, 7:30 pm at Moharimet. [Thanks to the Madbury town clerk for straightening me out.] I couldn't find an official list of the candidates yet at

Oyster River is an SB2 district, which means that the election is split into two parts. The draft ballot is produced by the school district, plus any citizen articles added by petition. The first part of the election is the Deliberative Session (this year's was on February 2) where the voters meet to amend the ballot questions.  The Deliberate Session is the vestige of New England Town Meeting, where a majority of voters at the session can change the ballot, subject to restrictions.  This year, like most, the ballot was unchanged at Deliberative Session.  Our focus here is the second part of the election, Election Day March 9, when each question is voted on by the citizenry. 

2021 School Board Candidate Information

Like I've mentioned, there is already a lot of information out about the candidates. In fact, you don't really need me, the Moharimet and Mast Way PTOs are running a facebook page:

2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Information

Each candidate had the opportunity to complete a bio and two questionnaires.

2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Biographies

2021 PTO School Board Candidate Questionaire

2021 Teacher's Guild School Board Candidate Questionaire.

The Candidates on the Web

Most candidates have set up facebook pages for their candidacies.  Some have advertised they're available for meetings via Zoom.  Let's go through the races, and link each candidates name to their facebook page and other web presences I can find.

The three candidates for the Durham school board seat are Yusi Turell (facebookweb),  Jeff Fortin (facebook)  and Eric Mason (no candidacy site known to me but he's CEO of RYSE Marketing & Communications). Ms. Turell is essentially the incumbent; she currently holds an at-large seat.  

The two candidates for the Lee school board seat are the incumbent Brian Cisneros (facebook) and Nicolas Alcocer (facebook).  I thought there were three Lee candidates, but this third name I scribbled on some paper in January, Debra Cavanaugh, seems to have been a figment of my imagination. 

The three candidates for the Madbury school board seat are the incumbent Dan Klein (no site found),  Michelle Dunbar (facebook) and Kevin Abbott (facebook, web).  I saw posted on the PTO's information site on 2/22 that Mr. Abbott had dropped out, but his facebook and website don't mention anything about it, and he's probably on the ballot no matter what he does.

The three candidates for the At-Large seat with a one year term are Al Howland (web), Matt Durkee (facebook) and Jill Piparo  (facebook).   Let's call Al Howland the incumbent; he's served in the Durham seat since 2012 though this time he's seeking the one-year at-large seat. 

Update 4pm 2/28.  A few hours ago Mr. Abbott posted 

Good morning everyone. Sadly I am not able to seek the seat for School Board representing Madbury any longer. That being said, my name will still be on the ballot because they are already at the Town Halls.

There seems to be a lot of confusion with regards to the "officially withdrawn" question. There is no way at this point to do that. If by some chance after telling every person I can that I'm not running, I happen to win the seat, I will be forced to resign.

All of this is due to deeply personal reasons. So, with all due respect, this is all of the information I am sharing at this time.

Thank you for the opportunity to do this. Good luck to the remaining candidates.

Update 9am 3/3:  Yesterday morning Dr. Fortin posted

Regretfully, I am writing to withdraw my candidacy for the ORCSD School Board. Work related responsibilities will be increasing in the next few months as I help guide our College through the development of a new Strategic Plan and a two-year long accreditation process. Previously I believed I would be relieved of some current administrative work in order to provide public service on the School Board. This is no longer the case. I apologize to my supporters, but it is beyond my control.
I am disappointed in being unable to collaborate with faculty and staff to support and enhance the district’s already strong programs in technology, equity, student mental health, and LGBTQ+ inclusion. I believe it is better to leave this important work to others if I am unable to devote proper time to the position.
I have received overwhelming support for my candidacy for which I thank you all.

Candidates Night

Candidates night was supposed to be last Tuesday, 2/23, but with all the candidates and the pandemic it was changed to be over two nights next week.

The meetings are fully virtual; check out the facebook links for more detail.

Tuesday March 2, 2021 7-8:30 pm: Q&A Madbury and At-Large Candidates
                Zoom link: Password: 123456
                Facebook Live:
Thursday March 4, 2021 7-8:30 pm: Q&A Lee and Durham Candidates
                Zoom link: Password: 123456
                Facebook Live:

The meetings will also be streamed on ORCSDstreaming

Usually Candidates Night is moderated by the district clerk, a paid position in the district, with the PTOs hosting and supplying refreshments.  The district sometimes sends a camera crew whose job seems to be lose the night's recording, at least until after election day.  

This year the Moharimet PTO will host and moderate the Madbury/At-Large night and the Mast Way PTO will moderate the Lee/Durham night.  I'm not sure I like the change; let's see how it goes.

While there will be an opportunity to ask questions live, using Zoom chat and facebook chat, the PTOs recommend you email your questions in advance to both and by March 1.
Dean's Picks
Congratulations on reading this far or just skipping ahead. Hopefully it's been unbiased information to this point. But ORCSD Clean Slate originally got its name because I wanted to tell you all who I think should be on the board. In 2012, that was a clean slate -- the incumbents all had to go.

This year I'm voting for all the incumbents: Yusi Turell, Brian Cisneros, Dan Klein & Al Howland. Let's talk about each race.

Yusi Turell is quite simply the most talented board member I've ever observed. Most new board members remain relatively quiet at the beginning, learning the ropes about how the board works. Yusi jumped right in like she'd been at that table for years, advocating for and spearheading the expansion of in-person learning in accordance with CDC mitigation guidelines.
Besides talent, Yusi brings her values of respect, inclusion, empathy, communication and critical thinking to the table. As a woman of color, she brings a diversity and perspective that the board had lacked. She is active in district's anti-racism effort.  I think she's taken on the role of Maria Barth and Kenny Rotner as the conscience of the district, always considering the effect of the board's decisions on all the stakeholders.
Yusi's determination led to medical experts advising the board, the district's awesome COVID dashboard and the Concurrent Teaching Working Group, which Yusi co-chaired.  That group’s extensive research helped inform the plan that has willing high schoolers returning in person two days per week starting March 8. Here's the working group's final report.
Somewhat independent from the group, the difficult issue of concurrent teaching was solved by the ‘teacher choice’ model.  The model allows the teacher to handle their entire class in the same period, students attending both in person and remotely, in a manner best suited to the material.   Yusi is careful to credit the principal and superintendent for making the teacher choice model a reality.  
I should back up. In my opinion and with hindsight, the board made a few unfortunate decisions this summer.  The most impactful was the decision not to open the middle school and the high school more fully in the fall, when cases were down.  We didn't know how good we had it. Now we're trying to open more when conditions are arguably much worse.  
Related to that was the lack of foresight to produce a plan that allowed for smooth transitioning between say (a) fully open (while still providing a remote option), (b) a hybrid model, students in-person say two days per week, (c) targeted learners only in person, and (d) fully remote, as conditions warranted.  
Finally, the board agreed to a Memorandum of Agreement with the teacher's guild that teachers would not have to teach remote and in-person students concurrently.  That MoA subsequently became an obstacle to reopening more fully, seemingly requiring that some students be reassigned to different classes and doubling the asynchronous time when students were expected to work independently.
Let's be clear. This all happened before Yusi was appointed to the board. Yusi's time on the board has been spent trying to fix these decisions. She's been successful. Informed by the Concurrent Teaching Working Group’s research, the district has produced a plan, accepted by teachers and adopted by the board, that brings high school students back into the building two days a week, without increasing asynchronous time. Teachers teach their in-person and remote students concurrently in the same class period, but it's up to them exactly what that looks like.  The district is attempting to hire more paraprofessionals to make it all work.
There seems to be a whisper campaign going around saying Yusi wanted to open the school at all costs, safety be damned. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yusi has consistently tried to balance opening more fully against the safety considerations.   I wholeheartedly endorse her as the Durham representative to the ORCSD board.
I suppose this is the place to say a word about Yusi's opponents.  Jeff Fortin seems to be getting the most attention, though the most important fact about him is often omitted: His wife is ORHS principal Suzanne Filippone.
Don't get me wrong, I love the principal. I was honored to be on the committee that recommended her to be principal.  But that doesn't mean I want her to have her own personal representative on the board.
Jeff Fortin would be hopelessly conflicted as a board member.  He would presumably recuse himself in decisions that directly involved things like the principal's salary.  But it's not clear how far beyond that he'll go.  Almost every decision involves the high school principal.  How are we to know he's making those decisions in the best interest of the district, and not in the interest of his wife, with whom he has to ride home with from the meeting and live with the rest of the time?  I'm sure he thinks he'll be acting ethically in the district's best interest, but can he really do that without recusal?   It seems if he was elected we'd have a board member who could only do a fraction of the work, and will have conflict of interest questions lingering in the work he'll do. Next.
The other candidate is Erik Mason, who I don't know either.  I'm reasonably certain neither he nor Dr. Fortin has made a comment at a board meeting in recent memory.  Neither was among the candidates who volunteered to serve in the vacated seat last September.  
Mr. Mason calls himself a "professional ideator".  I suppose he'd be helpful with district communication, but his aversion to social media gives me pause even there.  
In summary, I just don't see any reason to opt for anyone who's shown no interest in the Oyster River School Board over Yusi Turell, who's served the district in numerous ways over a number of years, and who in her short time on the board has demonstrated the values and effectiveness we all want in a board member.
Brian Cisneros was first appointed to the board when Maria Barth resigned, and was subsequently elected for three a three year term.   I didn't know him when he was appointed, but I did appreciate him stepping up when folks were asking me to be the Lee rep.  I've since come to appreciate him even more.
Brian brings a wealth of knowledge to the table.  He's the business administrator for SAU 61, Farmington.  It's like having a extra Sue Caswell around that we don't have to pay -- quite handy.  Prior to serving Oyster River, Brian was already on the board of a non-profit, giving him additional relevant experience.  That was invaluable in figuring out how to finance a new middle school with no state help without being too hard on the taxpayers. I think he's most proud of his efforts that helped get the new middle school passed the first time it appeared on the ballot -- quite a feat around here.  Like Yusi, Brian's been pushing the board to get more kids safely in the buildings.
I don't know his opponent Nicolas Alcocer.  From what I've read he seems like a fine person, who would represent Lee and Oyster River well.  Mr. Alcocer admits he doesn't really have much experience directly relevant to being a school board member. I'm sticking with Brian.
Dan Klein has been the Madbury representative to the board since 2015. He's been a great supporter of district athletics. He's also served on the policy committee for a long time. Policies are rules adopted by the board that govern the schools. I believe Dan is especially proud of his work on the district's transgender policy. It was groundbreaking and has since been copied by many other schools in the state.
Dan's other main strength, in my opinion, has been as a negotiator on the negotiating committee. Staff is of course the biggest expense of the school district. Dan's work has kept the growth in staff costs tamped down while still allowing the district to attract gifted and innovative teachers and other staff and keep everybody happy -- quite a balancing act. He's generally supportive of occasional retirement incentives which encourage the retirement of highly paid senior teachers. Those folks are replaced with someone more junior and less costly, and sometimes not replaced at all, saving us some money.
Dan brings non-profit experience in lobbying, communications, grant writing and programing management to the the table. He was instrumental in getting the later start time in the district, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Michelle Dunbar is the candidate running against Dan.  I don't really know her beyond a smile and nod when we pass in the hallway.  Frankly, I was surprised when I finally realized that angry person behind the mask threatening the school board with lawyers and imploring members to resign was the same person. I dug a little deeper on facebook and saw her posting things like, "the election was stolen...America will dissolve, extreme liberalism and communism will prevail..."   By now we all know how that song ends. This was the kind of school board member that this blog was started to fight against. 
Dan's other opponent was Kevin Abbott.  Per my request, the PTO has double-checked Mr. Abbott has withdrawn from the race, even though his name will still appear on the ballot.  His candidate facebook page remains active, though he seems to have just taken his web page down.  Apparently he would be unable to accept the position had he won.
It's too bad -- he's a police officer who sent in a picture posing in front of a Biden sign.  I saw another one where he's with Jill Biden.  He seems like one of the good guys.  He has an unexpected connection to Mr. Klein, as he was apparently appointed by ORYA to investigate the alleged plot to bean Mr. Klein's daughter which made national news. I had plenty of questions, including about the promised ORYA audit report that never appeared, that I guess I won't get to ask him now.
[Update 2/26 7pm.  The Madbury Town Clerk wrote me that Kevin Abbott is listed on the ballot and has not officially withdrawn his name from the race.]
The choice is clear in Madbury -- Dan Klein for the win.
Al Howland has been on the school board since since 2012. I've known him since he was one of the four candidates my wife and I tried to get elected after we found about all the shenanigans going on.  I've known his wife long before that -- she's an OB who delivered my boy and probably a good fraction of the Oyster River student body.  [Update 7pm 2/26: She's written me to clarify that my wife did most of the work while she stood by.]
Al is currently a Durham Town Councilor as well.   He wasn't planning to run again, choosing instead to devote his time to Durham. But with Kenny Rotner's passing I think he feels an obligation to finish the work they started, especially the new middle school and associated financing.  He chairs the relatively recently formed finance committee, originally created to get a jump on the middle school financing and now very helpful for long-term budget planning in time of COVID. 
I don't know his opponents Matt Durkee and Jill Piparo. I read all their information and they seem like fine people. Ms. Piparo even made school board candidate T shirts, kicking it up a notch here in Oyster River. I just didn't see much relevant experience that would make me even consider choosing one of them over Al.  Al's experience on the board makes him invaluable.  We're lucky he wants to give us another year, and we should take him up on it.
Phew.  Thanks for hanging in there until the end.  This is the busy time for ORCSDcleanslate.  I'm sure I'll churn out another post or two before election day, so come back soon.