Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 13, 2017
Surry to vote on contested school board race
Bemiss unopposed for selectman
by Anne Berleant
Three candidates with varying experience will compete for two open school board seats on Friday, April 21, town election day, while Selectman Steve Bemiss runs uncontested for reelection. All terms run for three years. Polls will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the town office, with the business portion of town meeting on Monday, April 24, 7 p.m., at Surry Elementary School.
Mary Beth Mitchell, school board
A first-time candidate, Mitchell has lived in Surry for 15 years, and has two children enrolled in the elementary school. She holds bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and psychology from St. Thomas College in Nova Scotia, a master’s degree in early childhood special education from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and is on staff at Child Development Services in Ellsworth. She seeks a seat on the school board as a way to give back to the community, she said, and, while lacking in school board experience, her background in education will provide positive help and advocacy for Surry students.
“I’m an educator. I don’t like to stand on the sidelines and comment without making an effort to make it better,” she said.
And, with only one of the five current board members having children in the school, Mitchell said she wants to provide balance to the board with a parent’s perspective. She supports the idea of a small, community school “absolutely,” she said, and wants to learn “what has been done, what hasn’t worked, and then see what can be done.”
One of Mitchell’s biggest concerns is the town’s aging population and the “ever increasing” school budget. With changes in education, funding, special education, and legal requirements, “not everyone understands how [the pieces] fit in to the ways and means of a school.”
“It’s hard to reconcile why we’re spending more to educate fewer kids,” she said.
While the town supports the school, she said, the board must incorporate “all who have vested interests,” including students and taxpayers, despite personal feelings.
For school programs, such as music, band, physical education, guidance and foreign language, the challenge is “not just finding the right boxed program,” but finding the “right person to oversee and implement….It’s very difficult to find qualified people for part-time positions.”
Consolidation—a recent, popular topic in Augusta—offers some ways to offer more, Mitchell said, but asked, “but at what cost?”
Mitchell said she talks to teachers, students and janitors at the school to learn more. “You can’t just rely on the principal’s report,” she said.
“I love the school and I want it to succeed. That’s why I’m running.
Marlene Tallent, school board
Seeking her fourth term, Tallent is a past president of the Maine School Board Association, serves on its board of directors and legislative and policy committees and has represented Surry “all over the U.S.,” and to U.S. Senators Collins and King. Tallent moved to Surry in 1998, and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in abnormal psychology, and library service certification. Two of her four daughters graduated from Surry Elementary School.
In her fourth year as school board chairman, she is also Union 93 board secretary, and a member of several national and state education, library and school board associations. She has also created a Surry School Board website, linked from the school website, that is ready to go live.
“Surry school is doing quite well,” Tallent said, with school enrollment up to 120 students, helped by a pre-K program, and a popular after-school program, and that the community is supportive of the endeavors asked of them by the school board. “We’re in a very good place,” she said.
Current challenges include better transportation for high school students, who get picked up as early as 6:30 a.m. and then wait at George Stevens Academy for school to begin, and offering more after-school activities, such as drama, which has been added to the 2017-18 budget, and a jazz band, currently under discussion.
While Surry chose not to consolidate 10 years ago, Tallent said consolidating superintendents and, especially, special education services is worth discussing.
“That’s an interesting question, because our small schools are actually limited in what our towns can provide [special education students]. There may be some benefit from it [but] it’s hard to say how it would affect Surry.”
Tallent said that continuity on the board is important, and the current board works well together.
“I just really believe my experience and years of service make me informed on issues facing our community,” she said.
Joan Welgoss, school board
Elected in 2014, Welgoss seeks a second term because “Surry has a great school and wonderful kids, and I enjoy working with them.” She would also like to see projects to completion, she said, such as modernizing and updating the school library and restructuring the after-school program “to make it more for the needs of parents” as far as hours and program content.
Born in Portland, Welgoss moved to Surry full-time in 2008 after retiring from a 24-year career in education as a kindergarten, first and second grade, middle school reading and, after returning to college for special education certification, middle school behavior teacher.
Surry school is comparable to “our peer communities,” she said, but should “keep working at it to make sure kids get a good education and put it to good use.” She hopes Surry wouldn’t have to consolidate because “our school is like a family,” and it could pose a hardship for parents.
She chaired the pre-K committee, which created the program and obtained approval from the board and, as part of the school budget, from the town. “It is a huge success,” she said, and will be increasing to four days a week in 2017-18.
One change she would like is the Spanish program, currently offered two days a week to middle school students, be available to the younger grades, she said.
“It takes a team to do this,” she said. “We are able to make decisions effectively and we have been very frugal in forming our budgets, keeping in mind taxes and the impact [the budget] would have on the people of Surry.
Steve Bemiss, selectman, assessor and overseer of the poor
Now in his 20th year as selectman, Steve Bemiss said that “everything is [going] pretty good.” He credits a “good group” of clerks, treasurer, and code enforcement officer at the town office, and upcoming projects, including placing a culvert under the road at Jellison Ridge for trout to travel through, and deepening the waters at the town wharf. Also ahead is “the marijuana thing,” he said, and, “the big thing,” which is enlarging the firehouse. For the last, selectmen plan two open meetings to outline the plan, cost and how the town will pay for it.
Looking ahead to Surry’s future, Bemiss said he “would love if we could get all the towns together” for an elementary school but, in all, “I’m perfectly happy that we’re a bedroom town.”
Born in Ellsworth, Bemiss returned to Surry in 1982 after spending every summer from age 2. He currently operates Riverside Glass in Ellsworth, coaches the girls soccer team at George Stevens Academy, and has “one son, dogs, and two sisters.”
“I like being a selectman in Surry,” he said, “because we know what we’re doing.”