Originally published in The Weekly Packet, February 16, 2017
Contested Sedgwick selectmen’s race focuses on school issues
School board seat, treasurer unopposed
by Anne Berleant
Two candidates are running for a three-year first selectman seat, incumbent Neil Davis and Michael Sheahan. Both view Sedgwick Elementary School and its budget as the biggest challenge for the board of selectmen and town.
Incumbent Michele Levesque is the sole candidate for a three-year school board seat, while Cynthia Reilly, also an incumbent, is unopposed for a three-year term as town treasurer.
Elections will be held on Friday, March 3, from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Town House, 574 North Sedgwick Road.
Neil Davis, first selectman
Incumbent Neil Davis believes in asking difficult questions in order find answers for the future, he said, especially when it concerns the school budget.
“It’s the biggest issue. It’s got to be. You’re asking for $2.4 million.”
He continued, “Why should we have a budget that’s more than double the municipal budget, when 2 percent of the population are under 18 [and] 20 percent are over 65 on a fixed income?”
Davis, the son of two “lifetime” teachers and married to another, pointed out that spending more on education has not led to higher test scores, and while acknowledging that state and federal education requirements drive much of the school budget, notes, “It’s all legalistics but education isn’t…. It’s children learning basic skills to survive in the world they’re inheriting.”
In a move towards “thinking outside the box,” Davis supports forming a charter commission, which voters will decide on at town meeting.
“It’s the first step of looking at the town’s organization, whether it could function better with fewer or more committees. Do [we] need a school committee, a planning board? The answer is probably going to be yes.”
The process of creating a charter is a step towards regaining control of how the town functions, and gaining “a new understanding of the practical and financial challenges facing the town in the modern era,” Davis explained. “Changing everything is not what it’s about.”
A selectman from 1993 to 1999 and from 2010 to present, Davis said he has “a really good handle on what needs to keep the town solvent.”
The board of selectmen duty is mainly assessment, to “take care of money, don’t lose it, make sure it’s revealed to the public completely.” In a wider sense, Davis said the job is “to help everyone survive and make the town a functional, safe, happy place to be.”
Originally from Andover, Mass., Davis has lived in Sedgwick for 35 years, where he runs a piano tuning shop. He is married, with three adult children and three grandchildren.
Michael Sheahan, first selectman
A two-term veteran of the school board who stepped down in 2015, Sheahan now seeks to serve as first selectman.
“Sedgwick needs someone who can work collaboratively with the school board and public, and hopefully move the town in a positive direction,” he said, noting that the relationship between selectmen and school board “seems more adversarial than it needs to be.”
The school “is the biggest issue because it takes a ridiculous amount of the town budget, because the town is small and the tax base is small.” From serving on the school board, “you get to know where the money is going and why. If you don’t know, you [don’t] have that understanding,” he said.
All Peninsula towns need to look at “the long-term viability of their schools,” Sheahan said, whether from the perspective of a declining number of students, a challenge in funding, or both.
“Sooner or later, towns have to have a conversation about working together for the interest of students and taxpayers,” he said, raising the idea of a combined elementary and middle school “some time in the future.”
Sheahan questions the motivation behind forming a charter commission, which he sees as “starting an inquiry” into moving away from a town meeting form of government, and further notes that once ordinances become part of a town charter, they are harder to amend.
“I don’t think Sedgwick needs that,” Sheahan said. “As I see it, municipalities of greater size and complexity have every reason to move away from a direct town meeting form of government, but that doesn’t describe Sedgwick.”
Of the 75 Maine towns that have charters, 37 have adopted the town council form of government while others maintain town meeting government with a town manager or administrator in place.
“Town meeting should be the place people make their voices heard. That’s how it’s set up in Sedgwick.”
A self-employed carpenter, Sheahan grew up in Rhode Island, and lived in southern Maine before moving to Brooklin in 2001 and Sedgwick in 2008. He is married with two children, 11 and 13, who attend Adams School in Castine. Sheahan said, “You make decisions as a parent and as a community member. Sometimes they coincide and sometimes they don’t. I have the ability to see things objectively and make fact-based decisions.”
Michele Levesque, school board
A three-term incumbent, Michele Levesque seeks a fourth term “because it would feel really irresponsible, where we are, to walk away. We’re in the middle of a principal search, teacher negotiations and finalizing the budget.”
Levesque said the biggest challenge facing the current board is replacing Principal Don Buckingham, who is retiring at the end of the school year after 28 years.
“He’s a legacy principal, and it will take an amazing person to fill those shoes.”
The school budget is always a balancing act, Levesque said. “It’s a very difficult place to be, to provide the best education for students and do it at a price point that’s affordable for the town.” A taxpayer on three properties, Levesque said she is aware of the tax burden the school budget presents.
“I don’t think cutting programming to cut the budget is a smart decision,” she said. “Sometimes it’s taking a little from a variety of areas. Sometimes it’s major.”
Levesque points to the recent board decision to cut a technology position and instead seek a teaching principal who will also serve as director of technology.
“When we talk about the budget we don’t have that many line items we can make changes to,” she said, like special education, teacher and staff insurance, and transportation costs, all outside board discretion.
Also ahead for the board is “working better” and “attempting to mend bridges” with School Union 76, already in progress after board workshops. “We’ve all agreed to move forward in positive ways, [are]willing to work together, and outside the box. Local schools are either too full or too empty or struggling financially,” she said. “How do we work with problems and solve them in ways that work for everybody? That’s a big conversation for everyone.”
Cynthia Reilly, treasurer
Running unopposed as an incumbent, Cynthia Reilly seeks to continue as town treasurer, a three-year term. Reilly also serves as town clerk, a position she was reelected to in 2016, and as registrar of voters.