SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Candidates for school committee squared off here Monday during the annual candidates’ night sponsored by the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Chamber of Commerce.
Incumbent Susan Allen, John Bench and Mike Sawyer are vying for two three-year seats on the board at the upcoming town elections on Tuesday, May 5. Polls are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Southwest Harbor Fire Station.
During the candidate’s opening remarks, Sawyer immediately set himself apart from the others.
“I’m not running because I’m happy with the way the school is being run,” he began.
Sawyer went on to unleash a litany of wrongs he would try to right if elected.
For one, he said, he would change the way a peanut allergy issue is being handled by the school. Students who bring nut products to school must eat at the nearby Harbor House building because of another student with nut allergies. A separate area in the cafeteria for the allergic student would be a more sensible solution, Sawyer maintained. The actual danger to the student in question is minimal, he claimed.
“I could sit here with a can of peanuts, and no one would get deathly ill,” he said.
Sawyer said Southwest Harbor should withdraw from AOS91, the alternative organizational structure that serves as the administrative unit for the Mount Desert Island school system. Sending Southwest Harbor students to the island’s high school as tuition students would save the town money, he claimed.
Sawyer also decried the share of school employee health insurance borne by property taxpayers.
“It’s ridiculous, and it really needs to stop,” he said.
Sawyer, a fisherman, has no children. He has mounted several previous campaigns for school committee.
In contrast, Bench and Allen were more supportive of the school system. Both have children attending Pemetic Elementary School.
“For me, it’s about the best choices for the kids,” Bench said when asked about why he decided to run.
Allen said that during her four years on the committee, she has strived “to make the best choices for our community.”
Moderator Susi Homer asked the candidates questions submitted by some of the 15 or so in attendance.
One question asked what makes for a good education.
“Interesting classes, an array of offerings,” Allen said. The curriculum should “have depth and rigor and prepare kids for the next step.”
Bench said keeping students abreast of developing technologies is important to their future. “Education should be well-rounded and set them up for success after graduation,” Bench said.
Sawyer opined that a good education comes from stressing basic skills.
“Your ABCs, Your 1,2,3s; all the basics,” Sawyer said. “You don’t need glassblowing or bead making.”
The candidates were asked what could be done to reduce the high cost per student at the Pemetic school.
Saying she thinks the committee has worked hard to keep the school budget as flat as possible, Allen suggested increasing the school population.
“I would say invite your friends to move to town,” she said.
Bench acknowledged the difficulty of making budget cuts.
“I’m sure it’s not an easy decision to say where these cuts can be made,” he said.
Sawyer insisted significant cuts could be made, especially in health insurance costs, salary and benefits for the principal and eliminating a guidance counselor position. All it takes, he said, is for the committee to take a firm stance.
“There’s no backbone from the board to get it done,” he said.
Candidates also were asked about their incentive for running.
Dedication, for one thing, Allen said. “It’s rewarding to be part of this process.”
“I’m a real people-person,” Bench replied. Through his job in retail management, he has learned to build consensus by looking for a “common cause we can work forward to.”
Sawyer said he considers himself a good negotiator, adding again that “backbone” is needed to be successful in that task. He also said he is prepared.
“I have numbers. I have figures. I do my homework,” he said.