Maine Greens Fight Superintendent’s Raise

This article is a little long, but well worth the read. Basically, it shows how having a few members of a third party on a local board can actually make a difference in public policy. In this instance it’s the Greens on the Portland School board who worked with the Republicans to deny the Superintendent a $3,000 raise.

An evening of extraordinary political showdowns has exposed a deep and bitter partisan divide on the officially non-partisan Portland School Committee, scuttled a $3,000-plus raise for Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor, and created what some members fear could be serious legal problems stemming from the board’s discussion of that pay raise in public.

On Nov. 30, the school board voted down a three-percent raise for Superintendent O’Connor that would bring her salary to nearly $112,000 ($111,959) annually. It deadlocked 4-4 (with one abstention) on an amendment to give the super a 1.5-percent pay hike.

Board chairman Jonathan Radtke and many, if not most, board members expected this item to pass as a matter of routine business. The board had held three closed-door sessions to discuss O’Connor’s job performance and compensation in recent weeks, and Radtke said there was near unanimous agreement on the pay hike before last night’s public meeting.

The exception was board member Ben Meiklejohn, who told Radtke after the board’s last private session that he was having second thoughts about the size of the raise.

At the Nov. 30 public meeting, Meiklejohn made a motion to amend the order so as to reduce O’Connor’s raise by half—from over $3,200 to just over $1,600. Chairman Radtke objected to the amendment on procedural grounds, arguing that the order could not be amended—only approved or rejected as is.

By a 5-4 vote, the board overruled Radtke, and a vote on Meiklejohn’s amendment took place. This vote produced the 4-4-1 deadlock (board member Jason Toothaker abstained), and the subsequent vote on the original motion (for a three-percent raise) was rejected by the same five board members who voted to take up Meiklejohn’s change.

The board then held a caucus to decide who will serve in two key leadership positions for the next year: chair of the board’s Finance Committee and chair of the board itself. Three members of the board - Teri McRae, Tae Chong and Jim Dimillo - are not returning next year, and so did not participate in the caucus that followed the vote on O’Connor’s pay. Newly elected board members Lori Gramlich, Susan Hopkins and John Coyne did vote in the caucus - the three will be formally sworn in on Dec. 5.

By a 5-4 vote, the board chose Ellen Alcorn to serve as its next chair over the other nominee for the post, Meiklejohn; it then voted 5-4 to make Otis Thompson chair of the Finance Committee over nominee Stephen Spring.

Both votes followed party lines, with Democrats Radtke, Thompson, Alcorn, Gramlich and Coyne voting as a block against Green Independent Party members Meiklejohn, Spring, Toothaker and Hopkins. Participants said there was little-to-no discussion of the nominees during the brief, but tense, caucus process.

The Democrats had also voted together in opposition to Meiklejohn’s proposed raise reduction. McRae and Dimillo, both registered Republicans, voted with the Greens to halve the pay increase.

After voting in favor of considering Meiklejohn’s amendment, Toothaker subsequently abstained from voting on the amendment itself. Reached Thursday afternoon for comment, Toothaker said he saw the looks on the faces of Democrats and Superintendent O’Connor as the board was considering the raise reduction, and decided “it seemed more legally prudent to just vote it up or down.”

Toothaker said he supports a 1.5-percent raise for O’Connor, and wants to have another discussion of her job performance and salary considerations.

The Bollard also learned Thursday afternoon that a motion to discuss the super’s salary in another private session is on the board’s Dec. 7 agenda.

Reached by phone after the meeting, Radtke was livid over Meiklejohn’s amendment and aghast that O’Connor’s raise had been not only debated, but defeated in public and with the superintendent present. “If it were me, I would be very angry,” Radtke said of O’Connor’s reaction.

O’Connor could not be reached for comment late Wednesday night or Thursday afternoon.

“It was horrific,” Radtke said. “Quite frankly, it was a shameful display of people who completely ignored the laws of the state of Maine… and completely undermined the democratic process of the School Committee.”

Radtke contends that discussion of O’Connor’s salary is a personnel matter, and thus subject to laws protecting the confidentiality of those discussions unless both parties agree to waive that protection - a rare circumstance in labor talks.

“Any detailed discussion in an open meeting is certainly unethical and may in fact be illegal,” said Radtke, who added that the board’s public debate may also have violated federal employment laws.

“As chairman, I feel it’s in the best interest of the Portland public schools that I talk with our legal staff and find out what potential problems we could be facing.”

“I think if I was the aggrieved party, I would want to look into [the legal issues],” said Thompson. Thompson said board members had been briefed by legal staff on the legalities of such discussions during a session Meiklejohn did not attend. “His advocacy of open negotiations in public is a violation of the law,” Thompson said.

After the vote, Thompson confronted Meiklejohn over his motion to amend O’Connor’s raise. “I was yelled at for making the motion,” said Meiklejohn, who said Thompson called his actions “despicable.” (Thompson does not deny this exchange took place). Asked if the two are on speaking terms, Meiklejohn said, “It’s hard to say.”

“It was an absolutely disgusting display,” Radtke said of the amendment and salary vote. “Not to mention being hurtful, as well as dealing in bad faith with an employee [O’Connor] who has worked wonders in our school department for the past five years.

“I’m ashamed to be sitting on the dais with them,” Radtke said of the Greens.

Meiklejohn disputes Radtke’s contention that the public salary discussion could be illegal. “If that’s true, why is it up for a public vote?” he said. “Anything that’s up for a vote can be discussed.”

“This wasn’t a personnel matter,” said Meiklejohn. “There was no discussion of her performance. It was about salary.”

In past board meetings when the super’s salary has been approved, board members have praised the top administrator’s work - comments that amount to discussion of job performance, Meiklejohn argued. If negative comments are illegal, “then it’s not legal to talk positively about it, either,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “It can’t be illegal only when you don’t get your way.”

Meiklejohn and McRae both said they voted to cut the superintendent’s pay increase out of concern that members of the teacher’s union and other bargaining units - all of whom are renegotiating contracts this year - will also expect three-percent pay increases. They said the district cannot afford to raise everyone’s pay that amount. Furthermore, Meiklejohn said hiking the super’s salary would be unfair.

“What kind of equity is it to give the highest paid public employee in the city of Portland the largest raise,” he said, adding that he’d heard from constituents who share his concerns before the Nov. 30 meeting. “Three percent of $110,000 is a lot different than three percent of $30,000.”

McRae criticized the compensation of school employees in general, saying school district workers are over-compensated compared to their counterparts who work for the city. For example, the school’s “lowest-paid master electrician gets more than the city’s highest-paid master electrician,” she said.

O’Connor’s pay raise would be in effect for the length of her current contract: three years. McRae, who lost her bid for a second three-year term on the board in this fall’s election, said she also opposed the salary increase based on the superintendent’s performance.

McRae took issue with O’Connor’s preparedness, saying the super often brought contracts to the board for approval before the documents were in their final form. And she said O’Connor showed a lack of leadership when advocates opposed a proposal last year to cut positions teaching sexual education. The positions were retained. “She caved,” McRae said.

O’Connor’s salary increase could be reconsidered before the end of this year, said Radtke, if the incoming chair of the board chooses to reintroduce the order for the new board’s approval. Alcorn could not be reached for comment, and Radtke declined to speculate whether she will bring the matter back, but said, “speaking personally, that’s what I hope would happen.”

That’s also what Meiklejohn expects will happen, and with five Democrats and four Greens voting this time, the new majority will get its way, he said. “The five of them could give the superintendent [a] six-percent [raise] if they wanted to.”

Meiklejohn, an at-large representative, has served on the board for four years, longer than any other Green on the School Committee. (By comparison, incoming chair Alcorn, a Democrat, is beginning her second year as an at-large representative.) Meiklejohn said he’s been “bullied” by Democrats, who have outnumbered Greens during his entire tenure.

“People always sort of threaten or scare you into behaving a certain way,” he said, adding that he felt “pressure” to support the three-percent pay hike for O’Connor. “I’m fighting against that. I’m going back to my core. I was elected on certain positions and I’m going back to them.”

Meiklejohn called the party-line vote against his bid to be chairman “punishment” for his motion to reduce O’Connor’s raise, and expects he and the other three Greens will be “marginalized” by the Democratic majority in the coming year.

Chong dismissed the idea he and other Democrats have bullied Meiklejohn. “I think he’s disappointed he’s not the chair,” said Chong, also an at-large representative. Chong decided not to seek re-election this fall.

Thompson responded to the bullying assertion by saying Meiklejohn has “worked hard to make issues [partisan],” in the past three years, “and we are not a [partisan] board.”

The school board is officially non-partisan, but political party affiliation is playing an increasingly visible role in school board elections and - now more than ever - school board decisions. Spring, who lost his bid to chair the Finance Committee to Thompson, said of the meeting: “It felt like party-line oppression.”

4 Responses to “Maine Greens Fight Superintendent’s Raise”

  1. m cordes Says:

    let get rid of cowards like murta, i have two military sons who are not cowards who cut and run

  2. IndiPol Says:

    Very insightful! Thanks for posting.

    Don’t you mean cowards like Bush who avoided the draft and then lied about their national guard service?

  3. Austin Cassidy’s Third Party Watch » Blog Archive » Friday’s Candidate: Stephen Spring Says:

    [...] You can read more about that meeting by clicking here. [...]

  4. Marsha Says:

    Hmm… sweet! [*../nice_site2.txt*]

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