2016-09-23 / Front Page

School board seat up for grabs

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Tappan Fitzgerald II Tappan Fitzgerald II SOUTH PORTLAND — While South Portland has an abundance of city council candidates this election cycle, it’s suffering from a shortage of school board candidates.

Now, one more opening can be added to that list.

Tappan Fitzgerald II surprised his peers by rising just before adjournment at the Sept. 12 meeting, at the second period reserved for public comment, to say he was resigning his seat, effective as soon as the gavel fell.

“In life, when passions change, your decisions should, too,” he said, adding that walking away in the middle of his third term was something he was doing

“regretfully,” and “for personal reasons.”

“I respect all of you and have a great deal of respect for all the administrators, teachers and staff of the South Portland School Department,” he told the board.

The next day Fitzgerald turned in a simple one sentence, handwritten letter of resignation to City Clerk Emily Scully. The day after that school board chairman Richard Matthews said the surprise resignation “came as a shock to us all.”

Fitzgerald, who works as student life administrator at STRIVE, a South Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to aiding disabled young adults, served as school board chairman in 2014. Reached Wednesday evening, Sept. 14, Fitzgerald said he’d already been contacted by two area newspapers that “tried to drag some dark reason out of me” that would explain the resignation and the “when passions change” comment.

“It had nothing to do with the board or the school department or anything like that. It’s nothing bad,” he said. “I just have some personal family things going on and at this time I feel I need to focus on that. I’ve enjoyed my time on the (school) board, but sometimes priorities change and that’s where I am right now. I have no ax to grind or any issue with anyone. It’s just that I find myself not able to dedicate myself completely to (the school department) at this time, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to do anything halfway.”

The South Portland City Charter gives the city council the power to fill vacant school board seats until the next regularly scheduled election. The next election is Nov. 8, but the deadline for submitting nomination papers expired Sept. 12, about three hours before Fitzgerald announced his resignation.

Had he quit earlier, it’s possible there might have been time to call a short petitioning period, in which case the council might have left the seat empty and let voters fill it in November. However, the nomination deadline is set to give Scully’s office time to prepare ballots. By state law, absentee voting begins 45 days before the general election.

With that in mind, the city council will appoint someone to serve District 5 in Fitzgerald’s stead. That person will hold office until the next election in Nov. 2017, when voters will pick someone to finish out the final year of Fitzgerald’s term, to December 2018.

Applications for the appointment are available now on the city website, www.southportland.org, on the board of education page, accessed from the “boards and committees” link under the “government” drop-down tab.

Applicants must be registered voters who live in District 5, comprising the city’s westernmost neighborhoods. A map of the district can be found on the city clerk’s page on the South Portland website.

According to Scully, application forms, including a resume and letter of interest, must be submitted by the end of business on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The city council will interview applicants during a public workshop session on Monday, Oct. 17, and vote on an appointment during their regular business meeting, later that same night.

The council may soon find itself repeating that process. Two school board seats are up for election in November. The District 2 seat will have one qualified candidate, Hillside Avenue resident Otis Thomson on the ballot. Michael Faulkingham submitted a nomination petition, but was disqualified, Scully said, because too many of the people who signed his papers were either not registered to vote in South Portland, or else had signed Thompson’s form, which was submitted first.

Meanwhile, no one filed to run for the school board seat representing District 1, which includes the easternmost neighborhoods of Ferry Village, Willard Square and Loveitts Field.

According to Scully, for municipal races, South Portland does not require submission of a declaration of write-in candidacy form, such as the one used by the state for all legislative, congressional and gubernatorial races. That means all write-in votes for the District 1 school board race will be counted, and the winner approached to see if he or she will accept the position. If not, or if there is no clear winner among any write-in votes, the city council will repeat the process being used to fill Fitzgerald’s seat, taking applications and appointing someone to serve until November 2017, when an election would be held to fill the final two years of the term.

If that happens, November 2017 would see four school board seats up for grabs at the same time, as the District 3 seat held by Matthews and the at-large seat held by Mary House also would be up at that time.

At present, Richard Carter is the District 1 representative to the school board, but he’s filed to run for the city council and is one of seven competing for the two open at-large seats. Carter has been on the school board for several years, and has been chairman several times, but unlike the charter restrictions placed on city councilors, school board members have no limit on the number of consecutive terms they may serve. With no one on the ballot, it’s possible District 1 voters could write in Carter’s name.

If Carter draws the most write-in votes, he would be offered a chance to retake his seat, unless he places in city council balloting. If he wins both races, he must take the council seat.

“Richard Carter, as a candidate for city councilor at large, has signed a nomination acceptance agreement form which states that if elected to the city council, he will qualify and serve,” Scully said. “This form is a requirement of all candidates to submit. This means that if it comes down to being elected to both District 1 (school board representative) via write-in and city councilor by popular vote, there is no choice in the matter about whether he will serve as school board District 1 representative or city councilor. If elected, he will serve as city councilor when his term as school board District 1 ends on Inauguration Day and he is sworn in to serve on the council.”

If Carter wins both races, the person who gets the second-most write in votes does not get the school board seat. In that instance, the council would move to its appointment process.

However, if Carter finishes third or worse in city council balloting and gets the most write-in votes for the District 1 school board seat, he would be offered the position.

If Carter does not win a council seat, and also does not get the most write-in votes for school board, he could continue to serve on the school board indefinitely if there is no clear write-in winner, or if the person who gets the most-write in votes declines the position.

That’s because according to the city charter, the terms of office for school board members “shall be for three years and until their successors are duly elected and qualified.”

That “and” is important, because, as written, even if it’s not how it was intended, the charter says Carter would get to serve until there is a successor. Therefore, if not elected to the city council, and the absence of some other clear write-in winner, Carter could continue to be on the school board until the council appoints someone to that post, even if that appointment comes after Inauguration Day. Alternately, the council could do nothing, in which case a technical reading of the charter means Carter could continue to serve until a special election is held in November 2017.

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