Three years ago when Jeff Wahlstrom was elected to the Bangor School Committee, he had high hopes of bringing a fresh voice to the table and effecting changes to a committee that some felt worked in a bubble, disregarding the voices of parents and taxpayers.
This week, Wahlstrom, whose three-year term is about to expire, said he won’t be running again.
“I feel like I’ve spent the last three years just being the antagonist,” he said. “I’m just the cranky guy at the end of the table, and that’s not at all who I am, but I feel I’m forced into that position on the school committee.”
Wahlstrom, who is well-known for his work as former president of the United Way of Eastern Maine, said he never felt he was able to make “meaningful changes” and that his voice was simply disregarded at meetings.
“I’ve learned that you get to a point that there is only so much you’re willing to put up with, and I guess I reached that point with the committee,” he said.
It should be noted, however, that there were some important changes made during Wahlstrom’s time at the table.
The Power School program was brought online, which allows students and parents to access grades and homework assignments.
The committee actually adopted a conflict of interest policy that was long overdue and now prevents committee members from voting to hire or promote their immediate family members.
Yet Wahlstrom said the committee’s old guard make it very difficult to make “real” effective changes to the way the school system works.
“There have been some positive changes, but there is loads of room for improvement and I just felt strongly that those improvements were not going to be made because of the ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it and we know best’ sort of attitude that permeates the meetings,” he said.
School board Chairwoman Phyllis Guerrette, who is seeking re-election, said she was disappointed that Wahlstrom chose not to run again. She said the Bangor School Committee was “fabulous” and worked well together to ensure the academic excellence of all Bangor students.
Guerrette said she couldn’t speak to Wahlstrom’s belief that his voice was not heard, and said only that the committee openly welcomed all newcomers, but also embraced the experience of the more seasoned members.
Wahlstrom is an advocate of the school system developing community partnerships with organizations with similar missions, such as the Bangor YMCA and Head Start.
“There are tremendous opportunities for our children right here using our own community resources, but there is a tremendous resistance to do that, and that is frustrating for me,” he said.
Vice Chairwoman Christine Szal said on Friday that the committee needed to focus on the academic excellence of the children and what they are achieving during the short time they are at school.
“That makes working in some of those community groups difficult. We only have these students for a short time every day,” she said.
It’s disappointing that Wahlstrom isn’t running again, because he brought a welcomed and badly needed voice to the committee.
The school committee, like any board, needs differing opinions to be effective. Wahlstrom was a thoughtful, energetic and innovative committee member. In this case the decision of the “antagonist” and “cranky guy at the end of the table” not to run means a loss for Bangor.