Candidates for the Hermon School Committee named addressing increasing enrollment in the town and helping students, teachers and staff recover from the COVID-19 pandemic are the most important challenges facing the panel. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Addressing the increasing number of students attending Hermon High School and helping families, teachers and staff recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are the most important issues facing the Hermon School Committee, five of the eight candidates running for positions on the panel agreed Wednesday.

The League of Women Voters of the Bangor Area sponsored the forum held in the meeting room of the Public Safety Building. About 40 people, many of them school district employees, attended the forum.

Hermon residents will elect two candidates to the school committee and three candidates to the town council on June 14. Absentee ballots are available from the town clerk’s office. The annual town meeting will be held June 16.

Last month, the council cut the school budget by $100,000 in a 4-2 vote. All the candidates who attended the forum supported the $17.64 million budget as proposed by the school board, an increase of 9.65 percent over last year’s budget. That would add teaching positions at the high school as the populations of Hermon, Levant and Carmel have increased. Levant and Carmel pay tuition to send their students to Hermon High.

The two positions open on the board are now held by Vice Chair Scott Hatch, 37, who is not running for reelection, and Deborah Langille, 53, who is seeking a second three-year term.

Town Councilor Anthony Reynolds, 66, is running for school committee rather than for reelection to the council. He had served four terms on the school committee when he was elected to the council three years ago. He supported the school budget as proposed.

Other candidates are: Christopher McLaughlin, 47; Kim Shaffer, 65; Tanya Fox, 47; Samatha Lang, 45; Haily Keezer, 38; and Rachel Deabay, 30.

Lang, Keezer and Deabay were unable to attend the forum.

McLaughlin and Shaffer both have backgrounds in social work and counseling. Both candidates have been endorsed by the Hermon Education Association, the local teachers’ union. Keezer has been endorsed by the Christian Civic League of Maine.

All candidates at the forum except Reynolds said the most immediate need was helping students and families recover academically, socially and emotionally from the pandemic. Reynolds, the only candidate in attendance who has lived his whole life in Hermon, stressed town finances.

“We have a great school system in place,” he said Wednesday. “The biggest problem is the means to provide for it financially.”

Written questions from the audience ranged from whether fifth graders, who attend Hermon Middle School, should have recess to whether schools should have police resource officers. Other questions addressed how to attract and keep support staff and whether growth should be more tightly controlled to slow down rising enrollment numbers.

Enrollment in Hermon has increased as more families have moved to town. Enrollment this fall is expected to increase by 25 students at the high school, by one student at the middle school and by 10 students at the elementary school for a total of 1,389. That’s an increase of 109 students over the 2018-19 school year.

Candidates agreed Wednesday that Hermon schools are bursting at the seams and may need to expand. That will require the acquisition of more land, according to Reynolds.

McLaughlin said that he’d like to hear “what the kids have to say” about overcrowding.

“Nobody wants a line of portable classrooms back into the woods,” he said. “I would like to talk to some expert about it.”

Fox said that she is not opposed to portable classrooms as a temporary solution. She cautioned that there is no “quick fix” to the problem.

Incumbent Langille advocates for the school committee to address the burgeoning student population at nearly every meeting. She said that the council, school committee, planning board and residents “need to all work together to address this influx of students.”

Shaffer agreed.

“We can’t keep letting ideas languish,” she said.

Keezer and Lang responded Thursday to questions about their campaigns.

“I want to play an active role in helping teachers, students and parents come together to provide the best educational opportunity we can for this and future generations,” Keezer said.

She also said that school safety “is essential to learning,” and teachers and students need more support staff in classrooms.

Lang said she is running “to give back to my community for everything the community has given to my family.”

“I hope I can bring support to the superintendent and teachers to help our children get a great education and help prepare them for the future,” she said.

Every candidate at the forum agreed that the relationship between the town council and the school committee must improve so councilors better understand the needs of students, faculty and staff.

All said that joint meetings between the two bodies would be beneficial. When he previously served on the school committee, Reynolds said its members met several times a year with councilors.

All the candidates who attended the forum said addressing the challenges facing the district would require more funding, which could affect property taxes.

Hermon’s current tax rate is $11.99 per $1,000 of assessed property value.