Phil Harriman (left) and Ethan Strimling, BDN Agree to Disagree bloggers. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on

Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.

Ethan: If ever there was an overreaction in Maine politics, I believe the recent conservative attacks on Portland’s school system that forced out one of the best superintendents Maine has seen, Xavier Botana, and has relentlessly attacked one of our most visionary leaders, former School Board Chair Emily Figdor, are examples 1 and 1A. 

Phil: There are conservatives in Portland? 

Ethan: Sadly. They hide in “moderate Democrat” clothing, but yes.

Phil: You are closer to this than our readers, but it sure doesn’t look good when your employees are not getting paid accurately or on time and the IRS has penalized your department over a million dollars for regulatory violations.

Ethan: The fines look flashy, because that is what the IRS does. All will likely be waived (many have already) because they are basically small issues that were quickly fixed. 

Phil: Thanks for the update, I hope you are correct. And didn’t Superintendent Botana actually announce his departure before all this became news? That said, the buck stops with the people hired to lead and those held accountable to the citizens. 

Ethan:  Yup, which is why Chair Figdor asked city staff to help early, since it was the city that asked them to use the new software that blew everything up. But it was clear some elected officials were more interested in scoring political points than solving the problem. Remember, many of these politicians are the same ones who were campaigning at the time to stop the school from having more independence so they could continue cutting their budget. 

Phil: Citizens just love it when they observe city councils and school boards playing gotcha with their tax dollars. Is there any fluff in the school budget? After all, statistics show spending on administrators in public schools has grown dramatically compared to teachers.

Ethan: Not even close. But don’t take my word for it, take the independent report commissioned to determine what happened back in September and then the one just this month, which said empty positions and lack of resources contributed greatly to the problem.

Phil: The “independent” report also said that internal controls and oversight needed to be strengthened. 

Ethan: Sure, and when the staff responsible for those things doesn’t adequately do that job, they should be held accountable. But if your payroll company messes up, you don’t resign as the president of your company. But the bigger picture is that the forces who have been fighting the equity focus for our schools are the same forces that ultimately drove Botana out and that continue harassing Figdor. 

Phil: Please explain.

Ethan: For decades our schools were starved for resources, even as it became clear our lowest income students of color were falling further and further behind. When I became mayor in 2015, that dynamic began to change with the help of Botana and Figdor. We passed a bond to rebuild our dilapidated schools and we began passing investments in our schools that increased the school budget by amounts needed to actually expand universal pre-k and invest in low-income kids of color. But every increase was a fight against austerity politicians. It was ultimately those conservatives who were loudest in calling for Xavier’s head.

Phil: Why didn’t they fix all the problems in the finance department at that time? Again citizens become skeptical when they hear we’ve got to spend even more money on our schools and then discover even that wasn’t enough.

Ethan: Because conservatives refuse to allow money for more administration. And because Botana prioritized the education of our kids above all else. Something we should admire.

Phil: I will say this, your take on this is very different from what the mainstream media have portrayed. 

Ethan: Had any of them been to Botana’s goodbye party, in which parent after parent, employee after employee, immigrant family after immigrant family shook their heads in sadness over losing him, they might have seen things differently.