On the issues: Camden School Board Candidate Marcus Mrowka

Fri, 05/19/2023 - 11:45am

    On June 13, voters in Camden will elect two citizens from a slate of three to serve on the School Administrative District 28 (Camden-Rockport K-8) and the Five Town CSD (Camden Hills Regional High School) boards of directors. There are two open seats this June, both three-year terms.

    Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate —  Marcus Mrowka, Jezebel (Sessa) Salas and Richard Thackeray — providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to education and the schools. Currently, Mrowka and Thackeray sit on the SAD 28 and Five Town CSD boards.

    Here, Marcus Mrowka discusses his position on various topics.

    Please provide a brief biography of yourself and explain why you decided to seek a seat on the SAD 28 and Five Town CSD boards of directors.

    I have the experience, commitment, collaborative nature, and leadership we need on the board to continue to serve all students and help them thrive. As a school board member, I’m guided by what’s best for students, supportive of educators, and fair to taxpayers. I have more than a decade of experience in public education at the local, state, and national level, and I’m able to draw on that experience to support our amazing schools. I currently serve as communications director for the Maine Department of Education.

    This work is deeply personal to me. Public school was foundational to my success, supported me through a very difficult home environment as a child, and provided a ladder of opportunity that I want all children to have access to. 

    I stepped up to run for school board in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. As a board, we worked with administrators and health experts to safely reopen schools that fall. And since then, the board has supported programs and efforts that make our schools great, including efforts to expand outdoor learning, increase mental health supports, introduce nature-based pre-K, expand engaging interdisciplinary and project-based learning, increase sustainability efforts, support the educators and school staff who serve our students, and so much more.

    With our new strategic plan, which I helped develop alongside parents, students, and educators, our school community will continue to lead through a focus on experiential learning, wellbeing, sustainability, adapting to a changing world, and equity. I’m proud of this record, and I’m running for another term to continue this important work. 

    I’m currently vice-chair of the Five Town CSD, chair the CSD finance committee, and serve on the policy, curriculum, and strategic planning committees. I was previously the vice-chair of the SAD 28 board. In addition, I serve on the board of the Mid-Coast School of Technology. But this work is about so much more than board meetings, and you can regularly find me at graduations, performances, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities, and attending events. As one of my board colleagues recently said, “Marcus shows up”.

    It’s such a joy to be part of such a vibrant and innovative school community and to be able to support the work of our educators.

    I grew up in New England, and after spending several years away, I knew I wanted to move back. In 2019, I came to Camden for a wedding and fell head over heels in love with the town. A month later I moved my life up here and it’s been so amazing to be part of this community and do my part to serve. While I don’t have kids yet, I have two amazing labs, Abigail and Ladybird.

    What is the role of public education in American society?

    Public schools are centers of community and public education is the best vehicle we have in our democracy to help kids achieve their dreams. I’ve lived that. It’s no exaggeration to say that my public schools made me—they were the safe places full of supportive adults I needed, and they equipped me with the skills and knowledge I needed to thrive. I’ve dedicated my career to making sure that all students have those same strong public schools to support, nurture, educate, and prepare them for success.

    We have world-class schools with incredibly talented educators. Families move to Camden for our schools, educators come from across the country to teach here, and our community values public education.

    At the same time, public education is under immense pressure and attack. We simply cannot afford to weaken or lose this essential lifeline for so many students and the foundation of our community. We need strong public school advocates on the board.

    Camden and Rockport taxpayers have been generous over the past decades to fund new school buildings and campuses. The "new" high school is 23 years old now, and CRES has its own challenges. What will you do, as a board member, to ensure that the facility investments are protected, maintained, and endowed for future care?

    We are fortunate to have some incredible facilities, but, aside from the middle school, they are showing their wear. As a board, we need to make critical investments and improvements while being fair to taxpayers. Our districts have invested in capital reserve funds so we can be prepared for some of these updates and the next budget includes funding for upgrades and repairs.

    Federal emergency relief funding was also used to enhance and create high-quality learning environments, including additional outdoor classroom and learning spaces at all of our campuses.

    The board also voted to include sustainability as one of the central pillars of the new strategic plan, so that we can ensure our physical structures are as dynamic and innovative as the teaching and learning that happens inside them.

    There is a national political trend to ban certain books in public school libraries and classrooms. What are your thoughts on this issue?

    Parents should and do have the option to opt their children out of reading books they disagree with. But nobody should deny the rest of our students from accessing the books in our libraries and classrooms. Our schools have a sensible policy and process for parents to challenge books.

    Our librarians and teachers put a lot of effort into building rich, diverse, grade-level appropriate libraries and classroom reading lists, and I’m incredibly appreciative for their thoughtfulness and trust their professional judgment.

    Given that Camden and Rockport have high property valuations, SAD 28 is a low receiver of state education funding. Public education is almost entirely shouldered by the local taxpayer and represents more than 60-65 percent of their annual tax bill. How will you work to protect the taxpayer and maintain educational quality of opportunity.

    First, let me say that public education is the greatest investment we can make as a society, and the dollars we spend today pay dividends in the future. At the same time, we must be fair and responsible with taxpayer dollars. I believe our budgets are deeply connected to how we best implement the priorities embedded in our strategic plan. The district budgets have also used capital reserve and fund balance accounts to offset the impact to taxpayers. I want to thank staff for all they do throughout the budget season to create and edit these budgets, and find ways to ensure we get schools and students what they need while keeping the impact to taxpayers as minimal as possible. 

    It’s also important to recognize that schools are not immune from the rising costs of everything from supplies to energy costs that everyone else is facing.

    I chair the finance committee, and every month our committee reviews the latest financials and asks budget questions to our business manager and administrative staff. During budget season, we review budget proposals line-by-line and seek detailed explanations of spending. Following that, the public has multiple opportunities for input into the budget and process. Public school budgets are incredibly transparent, there are several public forums and meetings that the public are invited to so the board can hear taxpayer perspectives, and that’s because we really do want public participation. It does help inform our votes. 

    When I'm evaluating our budgets and spending decisions, I ask myself the same questions I ask for all of my decisions as a member of the board—is it what is best for students, supportive of educators, and fair to taxpayers. And I’ve voiced my concerns when initiatives are incredibly expensive, opposed to our strategic priorities, and would put too much of a burden on taxpayers.

    Behavioral issues and violent incidents have increased in schools across the state, including SAD 28 and Camden Hills Regional High School. What are your thoughts on this trend?

    The social, emotional, and mental health of our students is one of the biggest challenges we face right now—and it’s something schools are grappling with across the state and nation. It should be and is a top priority for our schools, for myself, and for the board. That’s why the board has backed, and I’ve supported, school efforts to expand mental health services, add additional social workers to our schools, and increase social and emotional learning strategies. Wellbeing is a central pillar to the new strategic plan in each district, and the board will continue to support administrator and educator efforts to have positive behavioral interventions, meet students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs, increase substance abuse prevention strategies, and strengthen safe learning environments. 

    Students also need meaningful, engaging, joyful learning that makes them want to come to school. Expanding outdoor learning, project-based learning, extended learning opportunities, and having rich sports and arts programs go a long way to address these issues as well. I believe our schools offer all of these opportunities, and more, and I’m committed to continuing to build on all of these academic and health supports. 

    Is the local community well integrated with the local school system; i.e., are at-risk students receiving effective wrap-around services when needed?

    I attended the Change for Midcoast Students (now MidCoast Community Collaborative) forum a few months ago about addressing student needs, which featured not just educators and school leaders but local medical and health providers. I think they had triple the turnout they expected, which demonstrates the interest in and importance of these issues. Our schools are doing as much as they can, but our region has a shortage of the mental health and other resources that families and students need to thrive. The providers in our area will say the same, and I’m sure every parent agrees. The work MidCoast Community Collaborative is doing to identify community-wide and region-wide solutions to these challenges is incredibly important because addressing these needs goes well beyond our schools. I know that our educators have been at the table for these discussions and community-wide approach.

    Do the Camden and Rockport schools need a school resource officer?

    Administrators and educators have not raised this need for our schools. If they did, I would listen to their reasons and want to know how they would ensure the school resource officer is fully integrated into the school community and trained on the behavioral supports and interventions that our schools use. There are certainly schools that successfully integrate school resource officers into the school community, but it requires a thoughtful approach and it has to be something the school community wants.  

    Many decisions governing public education are made each legislative session in Augusta. As a school board member, how will you work with your legislators to advocate for local education needs?

    Working in public education, I closely follow the bills and actions taken by legislators that impact schools. We are fortunate to have local legislators who are deeply invested in the success of our students, educators, and schools and the board has a strong relationship with them. We’ve invited legislators to discuss education issues at our retreats and I feel like there is a direct line to offer feedback and ideas for our leaders in Augusta. As a board, we act as a collective, so it is important that these efforts are coordinated and act on behalf of the entire board.  

    What is your favorite aspect of being involved with public education?

    A few weeks ago, I got to be a juror in a mock trial at the high school. Last week, I went to the performance of White Liars and Black Comedy. The students not only performed but managed a dinner service. I’m looking forward to cheering on our graduates as they parade through town soon. A few months ago, I got to tour the outdoor learning spaces at the elementary school. Being in our schools, immersed in the incredible teaching, learning, and activities taking place in our schools, is clearly my favorite part of being involved in public education.

    I love that in both my professional life and on the board, I get to celebrate and elevate our students, educators, and schools, strengthen the bond between schools and community, and provide educators with the resources and support they need to change lives and help all kids thrive.

    Getting to see engaged, joyful learning is so powerful. I know from personal experience that public education is truly transformational, and I am so honored to play a small part in strengthening and sustaining it.

    Maine, and the Midcoast, has done much to improve nutrition in public schools, with the advent of locally grown food and healthy meals. The same holds for emphasis on physical activity, outdoor classrooms, extra-curricular activities, strong arts and music programs, sports, school gardens, etc. In your assessment, are the Camden-Rockport schools healthy?

    Healthy and striving to be healthier every day! Mental and physical health are so connected to academic success. All of our schools have increased access to fresh, more nutritious food and it is free for all students. Outdoor education and classrooms allow students to learn from and explore the bounty of natural resources we have here in Camden and Rockport, while getting them outside in the fresh air. Our schools have long had vibrant arts and sports programs that engage students and help build key communication and collaboration skills. The Hatchery innovation center at the high school encourages students to innovate, create, and lead. And of course, the Mid-Coast School of Technology is an incredible pathway for students to get real-world skills that prepare them for careers, college, and life.

    Do you have any concerns of the school curriculums?

    I have full trust and confidence in our educators. They are skilled professionals, and this is their craft. Being on the curriculum committee, I get to hear directly from our educators as they propose courses and books, and the board has regular presentations from educators and students on a variety of instructional topics. Their passion and knowledge are evident from these conversations and presentations. It is incredibly clear that our educators are true experts in what they teach, how they teach it, and take great pride in developing an engaging and rich curriculum for students. 

    Free space! Please address any topic that we failed to consider. 

    I just want to thank the administrators and educators at all of our schools, and in central office, for your passion, dedication, talent, and innovation. You have my trust and admiration, and I will always be your partner and advocate. I’m honored to play a supporting role in this work, but you are the main stars. 

    To voters, I will be out knocking on doors, and I look forward to talking with you about our schools. Schools work best when there is a strong community connection, and I’m also up for discussing how we strengthen that bond. Being on the board is a joy and honor, and I hope I can count on your support.