On the issues: Camden School Board Candidate Sessa Salas

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 12:00pm

    n 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, Jezabel (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, Sessa Salas discusses her 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 am a long-time resident of Camden. Both of my children have gone through (or are currently attending) the Camden-Rockport schools. I have successfully run a private, cooperative preschool in Camden for 10 years and I have a strong connection with many local families currently in the school district. 

    As an administrator, I work closely with children, teachers, families, and a governing board of directors. I have also been a parent, teacher, board member and administrator. These multiple perspectives have given me insight into how important it is to work collaboratively to create a positive culture and solve problems.

    Before I became a preschool administrator my experience consisted of owning a business in downtown Camden, working with at-risk teenagers in alternative, public high schools in Rockland, Wyoming, and San Francisco. I also worked as a vocational specialist in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco helping transition formerly homeless people into permanent housing. I have a B.A. in art history and a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on Integrated Teaching Through the Arts.

    The primary reason I am running for school board is because I feel compelled to step up and serve my community. Based on my experience, which involves work in education and in the private sector, I think my perspective is a valuable one. I do not claim to have any magical solutions to some very difficult issues facing our country, state, and local municipalities and schools, but I am good at asking the tough questions, creative problem-solving, and prioritizing what is best for children, families, school employees, and taxpayers, which is no easy task, but what should be the goal, ultimately and collectively.

    What is the role of public education in American society? 

    The role of public education is multi-faceted. First and foremost, the purpose of public education is to ensure our citizens have the knowledge and skills to be successful and productive members of society.

    Another significant role of public education is to provide opportunities to all children and to those who would not otherwise have those opportunities. Wealth disparity and class issues show up in many forms. Access to high-quality education can change the trajectory of a child’s life. I experienced this first-hand and know how important that is. Every child deserves to receive a good education.

    Public schools are where many children get basic needs met like food, counseling, special education services, etc. If a child is in crisis, those needs have to be met before they are able to be successful in a classroom. Teachers are not equipped to address all of the challenges or adversity a family may be experiencing. Budgets need to have room for support staff and experts who can provide those services when necessary.

    With that said, we need administrators and teachers who are responsive to the needs of the children and families they are serving by being flexible, open-minded about curriculum, environments, schedules, programming, etc. 

    I care deeply about and believe in what public education can do and does for our children and society. 

    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?

    Long-term, strategic planning is essential to prepare for future needs. Many foreseeable items need to be accounted for and difficult decisions need to be made to prioritize spending so that the burden of paying for those important items does not fall on taxpayers alone. 

    As a board member I will make sure the district is forecasting, making long-range projections, and setting aside or investing money in preparation for facility upgrades, repairs, and any other major projects that may become a priority.  

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

    I am not a supporter of banning books. If the intellectual environment of a classroom is not a safe place to discuss difficult topics of our time, or from history, we are not doing our job to promote healthy discourse that encourages an inquiry-based model leading to the development of critical thinking skills. Sensitive topics exist. They are not going away. 

    It is the responsibility of our education system to teach children how to think, not what to think.

    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?

    I understand the complexity of working collaboratively with various stakeholders and making decisions that take into account fiscal responsibility while ensuring high quality programming.

    What people tend to not think about or realize is that the benefits of investing in the education of our children as a town, state, or nation, impacts all of us. We need an educated population to be critical and creative thinkers who are able to confront the issues in an increasingly complex world.

    Our taxes are high and we have a strong school system as a result. I will work hard to ease the burden on local residents while keeping important, valuable programs our children need to thrive and be competitive. 

    Behavorial 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?

    I would want to find out more about what these “incidents” are and how the schools are handling them currently. I would want to look at whether we could be doing something differently and investigate further and assess the ‘why’ behind these incidents. 

    Are our expectations of children developmentally appropriate and/or in line with what they are capable of?  What is our approach to teaching and is the learning environment conducive to everyone’s disparate learning styles? Do we need to change the setting (outdoor learning for instance) or work more closely with families to determine how to best serve children who may need more support? Parents are sometimes the best resources and we should be seeking to understand the underlying issues causing these behaviors so that we can respond to them accordingly.

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

    This is an important question and one I would need more information about before I can respond to it with confidence. As a school board member I would  do the work to find out whether this is happening or not and take steps to ensure there is a connection between school and other community services that help best serve and support that child. 

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

    My initial response to this is no, simply because I cannot imagine that it would have that much of an impact. As a matter of fact, I would think it might have the opposite effect. If we treat children like they are criminals, they just might behave like them. Trust is important. A positive school culture is propagated by the relationships we form with students, staff, and administration. I feel like there are better solutions and that our resources, and your tax dollars, would be better spent on promoting a more positive environment for our children and staff so that a resource officer is not needed.

    If this is something local schools are requesting, I would ask for research on the effects before taking steps to having a resource officer in our schools.

    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?

    I have been spending time recently in Augusta speaking to legislators about the childcare delivery system in our state and how that integrates with the DOE (department of education). I have been outspoken about how the separate departments need to be communicating with each other to streamline the system, avoid redundancy, and make education equitable for all. I have become quite comfortable reaching out to local and state legislators about issues that impact the children, families, and educators in our community.

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

    I have known many of the children in our district since they were 2 or 3 years old. I have coached many of them as tee-ballers, basketball players, etc. I have hired some of them to work with the young children at my preschool. Watching them learn and grow as they ultimately reach graduation and move onto college and adulthood has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

    Going to band and chorus concerts, sporting events, theater productions at the Strom (where my son would have chosen to take up residence if he could), and seeing these young children’s learning, confidence, and maturity unfold in front of my eyes is a source of pride and joy for me. I know how hard teachers, coaches, and administrators work to ensure children thrive. The evidence is in the student’s work, performances, and accomplishments.

    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?

    As I mentioned in my previous response, there are so many incredible opportunities our children, living in this district, have access to. We are incredibly fortunate to have a school board, administrators, and teachers who utilize local resources and partner with other community members and organizations who contribute to a healthy, holistic approach to the education and growth of our children. 

    Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Are some children falling through the cracks? I’m sure. Are teachers feeling supported? I’d like to know. I would say generally speaking, we have a safe, healthy, well-rounded, and well-funded, school system compared to other parts of the state and country.

    Do you have any concerns of the school curriculums?

    Generally I trust what children are learning and how. We have professional educators doing great work. I know there are multiple ways of delivering information and content to children in a classroom. Project-based learning is a priority at CRMS which I support.

    I would like to see more arts education and outdoor time in the elementary school. Young children need a variety of outlets and ways of expressing themselves and showing their learning. 

    As a board member, I’d like to take a deeper dive into testing and how we assess children’s learning. I also want to ensure there is not too much pressure on our youngest learners. Young children have the right to be children and best practices need to be a priority in a preschool classroom, and in the younger grades.

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

    I want to mention that another important reason I’m running for school board is because my son was a school board representative for his high school class at CHRHS for three years and served on the strategic planning committee when he was a student at Camden Rockport Middle School. I was so inspired by his service to his community and sense of civic duty and I feel strongly that if he could step up and make the commitment to serve, I can too!

    I would like to end by saying it would be an honor to serve on the school board and be a voice for those who I represent. It is my hope to contribute and be a productive member of the governing body of one of the top ranked school districts in the state of Maine. Thank you!