Five out of eight seats have two candidates.

Typically, most seats have had only one candidate; occasionally some had no candidate, prompting officials to recruit someone.

And at board meetings it used to be the only ones attending were those paid to be there. In the past year more parents have attended, asked questions or offered opinions.

On Sept. 9, Lewiston parent and Auburn worker Heidi Sawyer created public Facebook pages called “Lewiston Rocks the Vote” and “Auburn Rocks the Vote.”

Within two days 237 joined Lewiston’s page. “I couldn’t be more thrilled with how quickly people have jumped on board,” Sawyer said.

One big reason for more attention is that in the past year issues have drawn more attention and scrutiny, including:

* A proposed large elementary school to replace Martel, then Longley.

* A new proficiency-based learning diploma for the Class of 2018, which after a rough startup won’t be fully implemented until the Class of 2021.

* Overcrowded classrooms.

* The state’s new Smarter Balanced testing, which some parents said was flawed and didn’t make sense. They formed an “Opt Out Lewiston” group and lobbied state lawmakers. Legislators have since canceled the test.

* The midyear, sudden resignation of Lewiston High School Principal Linda MacKenzie after Superintendent Bill Webster found she did not have support from staff. On Feb. 9, Lewiston Middle School Principal Shawn Chabot took over as high school principal.

* Fourteen school buses froze up Feb. 24, leaving a few students waiting for the bus in the cold. Parents were alarmed; the superintendent promised better communication.

Some parents began attending School Committee meetings for a single issue.

“For me it was the proficiency-based diploma,” Sawyer said. As more parents started showing up, “they realized how much help is needed. What’s happening now is almost a movement of people getting involved.”

Committee Chairman James Handy said he’s thrilled that more people are running for office.

“Elections should not be coronations,” he said. “It’s wonderful for the public process. It’s nice that people are finally engaging. There’s an absolute need for that, to have membership look like our community.”

More are paying attention “because we’ve been dealing with significant issues, (proficiency-based learning), class sizes and everything else,” Handy said. “More people come to meetings because those people are interested in those issues.”

Veteran School Committee member Paul St. Pierre agreed. Typical reasons someone runs for office is because they want to give back, they believe public education is important, and/or a conviction “the system is failing in some regard, and only the person running knows how it needs to be fixed.”

He said he was pleased to see more interest, but cautioned that nothing happens until a majority of members agree how to build a good school system. When boards aren’t able to get beyond individual members’ “inability to see beyond their beliefs,” that can create dysfunction, St. Pierre said.

Several running for office, including Handy’s challenger, Ben Martin, said the same people have served for years. It’s time for new blood.

Martin, 30, said he’s running because of his two young children. More people are paying attention in part because “parents aren’t being heard. When one parent is not heard, word spreads to two or three more parents. It ends up being an atomic bomb. It keeps spreading.”

Tina Hutchinson, a parent running against St. Pierre, also complained parents haven’t been heard. She said she’d like to see more dialogues and less monologues at meetings; often the public is allowed two minutes to speak. When they’re done the topic ends.

Handy says the committee has listened to parents.

“Parents came and talked about (proficiency-based learning). To suggest we’re not listening, why did we put the brakes on . . . ?” he asked. The Lewiston School Department worked with the Department of Education on (proficiency-based learning), the state promised Lewiston a (aproficiency-based learning) consultant, “then they withdrew that offer,” Handy said. “What did we do to respond to parents? We hired our own consultant.”

The committee also hired more teachers after parents voiced concerns about overcrowding. “The committee’s always been cognizant about class sizes and tried to do something about it,” he said.

Handy has limited public speaking at times to no more than two minutes. After parents spoke, there often were not back-and-forth questions.

While some interpret that as not being listened to, Handy said his job is to manage time at meetings, especially those with full agendas.

As chairman, he has to weigh what’s on the agenda, how long it will take, how many are in the audience. If 10 people are allowed to talk for 10 minutes, “that’s an hour and 40 minutes.” Meeting time has to be maximized to allow quality discussion, he said.

“It’s a delicate balance to give everybody a fair chance to speak rather than hearing from just a few people,” he said

To increase transparency, the committee agreed Sept. 14 to have future meetings televised. That pleased both residents and officials.

“This is something we need to do as soon as possible,” committee member Linda Scott said.

LEWISTON – Heidi Sawyer has attracted attention since she created two Facebook pages, “Lewiston Rocks the Vote” and “Auburn Rocks the Vote.”

She created the sites Sept. 9. Within the first day 72 people joined the Lewiston page. Within a week, 74 joined the Auburn page, 270 joined the Lewiston page.

Many of the Facebook page members are running for office, come from both political parties, or are residents asking questions or talking about what’s going on.

The interest in the pages “is shocking,” Sawyer said. “There’s been this buzz and constant little trickle. The engagement level, I couldn’t be more happy.”

“I don’t want to be the public face of Lewiston politics,” Sawyer said. But she added, “I care about our community. I want people talking, coming together.” If the Facebook pages can play small roles in that, “our community is better for it.”

The pages are doing what she hoped, creating conversations about community issues.

“Who is Heidi Sawyer?” Sun Journal state politics editor Scott Thistle asked Wednesday while he signed up.

Sawyer, 36, of Lewiston is married, the mother of a Lewiston High School student. She lives in Lewiston and works in Auburn as manager of market engagement for Manpower. “Job creation is a big passion of mine,” she said.

She’s a former member of Young Professionals of Lewiston-Auburn Area, or YPLAA. When her son was a Lewiston Middle School student, she and Marnie Morneault founded a middle school PTO to encourage more parents to get involved in their children’s education.

In the past year, Sawyer has attended many School Committee meetings.

“All these people were talking all over the Internet,” Sawyer said. There was a page for opt-out testing parents, parents concerned about the Class of 2018 proficiency-based learning diploma, and individual PTOs. Several pages were about one topic and were not public.

“I wanted to create a place where everyone can hear the same thing and get to see and know people,” she said. Her pages are public, open to all. She asks people who blog to be respectful.

Sawyer is not running for the School Committee.

“My husband asked me not to,” she said.

With proficiency-based learning at Lewiston High School “my emotions run high.” When emotional about something, “that’s not a good time to run,” she said. “You need people who are objective.”

Recently, the School Committee agreed to broadcast future meetings on Great Falls TV. The Lewiston and Auburn city councils, and the Auburn School Committee, already broadcast meetings.

She’s thrilled with the committee action.

“That’s terrific for our community,” Sawyer said. “It builds trust. These decisions impact students and teachers in significant ways.” After working all day, it’s hard for parents and teachers to attend night meetings. But, Sawyer said, if they can watch or view the meeting and communicate with a committee member “then we all win.”

Lewiston School Committee contested races

Ward 4: Challenger Benjamin Martin; incumbent James Handy.

Ward 5: Challenger Richard White; incumbent Jama Mohamed

Ward 6: Challenger Dawn Hartill; incumbent Matthew Roy.

Ward 7: Challenger Tina Hutchinson; incumbent Thomas Shannon

Open at-large: John Butler vs. Megan Parks

Uncontested seats:

Ward 1: incumbent Linda Scott

Ward 2: incumbent Paul St. Pierre

Ward 3: newcomer Francis Gagnon

School Committee members receive $100 a month.

“It is quite a commitment,” Chairman James Handy said


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.