Green Party Making a Difference in Maine Schools

Published February 1, 2006

When Ben Meiklejohn, a musician and artist, and Steven Spring, a former math teacher from Washington, DC and director of the Great Schools Coalition of Portland, Maine, were elected as Green Party members to the Portland School Committee in 2003, the liberal Democrats stereotyped them as environmentally correct, progressive Democrats.

But when Meiklejohn sponsored a resolution in December 2004 to delay the formal public ratification of the teacher union contract until the public had a chance to review it and comment, a huge political uproar followed, resulting in the meeting time and place changing three times over the course of a weekend. Few people other than teacher union members and their supporters knew the exact place and date until the day before the public meeting was held.

Pressing for Transparency

On January 17, 2005, when the meeting finally took place, Meiklejohn spent more than 10 minutes apologizing to an angry crowd of militant teachers and union supporters over what they perceived as an overall disrespect for teachers and insensitivity to their pay demands.

Two other committee members condemned the executive session negotiations that had excluded the public, and they fumed over some of the specifics of the contract. Copies of a summary of the contract were made available; during the brief public commentary, a few union supporters stood up to support the teachers, who wanted the contract ratified immediately. Shortly afterward, the committee did so unanimously.

One committee member, who would not go on record, explained in an interview that he had to vote for the contract because he “had children in the Portland schools,” implying his children’s education would be adversely affected if he didn’t approve the contract.

The Green Party Members who authored the December 2004 resolution to delay ratification said they did so out of a commitment to the democratic process and a revulsion over secret negotiations and “rubber stamping” of contracts without public input–a huge change from the way school policy was made in Maine before their election.

Changing Methods

School board members have the option of opening negotiations to public scrutiny under current state law, but this option has rarely, if ever, been exercised. The result is that the entire process occurs in closed executive sessions, and the final draft is packaged up for a brief public and board presentation summarizing the contract’s main features and benefits.

At the ratification meeting, several school board members were unaware of any of the contract’s provisions until a bulleted list was handed out. A brief commentary period followed before the contract was gaveled through with a unanimous vote. But for an emerging political party such as the Greens to publicly challenge the decision-making process over such a high-stakes issue was unheard-of.

Though Meiklejohn and Spring lost that particular battle, people who thought it was an embarrassing setback that would whip them into compliance with the majority were wrong–especially after two more Green Party members were elected in November 2005 to the nine-member school committee, replacing two Republicans.

Over the past three months, a full agenda of school reform issues has begun to take shape, including Meiklejohn and Spring’s “Class of 2023” initiative, which aims to have every child statewide who enters kindergarten next year graduate from college in 2023. The Greens’ actions are sending shock waves through the Democratic Party, which has controlled nearly every school district in Maine for decades and has steadfastly stuck to the traditional “reform” agenda of continually increasing school funding and raising teacher salaries.

Searching for Definition

Since the Green Party is new to the political scene, piecing together a coherent philosophy, let alone an agenda, is tricky.

In a statement given on December 14 to, a popular Portland blog that covers local politics, Meiklejohn linked his interests to those of the taxpayers–a major shift from the party’s perceived insensitivity to taxpayers’ reactions to their environmental policies.

“That’s how I hope we’re changing politics in … Portland,” Meiklejohn said. “It’s not about how people feel about each other. It’s about the taxpayers.”

That might sound generic to most people, but not to political observers such as Professor Jon Riesman, faculty president at the University of Maine at Machias and a long-time opponent of Green Party environmentalism. Riesman said Green Party members are essentially socialists who believe in the power of big government, just like liberals do. He has coined a widely quoted “watermelon” analogy–“green on the outside, but red on the inside”–implying Green Party members have an underlying socialist streak.

Framing the Debate

But John Rensenbrink, former chair of the government department at Bowdoin College and founder of the American Green Party, believes this stereotype is changing dramatically, as evidenced by the issues and battles being waged in Portland.

“Green Party members are neither left nor right, but out in front of the issues,” Rensenbrink said. “Green Party members are forging a way of thinking that is independent of the current left/right dichotomy.”

The Portland Press Herald wrote in a December 13, 2005 editorial, “while having obtained a measure of power and influence over school policy in Maine’s largest city, the Green Party members now have to figure out how to exercise that power productively and responsibly. One rap against the party has been that it hadn’t defined itself relative to education issues. Now it is trying to rectify that.”

The old progressive agenda appears to have been left in the dust of a flurry of decidedly educational issues. In a long statement posted on a political blog called “As Maine Goes,” Meikeljohn described in detail the direction the Greens on the Portland education committee will be taking.

A No-Wing Party

“The Democrats and media perpetuate the myth that we are wacko leftists, in order to scare people away from voting Green,” Meiklejohn wrote December 14. “Average voters claim to be ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative,’ which is what Green Party members tend to be; Democrats are becoming social conservatives and fiscal liberals, and Republicans social and fiscal conservatives.

“While Green Party members do tend to attract socialists, they also attract libertarians and have much in common with certain aspects of Republicanism, such as decentralization, personal and social responsibility, community-based economics and small government. The Green Party members on the Portland school committee prove that defining them as entirely liberal isn’t accurate.”

Meiklejohn went on to point out that it was the Green Party members on the Portland school committee who called for fiscal accountability and open government, not the Democrats. They also collaborated with Republicans on the committee to come up with a list of recommendations for the Portland City Council about consolidating services such as building maintenance, transportation, and employee safety training, to save money.

Frank J. Heller ([email protected]) is a member of the Maine Policy Ronin Network in Brunswick.