Parents voice Union school management concerns
Waldoboro — Remarks from disappointed parents and a request for answers over not rehiring a teacher opened the Regional School Unit 40 board meeting Sept. 5.
Two parents of Union Elementary School fifth-grade students expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of professionalism in the handling of a probationary teacher who they claim was an asset to the district.
Parents Constance Bodine and Leeann Sebrey outlined their disappointment in the management of Union Elementary School with the failure to retain teacher Holly Merrow.
Armed with legal council and a School Board Governance & Operations handout, the RSU 40 board began its meeting with an executive session with attorney Peter Felmly of Drummond Woodsum.
Chairman Danny Jackson reminded the audience that the board will listen, but is not required to respond to questions or concerns heard during the meeting.
"We understand that recently some parents have raised a concern about the selection of teachers. While the selection of teachers is, as a matter of law, the sole province of the superintendent and board of directors, we always appreciate the involvement of our parents and their concern about any change," Jackson read in a prepared statement.
Bodine said the new management — with only days on the job — took it upon themselves to make a decision without taking into account student needs, test scores, parent input, or teacher experience.
"Our students can't afford another mistake like this," she concluded.
RSU 40 has an interim superintendent, Michael Cormier, who took over following the resignation of Susan Pratt.
Bodine explained that if proper management were in place the district would not have lost such a valuable asset. Additionally, she urged the board to expedite its efforts in finding a permanent replacement of management.
"RSU 40 needs a leader that will put our children's needs first; someone that will work cooperatively with the community, teachers and administrators," said Bodine, adding the district needs a leader that when faced with a mistake, will admit it and make it right.
"I was there to represent 14 sets of parents regarding a teacher not being hired back this school year," Bodine said by phone Sept. 6, in defense of Merrow.
Merrow was initially approved to move to a second-year probationary contract by the board at its May 2 meeting.
According to Bodine, Merrow had received the contract in the mail to maintain her teaching position for this school year. However, an out-of-town emergency occurred and Merrow admittedly failed to get the paperwork in by the July 5 deadline.
Merrow had received a letter from Cormier stating that since she had not turned in the contract by the deadline, her position was considered null and void. When Merrow went to make it right and met with the new principal, Christina Wotton, at Union Elementary School, she was told by Cormier that she would have to re-interview for the position — which she did.
According to Bodine, most of the same students have been together since kindergarten. She said there were a lot of special needs and behavioral problems — a long history with this class and noted it was too big for one teacher to handle. Bodine said a lot of board members know about this class.
"Every year was a fight to whether they should separate the class or leave it together," she said.
Administration decided when they were third-graders to put the class together.
"It was a horrible year behavioral- and productivity-wise," said Bodine, adding "the class needed to be divided, but the budget didn't allow it."
Last year, there were two fourth-grade classes.
"Miss Merrow moved the group together and taught them how to get along," said Bodine. "It was a great learning environment," she said.
"These kids now love school — which is not how it's been in the past," she said.
Bodine said Merrow had been able to get this group of now fifth-graders to work together in the one year she worked with them.
"She was not an easy teacher, but I had tremendous respect for what she was doing. She was amazing," said Bodine.
Merrow purchased chapter books for each student as part of a summer reading project — out of her own pocket. According to Bodine, Merrow kept in touch with the children during the course of the summer.
She also attended a literacy conference in August with Wotton and other district members and took summer science classes to be able to better teach the subject. Merrow also applied for and received a grant from Petco. She planned on using it as part of an aquaponics class — showing the students how to grow vegetables in water with fish, Bodine said.
Merrow said she was looking forward to building longevity with this school district. Merrow brought 10 years of teaching experience to the district.
She was looking forward to seeing what progress she and the class could make throughout fifth grade, Bodine said.
According to Merrow in a phone interview Sept. 9, she had signed up with the school district to take a full-year literacy program. After attending the first class and completing homework, she was told by administration not to attend any further classes.
Merrow took full responsibility for not having the signed contract in by the deadline. She urged Cormier to review her evaluations and read the letters of support that had been turned in by parents and staff member — including one from former principal Richard Blackman.
Merrow said her class of 12 students exceeded many Northwest Evaluation Association average scores for fourth-grade students in language, math and reading. Four of the students are qualified as special education, which is one-third of the class.
In language usage, the average is 207.4; Merrow's class had a 208.9 mean score, with eight of the 12 students well above the expectations average and 11 of the 12 meeting or exceeding their personal target.
In math, the average score for fourth grade is 212.4; Merrow's class had 219.9 with all 12 students exceeding their own personal targets. One student scored 241, which is actually at the 10th- and 11th-grade level.
And in reading, the fourth grade average is 206.3; Merrow's mean class score was 212.4 with eight students exceeding the mean, and 11 of 12 exceeding their personal targets.
"Every student had growth, whether they met their personal target or not. And what they learned, they were able to apply," said Merrow.
When Bodine called Cormier to ask him why he would not give Merrow her job back, he apparently responded that in his 32 years of experience no teacher has ever forgotten to turn in their contract.
Bodine said she had spoken to all the parents of children in the class, and many met with Cormier in support of Merrow.
During these deliberations, another fifth-grade teaching position became open at Friendship Village School.
"We suggested they give the new teacher that position and give us our teacher back," Bodine said.
Bodine has a child in the current fifth-grade class. A group of students and parents involved with this class got together for a picnic before school started to tell the kids about Merrow not returning.
"He was devastated," said Bodine of her child. She said the child was upset that they were not going to be able to give her the book report that they had worked on all summer.
"He had already made her something for Christmas," she said.
According to Bodine, Cormier insinuated he also had information in Merrow's personnel file that helped him form his decision. To which Bodine and the other parents thought if that were true, the last administration would not have offered her the job in the first place.
Leann Sebrey, parent of another fifth-grade student in the class, had requested to be heard as part of the full board agenda.
Although she did speak at the meeting, she said in a phone interview Sept. 10, "You wouldn't believe the hoops I had to jump through to get on the agenda."
During the meeting, Sebrey kept her comments within the guidelines that Jackson eluded to.
She questioned the administration's action with regard to the release of Merrow and reminded attendees of the district's mission.
Sebrey asked for a show of hands of those who believe in the mission.
"If integrity is compromised, or if there are those who are unable or unwilling to uphold the mission, then action must be taken," Sebrey said.
The school board is the voice of the community and is held responsible for doing the right thing, she said.
"Holly had such a fragile group of kids. She took a group of children with a wide range of strengths and challenges and made them thrive," said Sebrey.
Sebrey said everyone was showing support for what Merrow had done with the class.
"It came out of left field when Holly sent an email saying she had 'some really sad news,'" said Sebrey. Her son replied, "It's not true. We have a plan," when he found out of Merrow's sudden departure.
Cormier sent a letter to the parents of the fifth-grade students who were expecting Merrow to return as their teacher this year. In it, he thanked the parents for meeting with him Aug. 26, but stated that "as a result of a contractual matter, the teacher who had been selected initially was not offered the job."
The letter went on to say, "I encourage you to come in and introduce your child to [the new teacher] and to work with her so your child will have a very successful year."
In her address to the board, Sebrey said "Our children call what has occurred over the last several weeks bullying. I believe we have a zero tolerance for bullying — particularly from administration."
"The district has been battered and bruised — and our children are suffering the consequences," said Sebrey.
"It comes down to this, we would love to have Holly back. We are waiting for someone to wake up and make it right," said Sebrey. "If that doesn't happen, we need to make sure this does not happen to another educator."
Merrow said Sept. 17 that she has been offered and accepted a teaching position from another area school district.
Requests for comment from Cormier, Jackson, Wotton and Paul Forest, president of Medomak Valley Education Association, received a unanimous no comment due to it being a personnel issue.
Teachers still without contract
RSU 40 teachers are still operating without a contract.
Contract negotiations have been ongoing since December 2011 and expired Oct. 31, 2012.
On April 4, the teachers initiated a "work to rule" meaning they will not go beyond the scope of their contracts.
The students held a sit-in in support of their teachers April 12.
The teachers did not march in graduation processions June 5.
"Negotiations continue, but there is no progress to report yet," Forest said in an email Sept. 16.
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
594-4401 ext. 125
Beth rejoined Courier Publications' news staff in February 2013. She previously worked at The Courier-Gazette from 1981 to 1990.
Her coverage area includes Warren, Union, Friendship, Waldoboro, Washington, and Thomaston and RSU40.
Beth has a passion for photography, and a degree from the University of Maine at Augusta, in affiliation with the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport.
Aside from photography, Beth enjoys running and walks along the waterfront, as well as other outdoor activities. She has a daughter, Claire, who is 13.
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