Squabbling school leaders need class in communication
In the past several weeks, it has become clear there are numerous disagreements among the teachers, administrators, school board members and the superintendent in Regional School Unit 13.
We have heard several comments from citizens who were disgusted by the squabbling that broke out at the end of the Nov. 7 school board meeting, which led to Superintendent Lew Collins walking out and the board's chairwoman being accused of bullying other board members.
Collins seems to have lost support following his decision to place Business Manager Scott Vaitones on administrative leave with the intention of eventually firing him. Administrators have gone out on a limb writing a public letter defending the business manager and Vaitones has spoken publicly defending himself.
In addition, about 150 teachers and staff members have signed a letter expressing "no confidence" in Collins. This outlines a number of criticisms of Collins.
To be fair to Collins, the board is in the process of negotiating contracts with teachers and staff. That process has been known to prompt hyperbole among the staff members as they seek the best possible contract.
Some of Collins' actions on their list of complaints do not seem so unreasonable. For example, the superintendent sought to require a doctor's note excusing an absence of three days or more from work. That kind of requirement is not uncommon in the private sector. The superintendent lengthened the school day. If that provides better instruction for our children, we are all for it.
However, the staff lodged other complaints that get at the heart of problems in the district. The most significant problem is that two months into this school year, we are in a budget freeze that will result in the inability of teachers to obtain supplies, loss of professional development and loss of field trips for students. Teachers and staff attribute this to Collins. Collins apparently blames Vaitones.
The press and the public are still waiting for some thoughtful communication from school leaders. Is the problem in food service as the auditor and superintendent contend, or in special education as others suggest? Why, instead of getting into the blame game, didn't Collins, Vaitones and the auditor all gather before the board in open public session and discuss the matter frankly? This is public money that we are talking about. Wouldn't it be better to work together to fix the problem?
The teachers and staff say there is a "definite lack of communication between the superintendent and employees..." They also point out the lack of transparency.
Communication problems go beyond the administration and teachers. The board has been holding too many closed-door meetings. An executive session planned for Dec. 2 was shut down after Bangor Daily News reporter Stephen Betts objected to it. The board was planning to go behind closed doors to discuss board conduct with a facilitator saying it was a personnel matter. All of this without proper notification and when board members are not considered personnel under the law.
Then Chairwoman Tess Kilgour said there were no repercussions for ignoring Maine's Freedom of Access Law. This statement is appalling. While the law certainly could use more teeth, breaking it opens the district to the possibility of a lawsuit, and worse, creates distrust in the community.
The message being received by the members of the public watching these meetings and reading press reports is that the district's leadership is fractured.
When people work together in a community, they can accomplish great things. And RSU 13, its teachers, staff, administrators and board members form a community.
Openness, a willingness to admit problems and failings, transparency and clear communication will help this district succeed in meeting the challenges it faces. Communication will lead to a greater sense of unity in the goal of serving area children.