Bangor keeps closed-door school policy

Posted Jan. 27, 2009, at 9:22 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Mary Budd didn’t intend to cause any problems recently when she inquired about sitting in on her son’s classroom.

As an active parent and a member of the Bangor School Committee, Budd figured she’d be allowed to observe without objection.

Turns out, she was wrong.

“It struck me as interesting,” Budd said of her denial. “I just assumed that it would be OK to go in and observe since it’s a public school.”

Seeking a better understanding of why she wasn’t allowed in, Budd brought it up at the next school committee meeting. Her experience led to a lengthy discussion among fellow committee members and prompted Superintendent Betsy Webb to research why Bangor schools do not allow unfettered access.

“It’s a policy that’s been in place for a while,” Webb said. “But, as a new superintendent, it was good for me to reflect on this policy and look at it from angles to see if it still makes sense.”

Webb spoke to Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia about the safety concerns of allowing parents open access. She consulted with an attorney about the legal ramifications. She researched other school departments across the state and country.

The result was a lengthy memo, prepared by Webb and distributed to all school committee members, that outlined exactly why she thinks the policy should stand.

“For the reasons of security and safety of students and staff, confidentiality, preservation of academic time, nondiscrimination, labor relations and the belief that children’s education is the business of the school system and the parents of the individual child, we must not create drop-in access to Bangor schools,” Webb wrote in her conclusions.

Budd called the report persuasive.

“But, it’s disappointing because I disagree,” she said. “I guess I see things a little differently.”

Budd, who was elected to the Bangor School Committee in November 2007, said her experience working with charter schools in other states formed her opinion that open access is beneficial. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that have freedom to alter rules and regulations as long as they meet standards outlined in their charter.

“Why wouldn’t you welcome parents?” she asked. “You don’t necessarily want parents evaluating, but parents have a right to see teachers in action.”

According to Webb, however, and confirmed by attorney George Isaacson of Lewiston, no inherent right exists.

“The Maine Freedom of Access Law, which guarantees access by the public to ‘public proceedings,’ clearly does not apply to public school classes or other functions related to the education of students,” Isaacson wrote in a memo to Webb.

Isaacson said he didn’t think schools needed to be sealed fortresses but added that other measures exist in which parents can involve themselves in their child’s education.

Webb said every school is more than willing to accommodate parents through after-school appointments.

“If we were to create an open campus, it would present some real logistical problems because of how big our school system is,” the superintendent said.

Other school superintendents in the area agreed with Webb that an open-door policy would be problematic.

“We don’t have an official policy, but we certainly discourage it,” said Daniel Lee, superintendent of the Brewer School Department. “We go to great lengths to screen who comes in and out of our schools, even the volunteers.”

“If parents have questions or concerns about what’s happening in the school, of course we work with them however we can,” said Rick Lyons, superintendent for SAD 22 and the towns of Hermon, Newburgh and Winterport. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been challenged about this issues in my 19 years as an administrator.”

While committee member Budd was the catalyst for examining the policy, other members joined the discussion at the recent school board meeting.

Budd said it became evident, though, that she probably would not have support if she made a motion to change the policy.

She did not regret bringing the matter up, though.

“A lot of issues that we deal with are complex and often have more than one answer,” Budd said. “They are worthy of our time and discussion.”

A complete copy of the access report from the Superintendent is available on the Bangor School Department Web site: www.bangorschools.net

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