School’s Race to the Top means exit for principal

Posted March 31, 2010, at 8:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:46 a.m.
Michael Eastman, principal of Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY BILL TROTTER
Michael Eastman, principal of Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY BILL TROTTER

SULLIVAN, Maine — The board of Regional School Unit 24 voted Tuesday to apply for a federal Race to the Top grant for Sumner Memorial High School, one result of which will be that Michael Eastman will not be Sumner’s principal next year.

The 12 municipalities that make up RSU 24 have weighted votes that represent the approximately 19,000 residents living in the RSU member towns. With all 14 board members voting on the issue Tuesday night, the result was that more than two-thirds of the weighted votes were in favor of applying for the grant, according to board Chairman Michael Pinkham.

The board voted on the issue Tuesday night after first meeting in public session and then in executive session at the high school. More than 100 people attended the meeting to ask questions and to address the RSU board before the board went into executive session to discuss Eastman’s status.

Pinkham stressed Wednesday that the board was not in favor of replacing Eastman as principal at Sumner, where he has served in that position since July 2004. But replacing Eastman as principal is a requirement of applying for the grant, for which Sumner is eligible because it recently was named by Maine Department of Education as one of the 10 “persistently lowest-achieving” schools in the state.

“This is not anything the board wanted to do,” Pinkham said of finding a new principal at Sumner. “The board has a great deal of respect for Michael.”

But the board’s primary mission is making sure the students at RSU 24 schools get the best education they can for the money available, Pinkham said, which could amount to millions of dollars in federal grant money to help boost student performance at Sumner.

“It’s a lot easier with dollars than it is without dollars,” Pinkham said.

Bill Webster, superintendent of RSU 24, said Wednesday that Sumner theoretically could get up to $2 million a year for three years to help boost academic instruction, but that a more likely number is around $300,000 a year. Still, that would add up to $900,000 total for the three-year period and would have a significant impact on the school’s academic programs, he said.

“We really need to be focusing on what’s best for the students,” Webster said. “To do what needs to happen [to boost academic performance] requires funding.”

It is “unfortunate,” the superintendent added, that Eastman’s status as principal has been tied to the availability of the grant.

An attempt Wednesday afternoon to contact Eastman by phone was unsuccessful.

Pinkham and Webster each said that Eastman will remain employed in some capacity by RSU 24 for at least the final year of his existing contract, and perhaps beyond that. What position Eastman will hold for the 2010-11 academic year has not been determined, they each said.

Webster said the RSU has until May 7 to submit its application for the grant, and plans to get feedback from the public about how the RSU should propose to use the funds. The topic likely will come up at RSU board meetings scheduled for April 6 and 13, he said, and other public meetings about the grant program are expected to be scheduled during the same month.

He said the times and locations of any such meetings will be posted on the RSU 24 Web site, http://www.rsu24.org.

Webster said topics that must be addressed at Sumner include teacher and leadership development, instruction and support strategies, instructional time and support for students, and school governance. He said the school will have flexibility in deciding how to address these issues.

How to best compensate teachers and administrators might be considered, he said. Another option might be to design instruction to reflect the long-term plans of students at the school without changing the state’s standards for academic comprehension, he said. For example, if a sizable percentage of students plan to pursue marine-related careers after high school instead of college, reading and science assignments can be tailored to include marine-related topics.

The superintendent said that if the school is awarded the money, it will be able to make adjustments over the three-year term of the grant on how to use the funds.

“We want something that has meaning for the Sumner community,” Webster said. “We’re going to tailor it to Sumner Memorial High School.”

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