MILFORD, Maine — The abrupt dismissal of a respected educator credited with reinvigorating local education, coupled with a series of school committee actions some have characterized as questionable, have prompted the formation of a watchdog group.
The group recently has started monitoring school committee meetings and during the most recent one, held on Feb, 9, asked a series of pointed questions, only one of which members felt was answered to their satisfaction.
The watchdogs are urging residents to attend school committee meetings, including the one set for 6 tonight at the Dr. Lewis S. Libby School.
During a recent gathering, five core members of the informal group of nearly 20 residents and school staff members discussed some of the issues that brought them together and urged others in town to start paying closer attention to some of the decisions made by the Milford School Committee.
“We just want a school board that is there for the better interest of the school and the kids,” Joseph Brown, one of the group’s spokesmen and the father of six children — five of them school-age — said in a recent interview.
Ann Goodwin, a former school committee chairwoman, agreed. “We have tried to maintain respect.”
“I think what prompted the creation of the group was the termination of Dr. John Davis,” Brown said in a recent interview.
Davis, who came to Milford from the Baring Strait School District in Alaska, was dismissed from his superintendent’s post effective Dec. 31 after an executive session evaluation during a Dec. 9 school committee meeting.
Voting to dismiss Davis were Chairman Michael Bond, Vice Chairman Toni Meservey and member Gary Drinkwater. The two members who voted in opposition were Scott Hayden and Greg Hobson.
“Usually, the superintendent is allowed to complete the school year,” Goodwin said.
When reached Wednesday, Davis’ interim successor, Gene MacDonald, said he was not permitted to discuss the circumstances that led to Davis’ dismissal, both because of confidentiality laws pertaining to personnel matters and because that and other issues raised predate his tenure.
Steve Kingsbury, a veteran teacher of 34 years — 24 of them in Milford, said Davis is nationally known for his involvement with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, or RISC, an educational movement that aims to bring a standards-based learning model into schools.
“He brought the concept to our school,” Kingsbury said, adding that RISC re-energized the entire school community. “It brought about a change in the school culture,” he said, adding that Milford is in the first year of a five-year implementation plan.
Kingsbury said the RISC model already is paying off despite flat school funding for the past six years. He pointed to recent assessment scores that show Milford’s students in grades three to eight are outperforming their peers statewide in every area except seventh- and eighth-grade math.
Asked if speaking out on school committee issues could hurt him professionally, Kingsbury said he was “approaching this entirely as a taxpayer. I pay taxes in Milford just like everyone else. This is important to me. I’ve had kids who went through the school system, and I felt they’ve received a good education and I want Milford to continue receiving a good education.”
Also questioned by residents was what they characterized as an unusually timed Dec. 28 meeting during which MacDonald was hired. That meeting took place not on a weeknight, as usual, but at 1 p.m. during the school’s winter break.
The watchdogs said they do not believe the committee provided adequate notice of the meeting.
Brown contends that the town, which uses an e-mail notification service, did not issue a meeting notice through it. The notice also wasn’t posted on the Dr. Lewis S. Libby School website, as were agendas for meetings before and after.
Brown and other watchdogs say they have learned that the town clerk did post the meeting notice at the post office.
While that may have met the letter of the law, the watchdog group questioned whether it was ethical, given the importance of the decision facing the committee.
Because of the short notice, two of the board’s five members were unable to attend, Goodwin said. Also not present were Davis, who should have been there as a matter of policy, and other key school officials, the group said.
Though members of the group said they have no problem with MacDonald, whom several called a “straight shooter,” Brown questions if the decision made at the meeting “is really binding” given what the watchdogs say was a lack of sufficient notice and the absence of the superintendent or his designee.
At a Feb. 9 meeting, group members asked if it was true that the three-month salary buyout Davis was entitled to would cost $9,974.90 and if the cost of paying his successor through the end of the fiscal year was $11,700, which they concluded would result in a salary gap of $13,425. The School Department’s finance director told them that “sounded about right.”
Unanswered were the group’s questions about:
— What the board is doing to find a successor for MacDonald, who confirmed Wednesday his plans to retire when his certification expires in June.
— Why the Dec. 28 meeting wasn’t scheduled at a time when the entire board, as well as administrators, could attend.
— If the board is aware that any time three or more members convened to do business, that constituted a quorum and as such, needs to be posted. Kingsbury said this situation occurred three times during the early stages of recent contract negotiations with the teachers union despite a memo from Davis warning against it.
Two school committee members were appointed to the negotiating team. Kingsbury said Bond created a quorum by showing up to the sessions, despite objections by the teachers’ chief negotiator.
“We’re trying to be as positive as we can, and civil,” added Tracy Leclair, who along with her husband, Chris, has been monitoring the situation. “The questions that we’ve asked I think are fair. They’re valid.
“We’ve done a lot of research,” she said. “This isn’t about creating rumors or starting trouble. We’re looking for answers.”
Attempts to reach Bond for comment Tuesday afternoon and evening were unsuccessful. Meservey, who did return a telephone call, said school committee policy requires that inquiries from the media be referred to the superintendent.
MacDonald that the negative publicity the issues have generated weren’t good for the school, “which has a lot of good people and a lot of good things going on.”
As for the future of the RISC program, MacDonald said there are no plans to do away with it, given the time and energy that has been devoted to it so far.
Members of the group who raised questions during the school committee’s Feb. 9 meeting say it is not their objective to recall the three board members who voted to terminate Davis’ contract.
Instead, group members say they intend to address the problems through “the democratic process,” meaning in the voting booth in June and by supporting candidates they believe will support local educational efforts.
“Let everyone have a say,” Goodwin said.