LINCOLN, Maine — Four new write-in candidates to November’s RSU 67 school board election have declared their candidacy within the last two weeks because they fear that the school system is being mismanaged.
Town Councilor Samuel Clay and parents Tonya E. McLaughlin, Dolores “Dolly” K. Phillips and Melissa S. Troulis are not necessarily allies. They recognize that as write-ins, with their names not being on the printed ballot, they have little chance of being elected.
But during a candidates meet-and-greet held at Northern Penobscot Tech on Monday, they said they became candidates to correct a school board that appears to support an abrupt, top-down management style that leaves some school staff fearing intimidation and others questioning why many changes are occurring.
They said they know of at least two instances in which longtime school employees were escorted from school buildings after meetings with Superintendent Denise Hamlin; of questions about school management raised during school board meetings deflected by school board members who cited personnel and confidentiality issues; and of private meetings Hamlin has called with school workers to question them sharply for saying things she found disagreeable.
“If we don’t stop what’s going on, we will have all brand-new teachers and all new administrators,” Troulis said. “Everybody’s scared, and people on the school board are not being proactive with the superintendent. They need to start questioning everything.”
Hamlin did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on Tuesday.
Board Chairwoman Jackie Thurlow defended Hamlin’s performance and said the school board has confidence in the superintendent.
“With the new superintendent we have had some changes in programming and positions and other things,” Thurlow said. “There are changes in the way the school system is being operated because of budget cuts and mandates. I guess you would say in a sense that we are revamping and changing our procedures.”
“I guess the change is upsetting some people, and that happens,” Thurlow added. “I think she is doing a good job. We have asked her to help our schools have the best programming they can for the kids [within] the goals and parameters we want.”
With the write-ins, Lincoln has a full slate of choices for the two one-year and three three-year seats open in the Nov. 8 election at RSU 67, which serves Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag.
Incumbents Darla Lichtenberg, Debra Tardy, Jeffery Schick and balloted challengers Debra J. McIntyre and James R. Sutherland vie with McLaughlin, Phillips and Troulis for the three-year seats. Clay challenges incumbent David Shannon, the chief executive officer of Penobscot Valley Hospital, for the open two-year seat.
After opting not to seek re-election to the Town Council, where he has served for nine years, Clay said he decided to run for the school board because he wants its budget rendered more transparent. He also believes that school personnel are leery of challenging the changes occurring in the system.
McLaughlin said she wants the school board to listen more to residents. A meeting on Oct. 19, in which board members gaveled down several questions from the audience, showed McLaughlin that the board could do a better job of listening.
A substitute teacher at RSU 67, Phillips said she has twice been called out of schools into meetings privately in the superintendent’s Main Street office. She felt that the call-outs were unnecessary and intended to intimidate her. She said many of the changes she has seen in the school system initiated by Hamlin have been more disruptive than helpful.
“I am not quite sure that we are facing chaos, but I think we are headed there,” said Phillips, who would resign from teaching at RSU 67 if elected.
Many changes have occurred at RSU 67 because of vast decreases in federal and state aid, particularly with special education and programs for needy families, and increases in federal and state school requirements, Thurlow said.
The financial aid decreases helped cause a steep $1.2 million cut in the budget last year, Thurlow said.
Thurlow said the $1.2 million cut, and the idea that the school system already had too many ed techs, forced the layoff of 20 teaching assistants last school year — an unpopular but necessary move — though six were called back to replace others who left.
Hamlin also had to hire several teaching professionals to help meet increased special education federal guidelines, Thurlow said.
“We are doing everything we can within the constraints of the budget to meet the needs of the children. That is our No. 1 priority,” Thurlow said. “Those are the issues. She [Hamlin] knows what schools need to do to be operated efficiently, and as a board, we are very thoughtful and look into the facts before we make our decisions.”
McLaughlin said she felt that school board members bury matters that should be discussed. Thurlow said she has stopped residents from speaking at meetings but only because she felt the matters being raised demanded confidentiality under state law.
Thurlow said she feared that more local cuts would be necessary, stirring further unrest.
“People are unhappy with change and some of the changes that have been made,” Thurlow said, “but we have a wonderful district. We have very hard working teachers and people who go above and beyond in their jobs. I want that to continue, but I also want us to offer the very best education that we can.”