LINCOLN, Maine — RSU 67 is an overbudgeted and overstaffed school unit that needed to make vast budget cuts to address a $1.7 million federal and state funding shortfall and is only now “getting closer” to becoming more efficient, Superintendent Denise Hamlin says.
In a long public letter responding to criticism of school management that arose during the recent election, Hamlin discusses the charge the board of directors gave her when she came into office just over a year ago and the pressures school leaders felt to improve the school system and handle the cuts.
“To be fiscally responsible to the RSU 67 taxpayer, the administration and Board worked together to reevaluate the district spending practices and operational needs starting with a base of zero. Many months of work revealed that our district was overspending and overstaffed,” Hamlin wrote. “To be responsive to the economic conditions, sustain all academic offerings and athletic programs for children, the decisions to cut administrative and support staff positions were painful but necessary.”
Former Town Councilor Samuel Clay and parents Tonya E. McLaughlin, Dolores “Dolly” K. Phillips and Melissa S. Troulis declared themselves write-in candidates in mid-October for the school board, which serves Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag, even though they knew that with their names absent from the printed ballot, they had little chance of being elected.
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.
Hamlin wrote in her letter that the board’s directives were clear from the start: to be “a transformative leader. By definition, that entails reorganization and change. The Board and superintendent established a thoughtful set of goals that include, among others, raising student performance, streamlining operational efficiencies to ensure accountability to our taxpayers, and improving professional staff retention through competitive compensation.”
On Sunday, Hamlin said that recent changes to the administration, including the recent hiring of a new curriculum coordinator, are part of that.
“We are getting closer to where we need to be,” Hamlin said. “We have a hardworking staff and the majority of the staff knew we needed change. They identified areas that they feel are weaknesses. In 15 months, how much work can you truly do to tip things to [a desired goal]?”
The four candidates, who lost their bids for election, have unlisted telephone numbers or did not return telephone messages on Saturday and Sunday.
Some of the criticism, Hamlin said, is classroom-centric and doesn’t address the big picture seen by the board and administration. Much of it arose from the layoffs of about a dozen education techs as the system worked to become more teacher-oriented, she said. Hamlin said she is also hiring teachers from out of town, which can rankle people.
“It is a difficult task when you have to take on everything that is done, not just want is going on in the classroom,” Hamlin said Sunday. “It is difficult when you have layoffs and your [new] teachers are from away.”
“The acrimony those layoffs created was surprising given the significant funding loss we suffered and the need to provide adequate resources to improve districtwide instructional practices for our children,” Hamlin wrote. “It is unfortunate that this very difficult situation is being used as an opportunity to attack our schools and the high quality work our teachers and support staff do consistently. I am convinced those cuts explains some of the concerns evidenced this fall” during the election.
Hamlin said that some of the new hires are taking on important tasks that will improve student performance. They and the tasks include:
• A new director of student services who, in the first year of a six-year audit, discovered many “compliance issues” within the district’s special education programs.
• A new curriculum director who will ensure that students’ studies evolve to meet changing state education standards.
• Several new programs for students, including the Alternative Education Program “Carleton Project” for high school students and the PAWS, or Providing Alternate Ways to Success, program for middle schoolers.
• A recent technology initiative that puts puts computers in the hands of every child in grades 5-12.