Lincoln superintendent accused of intimidating union members

Posted May 15, 2012, at 8:20 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2012, at 1:28 p.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — RSU 67 Superintendent Denise Hamlin denied accusations Tuesday of discriminating against some teachers union members, undermining grievance procedures and prohibiting some union functions as alleged in a complaint filed against her with state labor officials.

Maine Education Association general counsel Shawn Keenan filed the complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board on behalf of Ella P. Burr School second-grade teacher Jodi Bisson last month. He represents MEA members teaching in RSU 67, which serves Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag.

He accused Hamlin of wrongfully denying Bisson access to school property — including Bisson’s daughter’s soccer game – during a two-week investigation of Bisson that later resulted in a three-day unpaid suspension, the complaint states.

The complaint accuses Hamlin of recognizing Bisson’s union representative, teacher Holly Leighton, as only a “guest and only allowed to speak out of courtesy” during a disciplinary meeting; of transferring Bisson involuntarily to another assignment; of rejecting grievances because they weren’t on proper forms; and of “interrogating” other union members to discourage them from discussing Bisson’s disciplinary issue.

These actions undermine union activities as permitted by law and represent other violations of civil laws as well, Keenan said.

“This superintendent is obsessed with her notions of what confidentiality are and you can see in the complaint that most of what she was disciplining people for was talking about this trumped-up investigation that was being done,” Keenan said. “Even though the school cannot reveal anything about an employee investigation, the employee can, and the employee can talk to other employees about it.”

Hamlin denied the complaints. In a statement released late last week, she said she was confident that the accusations would prove to be “frivolous and thinly-veiled attacks on the superintendent and school board. We are confident that when the facts of the matter are presented they will be seen for what they are.”

“I feel that we have held everyone to the stipulations of the [teachers union] contract, as well as school board policy and whatever building procedures are in place, and that probably isn’t something that they [the complainants] are used to,” Hamlin said Tuesday.

It was unclear exactly how much Bisson’s union membership status played into the accusations. According to the “prohibitive practice” complaint, Bisson was not a union member when she was placed on administrative leave, but later became one.

The school system’s attorney, Peter C. Felmley of the law firm Drummond and Woodsum, did not return requests for comment, and Hamlin declined to release his written response to the union’s complaint filed with the labor board. Labor board officials did not return messages left Tuesday.

As part of her efforts to acquaint teachers with the contract, Hamlin said she became the first RSU 67 superintendent to publish the contract in her superintendent’s newsletter. About 30 percent of union members are active union participants, Hamlin estimated.

Hamlin characterized those upset with her work as a small minority within the system’s three schools and said that her goals and methods have board approval.

“I would say that we have a 98 percent participation rate of teachers who work really hard to create a positive learning atmosphere for students,” Hamlin said, “and then we have a population who needs help to do that.”

Hamlin, who became the school system’s superintendent in July 2010, was criticized in October by four write-in candidates for the RSU 67 board. The candidates said they were running 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. The candidates were not elected.

Hamlin responded in November by saying that the school system was overbudgeted and overstaffed and listed several accomplishments that she said would improve the school system.

The Maine Labor Relations Board likely will hear the complaint in July, Keenan said. The complaint urged the labor board to order Hamlin to stop the activities she is accused of and rescind disciplinary actions against employees who are part of the complaint.

Follow BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. on Twitter at @NickSam2BDN.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story misspelled the name of the attorney for the Maine Education Association. His name is Shawn Keenan, not Keegan.

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