Rockland area superintendent said sick time accountability contributes to teacher discontent

Posted Oct. 21, 2013, at 5:26 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 21, 2013, at 3:48 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said the low staff morale voiced by teachers in a survey publicized last week is due to several factors, including his toughened stance on faculty absenteeism.

“The teachers are also quite upset that I sent a memo to staff at the start of this school year requesting that they provide us a doctor’s note if they are out sick for three or more (consecutive) days,” Collins said in a written statement issued Sunday. “The board and I believe that there is a significant pattern of unusually high sick leave use in this school district. The school board believes that this is not a good thing and that it sends a very mixed message to students when we are trying to convince them of the importance of attending school on a regular basis.”

The teacher association survey found that 118 teachers of 135 responding did not have confidence in the superintendent’s ability to move RSU 13 forward. Results also showed 112 teachers said they did not believe they could voice their concerns to the central office administration without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

The superintendent pointed out that the district is negotiating with teachers and has withheld step pay increases this year pending a contract settlement.

“School labor negotiations throughout Maine and the country have become strained in recent years with the lack of sufficient state and federal funding to do the job as well as it needs to be done. Part of that tension for teachers is obviously pay and benefits,” Collins said.

The superintendent also responded to concerns voiced by administrators.

“In the one year that I’ve been here several critical issues have been addressed, some that were long neglected and ignored. We developed and adopted job descriptions in cases where there were none. We revamped the special education programs to comply with the state DOE’s finding (from before my tenure) that we were not compliant with the law. I insisted that teacher evaluations be completed and provided to teachers as required by law and policy. In some cases our principals had not been doing them at all,” he said.

Administrators sent a letter to the board on Oct. 7 saying they are primarily focused on the areas of “communication, shared leadership and decision making, differentiation between schools, communities and building leaders, school board micro-management, a lack of cohesion in the administrative team, transparency and accountability (the budget process being a prime example), staff morale and support — maintaining a positive school district culture and climate, and good-faith interpretations of existing negotiated agreements,” the letter states.

The administrators asked for a meeting with the board to go over the concerns.

“Finally, I worked with the school administrators to assure equity throughout the district for individual planning time and lunch periods. Some schools had 50-minute lunch periods, some had 25, while some had 50-minutes planning and others very little. We agreed to a uniform 25-minute lunch period and 200 minutes of planning per week. Some folks were not very happy with this but it was a consensus agreement of all of the administrators,” Collins said.

“I have certainly challenged the status quo here in RSU 13 and have done what my employer, the school board, has asked me to do. Their mission, as is mine, includes assuring successful outcomes for our students, the children entrusted to our care by their parents in our six towns,” he said.

Collins noted he is the fifth superintendent on the former SAD 5 side of RSU 13 in 10 years.

“That speaks volumes about how difficult it is to effect meaningful and positive changes for students here. It’s not that we’re bad persons with Attila the Hun management styles. It’s that the job of the board and the superintendent almost guarantees that for each decision made, some constituency will be unhappy and feel poorly treated,” he said.

He said the constituency that goes under-represented is the students and their parents, who do not have a union.

“I wish the conversation, in school, among the unions and in your newspapers, would focus on our children and not so often just on the adults. That’s why we’re all here and that is exactly where we need to be expending our energies and talents,” he concluded in his written statement.

The RSU 13 board met Thursday night after Vice Chairman Loren Andrews called the meeting. He and Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour sparred over the reason for the meeting, with Kilgour overruling his attempt to discuss a personnel matter and instead calling the meeting to get advice from its lawyer.

On Monday, Association President Charles Gallagher said that last week’s survey was conducted at the request of a member of the RSU 13 board to make the current administration aware of serious concerns that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Seacoast Education Association have concerning the direction in which the RSU seems to be heading.

He said that the concerns also are held by educational technicians, bus drivers, custodians, administrative assistants and food-service personnel.

“It is not about money nor is it about recently unilaterally enacted policies, despite the assertions of some RSU 13 board members and the superintendent. It is simply a vehicle to provide information to members of the RSU 13 school board. Some members will welcome it and some won’t, but it is up to each board member to use the information as they see fit,” Gallagher stated.

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