Rockland-area school board engages in heated debate; superintendent walks out

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins, left, and Board Chairwoman Esther &quotTess" Kilgour listen to debate on the proposed merger of the district's two middle schools in this April 2013 file photo.
Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins, left, and Board Chairwoman Esther "Tess" Kilgour listen to debate on the proposed merger of the district's two middle schools in this April 2013 file photo. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 08, 2013, at 11:31 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 08, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The Regional School Unit 13 Board waged a verbal civil war Thursday night that culminated in the superintendent walking out of the meeting and the vice chairman saying he felt the chairwoman was bullying the board.

“We’re all ruining the reputation of the district,” Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour of Rockland said during the meeting.

Board Vice Chairman Loren Andrews said he felt the board was being bullied by Kilgour.

The verbal exchanges escalated when Andrews proposed that the board set a date in early December to begin the evaluation of Superintendent Lew Collins. He said his attempt to begin that process last month was stopped by the chairwoman.

Collins was hired by the board in July 2012. His contract runs through June 2014.

“We need to get this done. It’s slowing us down as a district,” Andrews said. “We have huge issues and need to get beyond this.”

The district is facing a financial crunch and a loss of students. It is looking at consolidating schools as one means to address both problems.

Kilgour said, however, that she did not want to set a date for the evaluation. She said the board needs to have a facilitator work with them as they undertake the evaluation process.

Board member Sherman Hoyt of St. George said he did not feel comfortable with the evaluation without a facilitator.

Andrews said he did not object to using a facilitator but wanted a set a date because he did not trust that it would be done in a timely manner without a vote of the board.

Board member Sally Carleton of Owls Head asked if other school administrators were going to be involved in the process of evaluating the superintendent. Kilgour cut her off and said that was a discussion for a closed-door session.

In an Oct. 7 letter sent to the superintendent and school board officers, 10 middle-level school administrators stated their concerns about low staff morale and indicated that they had been approached by a number of school board members asking for feedback on the superintendent’s performance and ability to lead the district.

“Our concerns 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 stated.

On Thursday night, Kilgour said that the process was for each board member to fill out an evaluation form about the superintendent’s performance and to submit the completed form to her so she can generate a summary before the board meets with the superintendent. Andrews said he would like to see the individual forms from the board members, saying there was a trust issue with the chairwoman.

Board member Carol Bachofner of Rockland said she didn’t want to sign her evaluation because she was concerned about retribution from the board chairwoman. The chairwoman assigns members to various board subcommittees.

Kilgour took Andrews off two committees he had served on — curriculum and negotiations — after she was re-elected chairwoman in July 2013.

More than three hours after Thursday’s meeting started, and in the midst of the heated debate about his evaluation, the superintendent said it was getting late and he was leaving. As he was leaving at 9:49 p.m., he explained to the board that it could not continue meeting without a superintendent present.

Kilgour then said the meeting needed to end because the superintendent had left. Andrews persisted, saying he made a motion to set a date and it had to be acted on before the meeting adjourned.

Kilgour said the evaluation could be done at the beginning of 2014 and said the meeting was going to be adjourned.

“Speak up people,” Andrews said in urging the board to vote on his request.

Carleton said the bickering was trickling down through the staff and to the students.

Kilgour said the board was the problem.

“We could sell these meetings as a reality show. We could make money for the district,” she said, noting that the meetings are aired live and rebroadcast on a local public access channel.

In the end, the board voted to begin the evaluation process during the first two weeks of December, and the specific date would be based on when a facilitator would be available. The meeting ended 20 minutes after Collins left.

The division on the board began before the hiring of Collins 16 months ago. The week before the new superintendent was hired, Kilgour was elected chairwoman of the board 7-5 over Andrews, and board member Dr. Eric Schenk of South Thomaston resigned, citing his disillusionment with the divisiveness on the school board during the superintendent search.

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