June 22, 2018
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Rockland-area teachers call for superintendent’s removal

Stephen Betts | BDN
Stephen Betts | BDN
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 earlier this year.
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — The war of words between teachers and administrators in the Rockland area school system against the superintendent is escalating.

Teachers submitted a letter to the school board and Superintendent Lew Collins, dated Nov. 19, saying they had a “complete lack of confidence in the ability of the superintendent to lead us forward in a positive manner that is beneficial to the students of RSU 13.”

At the conclusion of the letter, the Seacoast Education Association said it was “time for a change.”

The letter was signed by more than 150 teachers, which represents two-thirds of the association’s membership.

On Nov. 25, 12 administrators within RSU 13 sent another letter to the board expressing support for business manager Scott Vaitones, who was placed on paid leave Nov. 14 by Collins. Vaitones has said that Collins informed him that he plans to seek a termination hearing, claiming he was not pleased with the business manager’s performance.

That followed a meeting between the board and auditor which revealed a potential deficit in the school lunch program of $500,000 by the end of the school year.

No termination hearing has been scheduled for Vaitones.

Administrators claimed in a Nov. 5 letter that the superintendent was using Vaitones as a scapegoat. Their Nov. 25 letter further supported Vaitones.

“As colleagues and associates we wish to attest to our highest regard for Scott Vaitones and his obvious professional expertise. It has often been noted that Scott does not have an unethical bone in his body — although we also acknowledge that he may have a few contentious ones. We suggest that those more contentious impulses only come to the fore when ethical standards or best practices are challenged,” the administrators’ letter stated.

Vaitones said his problems began earlier in the fall when he sent a letter to the board expressing concerns about Collins hiring $500,000 in special education staff that were not budgeted. The district’s auditor told the board Nov. 7 he reviewed special education spending this year and did not foresee overspending.

Signing the Nov. 25 letter were Oceanside High School East Principal Tom Forti, Oceanside High School West Principal Larry Schooley, Oceanside East Assistant Principal William Gifford, Director of School Improvement Neal Guyer, Oceanside West Assistant Principal Edward Hastings, Director of Maintenance Scott Hall, Rockland District Middle School Principal Kathy Hollicker, Director of Transportation Todd Johnson, Gilford Butler and St. George schools Principal Mary Alice McLean, Director of Adult and Community Education Shannon Parker, and Owls Head Central and Thomaston Grammar schools Principal Susan Stillwell.

Administrators said they expect a positive outcome for Vaitones and for him to return to his duties as soon as possible.

In their letter to the board, teachers also cited Collins’ policy that he be provided with a written doctor’s note if they use three or more consecutive sick days.

The doctor’s note requirement painted all employees with the same brush even though Collins presented no evidence that the current system is abused, the association stated, pointing out that teachers used less than half their available sick days in 2012-2013.

The superintendent recently rescinded the requirement, the association stated, on the advice of the district’s lawyer after the teachers argued it constituted a change in working conditions without consultation of the teachers as the contract requires.

“We believe that he has, through his decisions, actions, and leadership style, created a hostile work environment which has, and will continue to have, a negative impact on the learning process,” the association’s letter states.

The superintendent increased the length of the student day, and thus the teachers’ workday, without negotiation. The superintendent also eliminated classroom teaching jobs that had been approved by voters while simultaneously creating and filling new consulting and administrative positions in RSU 13.

Teachers also cited the budget freeze Collins imposed, which cut off professional development for staff, field trips for students and supplies for classroom courses.

“The superintendent has created a hostile work environment in which many employees feel constrained from voicing concerns because of the intimidation and fear of reprisal,” the association stated. They reported that Collins sent an email to all staff telling them not to engage in disagreements with the administration through the media.

Collins responded Sunday to the latest letters.

“We have many excellent teachers, support staff and administrators in RSU 13 working hard each day to bring success to our students. Of course, I wish I had everyone’s support as we confront the challenges facing this district. The School Board hired me by unanimous vote last year and has approved the initiatives that I’ve tried to move forward with. The Board knew that we had several long-standing issues that needed to be dealt with. I told them I wouldn’t shy away from the tough stuff. The members want to see success for our students and to achieve a balance between the needs of the district and the ability of its taxpayers to cover the costs. This is an extraordinary challenge for them and for me, particularly as state and federal support for schools decreases each year,” Collins stated.

“Some of our Board members, administrators and teachers do not like the direction we’re headed in now and my direct style of leadership as I’ve tried to move us in a new direction. That’s fair and I get it. Tackling issues such as school consolidations, sick leave use, negotiating contracts for almost all staff, examining low math scores and solving budget problems in one short year is a guarantee for divisiveness. But move forward we must, and adhering to a status quo approach is not an option anymore. Unfortunately, in just a few months, our challenges will grow significantly as we try to build a budget without the use of reserve funds. No matter who is serving in the Superintendent’s chair, it will be painful and difficult to gather majority support for any measure. But the district will do it because we have to and because the communities expect us to do our best. On that we all agree,” he concluded.

The school board is scheduled to meet Monday with facilitator Robert Hasson, deputy executive director for the Maine School Management Association.

The board met last week to discuss a personnel matter which apparently involved a board member since Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour said the personnel to be discussed were all in the room and the only people in the room were board members.

The board will meet Tuesday to discuss the evaluation of Collins and possibly again on Thursday.

Collins’ contract expires June 30, 2014.

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