Citing lack of support from full school board, Rockland-area superintendent resigns

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins, right, is shown in this April 1, 2013 file photo. On the left is Business Manager Scott Vaitones.
Stephen Betts | BDN
Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins, right, is shown in this April 1, 2013 file photo. On the left is Business Manager Scott Vaitones. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 31, 2013, at 8:43 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 31, 2013, at 3:43 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Embattled Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins announced Tuesday morning that he will resign effective Feb. 15.

The decision comes after three months of increasing criticism and controversy.

“It has been an honor to work with the RSU 13 School Board and staff this past year as we worked to move the district in a new direction. As the sixth superintendent in the past 11 years, it is clear that it is exceedingly difficult to maintain stability in the district’s top leadership post,” Collins said. “I have many ardent supporters on the board and among the staff and have sincerely appreciated their support during my brief tenure here.

“Sadly, our board has again become fractured and split down the middle on so many issues. In order for a superintendent to be successful and enact meaningful reforms, there must be full support of the board. Because I do not have that full support, I will be resigning my position effective Feb. 15, 2014,” he stated in a resignation letter emailed Tuesday morning to employees and the media.

He said RSU 13 will become a destination district only with a relentless focus on student success and a true willingness to support meaningful changes.

“There’s just no easy way to make these tough decisions. I wish everyone in the RSU 13 community well and believe that you already have the most important ingredient for future success — wonderful children who all want to be successful students,” Collins concluded.

Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour said that Collins will work through Feb. 15. She said the board will next have to appoint an interim superintendent.

Collins was hired unanimously by the board in July 2012. He had been superintendent for the Vinalhaven school system at the time of that hiring.

The superintendent has been under fire from teachers and administrators since October. In November, the teachers association said it had no confidence in the superintendent and that a change was needed. The superintendent has countered that the criticism results from his efforts to hold teachers and administrators accountable.

In addition, the superintendent placed Business Manager Scott Vaitones on paid leave on Nov. 14. Vaitones has said that the action was in retaliation for him pointing out to the board that the superintendent had hired special education staff that was not budgeted. The district’s auditor told the board in November that there were no overruns in special education, but the school lunch program was running a significant deficit.

Vaitones said Monday that a disciplinary hearing before the school board — to act on the superintendent’s recommendation that Vaitones be fired — is scheduled for Jan. 21 and 22. Vaitones said he will fight the attempt to fire him.

Kilgour said Tuesday that the disciplinary hearing will go on.

The chairwoman also issued the following statement Tuesday on the superintendent’s resignation.

“The responsibility for the resignation of Lew Collins ultimately lay with the failure of the RSU 13 school board to support the superintendent in his quest to do exactly what the board directed him to do,” Kilgour said. “Accountability was one of the top qualities we had pursued in a superintendent back in June of 2012.”

She said the first year of Collins’ employment was spent overhauling the special education program, which she said was severely out of compliance and hemorrhaging money daily.

“Special education is a mandated, highly specialized programming with very strict guidelines and heavy penalties for noncompliance. Lew wasted no time in getting down to business and at the end of his first year had streamlined a dismal program, returning many students to our district. This not only improved the quality for special ed students in our district but provided our district with approximately $500,000 worth of savings,” Kilgour said.

Kilgour said that at the start of Collins’ second year of employment, the board directed him to start addressing some very tough, costly issues that were critical to improving student performance.

“As was expected, there was a great deal of pushback by many unionized employees. The odd thing about accountability is everyone thinks it is a great idea as long as it does not apply to them as individuals. Under this vigorous pushback effort, the board developed a chink in its armor. Quickly an avenue opened up for undermining the integrity of our board. This fissure ultimately divided the board.

“On one side of the chasm was the desire to have happy employees, on the other side was the desire to improve the student experience and outcome. It was during this period that the inability of our board to support its own directives became apparent to Superintendent Collins. A superintendent is only as effective as the board is supportive,” she said.

Kilgour said board unity is imperative but does not constitute simply “rubber-stamping” a superintendent’s decisions.

“It reflects the ability for a board to stand behind any decision or directive it has voted on as a unit regardless of the way you voted as an individual,” she said, offering her opinion that the RSU 13 board’s failure to remain united caused the district to lose “an energetic enthusiastic supporter of student achievement.”

Kilgour described the coming budget season as the most challenging that RSU 13 has faced to date, citing the need to consolidate middle schools.

“We are changing to a standard-based grading system which is mandated to be done by 2016. We need to address not only student but employee absenteeism. We are in the middle of negotiating two major contracts and will enter into negotiation with the final group in January 2014. We have several exacting and exhausting personnel issues on our plate. We also have the impending withdrawal of St George. Now in the middle of all of these, any one of which would tax the most experienced of school boards, RSU 13 must find an interim superintendent with an extremely impressive set of skills.”

The school board also will have to search for its third superintendent in four years, and “the board needs to make a concerted effort to come back together as a functional unit,” she said.

“In his next endeavor, may Lew Collins find the board that he and every superintendent deserves and must have in order to institute necessary change. RSU 13’s loss will be some other district’s gain,” Kilgour concluded.

Vice Chairman Loren Andrews also issued a statement Tuesday.

“I think Lew did what was best for him, for our district, and I admire him for that,” Andrews said.

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