May 28, 2018
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Rockland-area school district turmoil rooted in its creation

Stephen Betts | BDN
Stephen Betts | BDN
RSU 13 Superintendent Lew Collins and Board Chairwoman Esther "Tess" Kilgour speak before the start of a Dec. 5 meeting.
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — The political turmoil that has engulfed the Rockland-area school district has been ongoing for the better part of two years and preceded the hiring of Superintendent Lew Collins, who will be stepping down Feb. 15.

The board has seen a revolving door of superintendents and board chairs since it formed four and a half years ago.

Regional School Unit 13 was created in the merger of School Administrative District 5, which served Rockland, Owls Head and South Thomaston, and SAD 50, which represented Thomaston, St. George and Cushing. The consolidation was approved by voters districtwide in November 2008, and it became effective on July 1, 2009.

Even as RSU 13 was in its infancy, there were divisions. The board was split on who it would have as its chair, electing Ruth Anne Hohfeld of South Thomaston over Jamie Doubleday of Thomaston. The board was divided over who to hire as its first superintendent with a choice between SAD 5’s Superintendent Judith Lucarelli and SAD 50’s veteran Superintendent Judy Harvey.

Within 72 hours of the inaugural meeting of the RSU 13 Board, Harvey informed the board she was withdrawing her candidacy, saying, “Over the past week, it has become painfully obvious that becoming the superintendent of RSU 13 would not be a good fit for me. Given that, I am withdrawing my candidacy.”

Lucarelli served as superintendent until December 2011, when she left to take a contract job with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Center.

Ruth Anne Hohfeld of South Thomaston served as chairwoman from the creation of the district until March 2011, when she was defeated in a re-election bid at South Thomaston’s town meeting. Jamie Doubleday of Thomaston, who succeeded her as chair, was defeated at the Thomaston polls in June 2011. Greg Hamlin of Thomaston then was elected chairman by his peers.

When Lucarelli left at the end of 2011, the board unanimously appointed Neal Guyer as interim superintendent. Guyer had served as an administrator in SAD 50 for many years before becoming director of school improvement for the consolidated districts.

The board formed a search committee and began its search for a superintendent.

Board Chair Esther “Tess” Kilgour of Rockland said the board agreed to appoint Guyer as interim superintendent with the caveat that he would not apply for the job. She said he applied nonetheless, six days after the deadline for applications. She said the board approved making an exception for Guyer, and she was bullied into voting for the exception.

“This situation divided the board to the extent that the internal candidate, [Guyer], was told by the chair at the time, [Hamlin], that he was going to be the new superintendent when in actuality, [Guyer] did not have the votes,” Kilgour said Monday.

Board Chairman Hamlin stepped down in early June 2012 after being elected to the Thomaston Board of Selectmen. Kilgour, who was vice chairwoman of the school board, became interim chair of the board for the remainder of the month. She said her first action was to inform Guyer that he did not have the support of the board for becoming superintendent.

Hamlin said Monday that he recalls the events differently than Kilgour. He said he does not recall Guyer promising not to be candidate for the job. He also said that after he left as chair, two other board members, whom he said he did not want to name, changed their support for Guyer.

While Guyer would not comment on his candidacy at that time, his colleagues made it known that the veteran administrator had unsuccessfully sought the position. Administrators from throughout the district sent a letter to the media in late June praising Guyer and announcing that he had withdrawn his candidacy.

“We have all seen how effective your collaborative and open approach to leadership can be. You have demonstrated the importance of teamwork from your first day as interim superintendent,” the letter from principals and other administrators stated.

Guyer said Monday he had not planned to apply for the job but was asked to by a couple board members.

In late June 2012, the board announced it was negotiating with an unnamed candidate. That candidate turned out to be Eric Ely, the superintendent of the Southbridge, Mass., school system. The negotiations ended, however, after the public learned the candidate was Ely and that he had had a controversial history working as a superintendent in New York.

Kilgour said the leak of that finalist’s name and the resulting publicity forced him to withdraw his application.

The board then held two more closed-door meetings on hiring a superintendent.

Sharp divisions within the board became public a few weeks later.

On July 5, 2012, the board voted 7-5 at its annual reorganizational meeting to elect Kilgour as chairwoman for the next 12 months.

Dr. Eric Schenk, South Thomaston’s sole representative on the school board, said at that July 5 meeting that the past few meetings of the board had become “dysfunctional.” Board member Sally Carleton of Owls Head agreed, saying they had been “less than desirable.”

On July 6, Schenk resigned, saying he did not feel he could get anything accomplished because of the divisiveness on the board.

Kilgour said Monday that in all the “brouhaha” over Guyer and Ely, the board had skipped interviewing Collins, then superintendent of Vinalhaven, for the RSU 13 post. The board then did interview him, and on July 17, voted unanimously to hire Collins.

Upon his hiring, Collins said he considered his main strength to be his ability to work with people in a system, including the staff, administrative team, board and community.

During the next year, the district struggled with continuing budget challenges and an effort to consolidate schools.

The next public sign of turmoil came more than a year later when teachers and then administrators sent letters to the school board with concerns about Collins’ management of the district. But the seeds of that discontent may have been started much earlier.

Former board member Brian Messing of Rockland contended last week that there have been an incredible number of private conversations coordinating the removal of the superintendent and manipulating the public to support that removal.

“Trust me, this has been happening since the moment the superintendent was selected to fill the position,” Messing said.

Vice Chairman Loren Andrews of Cushing acknowledged Monday he had confronted the superintendent in October in his office after the staff had written their letters of concern. Andrews said he went into the superintendent’s office to discuss the staff’s lack of confidence and interrupted a meeting Collins was having, but the superintendent declined to talk with him. The vice chairman said he knows what he did was a mistake and he has apologized for his improper behavior.

Nearly all the middle-level managers in the district said in a letter to the board in October that Collins’ management was irregular and confused. They said the relationship was unworkable and dysfunctional.

Collins responded by saying that their response was due to him trying to hold administrators accountable. He said he insisted that teacher evaluations be completed and provided to teachers as required by law and policy. In some cases, principals had not performed any evaluation, he maintained.

The financial condition of the district also became part of the heated division on the board. Early audit findings led to a spending freeze in October 2013 that stopped field trips and non-mandatory purchases.

Administrators, including business manager Scott Vaitones, signed an Oct. 7 letter to the board expressing concern with the superintendent’s management of personnel and finances. The board held a closed-door meeting on Oct. 24 with the superintendent, Vaitones, the district’s auditor and the board’s attorney.

The business manager then was criticized during a Nov. 7 school board meeting for his handling of finances, particularly in reference to the school lunch program. The district’s auditor Ronald Smith said without changes, the deficit in the school lunch program could hit $500,000. Collins and Board Finance Committee Chairman Donald Robishaw Jr. both said at that meeting they were unaware of the extent of the problem with the lunch program.

Vaitones said, however, that the superintendent and finance committee chairman were aware, since there was a discussion of the financial shortfall in the lunch program during a November 2012 meeting.

Collins placed Vaitones on paid administrative leave on Nov. 14. The superintendent has recommended he be fired, and the board will hold a disciplinary hearing on the matter on Jan. 21.

Messing said errors found by the auditor in the 2012-13 budget year indicates lack of competence in the business office. He said the problems pre-dated the hiring of Collins.

Collins’ supporters on the board also contended last week that the 2012-13 budget was developed by Vaitones and Guyer.

With the resignation of Collins, the board must appoint an interim superintendent and begin the search for a long-term superintendent. The board is already divided on that process with board member Donald Robishaw Jr. saying last week that it would be immoral to consider Guyer as interim superintendent, because Guyer, he said, spearhead the movement to push Collins out of the district. Robishaw said Guyer and others have planned the ouster of Collins for a long time.

Guyer issued a statement Friday in response.

“I have not asked in any way to be considered for an interim position, I am not lobbying for the same, and I very much doubt that it would be a constructive transitional fit for the district at this time. Consequently, I wish all school board members to know that comments and criticisms offered regarding my ‘non-candidacy’ for an interim position were unnecessary, unfounded, unwelcomed and inappropriate. I have already had the experience of the board’s utilization of me as a proxy in its seemingly continuous internal struggles for power and control. I do not need, nor intend, to have this happen again. I intend to remain focused on my day-to-day work,” Guyer said.

Kilgour said the board is divided over the same scenario, including the same players from the administrative staff with the same agenda. She said the former SAD 50 administrators had, according to her grapevine, been given free reign over their schools.

“I will remind you that when [Georges Valley High School] closed it’s doors [in 2011], it was one of the 13 worst high schools in the state according to the [state Department of Education] site,” Kilgour said.

She said there is an apparent determination to run the consolidated district the “former 50 way” with “former 5 paying” for it, and [in my opinion], dirty, sleazy, underhanded politics, you have a recipe for the disaster we currently face,” Kilgour said.

Kilgour will be stepping down as board chair on March 5 but staying on as a board member. Her term expires in November 2015.

Andrews said Monday there were differences between the districts on how much each spent to maintain its buildings. He said SAD 50 tended to spend more on buildings and programs. Rockland, which was part of SAD 5, spent less on buildings and programs, but then assumed the largest portion of the budget for the consolidated districts, creating friction, Andrews said.

He said the biggest challenge going forward will be to deal with the high property tax burden that Rockland faces.

The board next meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday for a session with facilitator Robert Hasson to try to mediate differences. The board will then meet at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the interim superintendent search. Another meeting with Hasson and then on the search will be held next Monday.

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