WALDOBORO, Maine — Approximately 90 Medomak Valley High School students joined an early-morning “sit-in” in the school’s cafeteria Friday in support of Regional School Unit 40 teachers who have worked since August 2012 without a new contract.
According to high school junior Will Blodgett, 30 students who refused to return to class were suspended for the remainder of the day by Principal Harold Wilson. The suspension extended by one day the students’ April vacation.
Blodgett said he and some 90 students initially gathered in the cafeteria about 7:30 a.m. Friday, joined by a few teachers, Wilson, police officers and Waldoboro Police Chief William Labombarde.
Then, “The principal tried to tell us to go to a school board meeting [to express our opinions], but students went to last night’s meeting and were told they would receive an email back,” he said. “It was like an insult. It was like, ‘We’re not going to address you right now, we’re not going to listen to students.’”
On Thursday, Blodgett said students had been told they faced a five-day suspension if they participated in any type of action such as a sit-in. On Friday, he said about 60 students left the cafeteria and headed to class after Principal Harold Wilson gave them three minutes to leave or face unnamed “consequences.”
Blodgett said those that remained were suspended for the remainder of the day.
“We’re not trying to be disrespectful or cause a problem,” Blodgett said. “We’re trying to bring light to an issue that obviously needs to be discussed. It’s important that they get a contract because if they don’t know they have a job next year or have health insurance, for example … this just shows the students are involved.”
“It’s been a tough negotiation,” Danny Jackson, chairman of the SAD 40 board, said Saturday.
After a year and a half with no contract, the district filed with the Maine Labor Relations Board for fact-finding. Teams from both parties will form panels, hold a hearing, and eventually issue a report.
Paul Forest, president of the Medomak Valley Education Association, told the Bangor Daily News on April 3 that association members would begin working to rule, meaning they would not do anything beyond what is in the contract.
Jackson confirmed that teachers are now “working to what their contract says.”
Blodgett said that action has “kind of put a large hit on morale” because teachers aren’t present after school “and the teachers are upset about the negotiations.”
“We as students understand, and myself and other students decided we’d plan this,” he said.
Jackson said he has not spoken to Superintendent Susan Pratt or Wilson, but did hear about the sit-in.
“If they want to voice their support for teachers, that’s fine, but if the students are asked to go back to class and didn’t, I don’t agree with them disobeying authorities,” Jackson said.
Jackson said Blodgett is mistaken if he thinks the students’ concerns were not taken seriously at Thursday’s school board meeting. He said he tried to explain that the public comment portion of the meeting is not “a public forum or question-and-answer” session, and that he quoted school policy that questions would be responded to by email.
“The students who spoke were passionate and very well-spoken,” he added. “They didn’t down the school board, didn’t down anybody.”
Blodgett father, Seth Blodgett, said he is a public employee, and while he supports the teachers, “As public employees, it’s tough times, as it is in the private sector, with cuts in salaries and benefits … I do support the teachers, but there are different ways of dealing with it.”
He said he worries about the effect the teachers’ actions have on student education.
“Is there a negative effect?” he said. “That’s my concern. Sure the teachers are responsible teachers — I think SAD 40 has some very good teachers — my concern as a parent is, is this affecting the kids, this work to rule? [But] quite honestly, I’m not aware that at this point there has been a negative effect.”
Gavin Felch, a sophomore from Union, said he did return to class when asked by Wilson on Friday, but not before speaking in favor of giving teachers a raise to bring their salaries near those of other schools in the area.
“We can pay for other programs, but not for our teachers, who are literally the lifeblood of our school?” Felch said Saturday. “Without the faculty that we have, our school wouldn’t even compare to Oceanside or Camden or Lincoln Academy.”
“I’m very proud of my son for advocating for [teachers] because he’s reaped a lot of benefits from them,” Kathy Felch said Saturday.
Neither Pratt nor Wilson returned phone calls on Friday. Paul Forest, president of the Medomak Valley Education Association, did not return an email on Saturday.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Will Blodgett as Will Ambrose.