Roughly two dozen students and parents packed the Regional School Unit 21 board meeting this week to address what they termed the “forced resignation” of Kennebunk High School theater director Michael Herman, but only a handful were able to speak due to the board policy limiting the public comment portion of the meeting to 15 minutes total.
The board voted to extend the public comment time at the Monday night meeting by an additional 15 minutes to allow for a few more to share their comments, but several students stood with speeches in hand, unable to read them.
Board Chair MaryBeth Luce said personnel issues could not be discussed in a public meeting, something the students and parents were also not aware of ahead of time, according to parent Laurie Roop.
Superintendent Katie Hawes said in a phone interview Thursday that she, Kennebunk High School Principal Sue Cressey and the board had heard from all of the students and parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting, either by phone or email and had responded to them.
Herman, who was hired in September to run the new theater at KHS, resigned in early February after creating two fake Facebook profiles, which he said were an attempt to gain access to two private Facebook groups, “KBK Moms” and “Not Quite KBK Moms,” where he says members were criticizing his program. With his resignation, Herman stepped away from the winter production of “As You Like It” at KHS, his wife, Rachael Yoder, taking on leadership of the production. The final performances are running this weekend.
Hawes said she and Cressey sat down with the cast of “As You Like It” before February vacation for over an hour.
“We did hear from them, and we most certainly did respond,” Hawes said. “This issue became all consuming. Some kids weren’t coming to school. There were arguments, and it was distracting from their learning, it was very disruptive.”
The theater parents and students in attendance Monday joined Roop at the podium to voice their support for Herman. They also criticized the administration for its handling of the situation.
Roop said she was very uncomfortable with a small group of parents who were not involved with the theater program affecting the educational experience of RSU students.
“They’re not educators or administrators. I don’t want any parents in this RSU forcing decisions that affect my children,” Laurie Roop said.
Senior Evie Roop, who has participated in theater for four years, told the board how the community has let her down.
“As children we are taught to not say anything unless you have something nice to say, and that social media can give you the power to say things to people that you would not say to their face,” Evie Roop said. “However the adults who taught us these things cannot follow their own convictions. In Kennebunk, social media has become a place where it’s OK to talk behind people’s backs and if you’re misinformed it’s also okay to voice your opinions, especially loudly. There is certainly irony at work when teens say parents are acting immaturely.”
Yoder also addressed the board Monday night. She spoke of her and her husband’s “combined hope for the future of the arts here in Kennebunk,” paralleling the message from the current show “As You Like It” of welcoming all despite differences and being accepting. “Our greatest hope is that in this community you will consider what lessons you will teach with your actions. In the future our hope is that you choose to see people for who they are rather than a sum of their mistakes. And to prioritize forgiveness over exile,” she said.
Several of the students and parents who spoke said they believe irresponsible use of social media by community members is at the root of the problem, and they were not referring to Herman’s use of fake Facebook profiles.
“We’re seeing a few powerful persuasive parents who haven’t even been involved in the theater program, who know nothing about the professionalism that’s going on there, the vision, the fairness, the compassion, influencing what’s happening,” parent Gregg Dinino said in his address to the board. “We’re the people who know the theater program the best, and we feel like we’ve been completely ignored. We feel like the students have been condescended to. I would like to see this remedied. I’d like to see us go back to the way things were.”
Marc Cerabona, the parent of two KHS students talked about the process that left the kids completely out of the loop, and left them feeling voiceless and helpless. He said parents and students felt threatened that if they were not quiet about the situation, the winter production would be cancelled.
“So we were put in the position of let’s be quiet and hope that things go ok — and then they didn’t. And then we show up here because it’s our first opportunity to talk to you all, and we’re limited to 30 minutes and we’re told that you don’t discuss personnel issues,” he said. “When were we supposed to talk to you about this? When were they supposed to make their voices heard?”
Hawes said that while there was no threat from the administration about cancelling the production, she did come close to cancelling it.
“It was disruptive to the educational environment. Not because of Michael, but because of the issue. When Rachael (Yoder) came forward and said she would take over, that was the best situation,” Hawes said. “If she hadn’t stepped up we would not have been able to continue and the kids would have been devastated.”
Both Hawes and Cressey encouraged the students to rise above this issue and put on a great show.
“I hope we can all step back and learn life lessons about the way we treat each other and the use social media. Michael and Rachel are really talented, we have lost something here and the kids have lost something here,” Hawes said.
As for the future of the theater program and the new theater, Hawes said things are still on track but the district will get through the next four months without hiring a replacement for Herman. The theater will be used for school-based events. KHS usually has one more play, and Hawes is uncertain right now about whether that will happen this spring.
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