In the wake of a tumultuous few months at Kennebunk High School, some teachers are speaking out — expressing a division among staff in their feelings about the school’s administration, but they’re united on what they all say is the most important issue: it’s time to move forward.
Minutes from the KHS climate committee meetings sent anonymously to the York County Coast Star and later verified under the Freedom of Information Act paint a picture of some staff members concerned with issues of teacher safety, a lack of professionalism and bullying toward teachers by school administrators.
However several teachers, both long-time and new, said they support the administration and say the members of the climate committee who have ongoing issues with the administration are a small minority of the 100-plus staff members at the school.
“They are not representative of the majority of the staff in this building,” said guidance counselor Lori Hall.
This follows controversy surrounding Principal Sue Cressey’s intent to retire, submitted in August and approved by the RSU 21 Board of Directors to take effect at the end of this school year. But residents, including former board member Norm Archer, subsequently questioned Cressey’s retirement, saying they believed she had been forced into early retirement, after 32 years at KHS, by Superintendent Katie Hawes.
Following a Jan. 3 executive session, the RSU 21 board voted unanimously to allow Cressey to withdraw her resignation, and then at a Jan. 28 meeting attended by more than 100 community members, approved a settlement agreement, extending her contract for one year with the provision that she resign at the end of the contract in June of 2020.
The staff at KHS has not spoken publicly until now, with some wishing to remain anonymous still, saying they are fearful of retaliation. That fear comes from both sides of the issue.
Long-time football coach and retired physical education teacher Joe Rafferty was a member of the climate committee and said other members who brought forth concerns about Cressey to the superintendent have been very guarded.
“As you can imagine, it’s difficult. They’re calling out their boss. We acted in a professional manner and we were looking to improve on certain things at the school and continue to work on them,” Rafferty said.
Beth Keezer, a STEM teacher at KHS, collected letters of support for Cressey from staff members who wanted to remain anonymous to the school board and superintendent and said those teachers were fearful too.
“For whatever reason, they were fearful that they couldn’t speak out. In all my years here I have never felt that way, but we’re fearful of retaliation. This is the first time and it’s such a shame,” Keezer said.
French teacher Kalynda Beal said she left a previous teaching job because of a toxic work climate, and is very happy at KHS. She said she feels supported and hopes the community will continue to show up and support the staff, the school and the students. She said she wouldn’t want to work somewhere where she feared being fired for speaking her mind.
The climate committee at KHS was formed in the spring of 2017 as a way to involve staff in open and honest conversation to move toward a more positive climate, according to minutes from the first meeting.
Meetings, which started in June 2017, were open to all KHS staff members, and facilitated by Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano. The creation of the committee followed what many have said was a very difficult year for KHS staff.
Construction fatigue is a real thing, several staff members said, and the 2016-17 school year was mid-way through the three year renovation project at Kennebunk High School. Adding to the strain was the sudden departure of two staff members of their own choice, two untimely deaths of a teacher and a coach, a student death and the allegations of sexual assault that led to the high-profile trial of former teacher Jill Lamontagne, who was acquitted by a jury on the charges that she had a sexual relationship with a student.
In addition, the school went through the NEASC accreditation process that same year, compounding the stress for faculty and administration, staff said.
In the letter confirming the school’s accreditation status, the NEASC commission said they “would like to commend the faculty, administration, and staff for completing the accreditation process in an outstanding manner despite the myriad difficult events and tragedies that have occurred over the past several years at the school and the ongoing school construction project.”
The climate committee meeting minutes from June 2017 note a number of underlying concerns among staff derived from a survey in which 83 staff members took part. The survey questions were crafted from anonymous comments about school climate collected in drop boxes.
On the topic of teacher safety, the climate committee minutes state that “teachers feel bullied by administration and disrespected. Teachers feel a lack of support. And leader speaks negatively about faculty and staff to other faculty, which is unprofessional.”
Other issues included teachers feeling unable to voice their opinions, some administrators showing staff favoritism and micromanagement of staff.
“We talk an ‘A game’ to outsiders (perception), and we’re not actually feeling that at this time. Modeling the behavior of a family is more than just words,” was one comment on the list of concerns noted in meeting minutes from June 2017.
Hall, along with English teacher Amy Roy, served on the climate committee when it was formed.
Roy said it was a good outlet to facilitate better communication among staff when it started. They joined the committee to make sure there was balanced representation, and said it was a fair process to air grievances and concerns. They said the end result was an acknowledgement for action steps and improvement from administration. Some people, they say, didn’t get that message, and are a “vocal minority.”
“This is a wonderful place to work. If you walk around the halls, this is a very happy place,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t want to be here if it wasn’t.”
Both Superintendent Katie Hawes and Potenziano declined to comment on the work of the KHS climate committee for this story. Cressey also declined comment.
Potenziano said these types of committees are common in organizations that are seeking improved communications.
“This is especially true in the pre-K-12 education setting where school culture is a key factor in increasing student achievement. A climate committee can be a crucial mechanism for creating long-term positive team norms and by clearly delineating roles and responsibilities that support sustainable school reform,” he said.
English teacher Beth Carlson, who has been at KHS since 2001, said in her opinion Cressey has always been a very professional leader.
“The faculty delivered over 30 letters of support to the school board, that should tell you something,” Carlson said of the letters sent after Cressey withdrew her resignation letter.
Spanish teacher Karen Moore, a 30 year veteran at KHS, agrees with Carlson.
“Of all the principal’s I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot over the years, she’s the best,” Moore said. “She’s full of kindness and professionalism and has an open door policy. She worked her way up through the ranks and is an excellent administrator in my opinion.”
The climate committee issued a statement Wednesday saying, “We wish to continue within the spirit in which we (the climate committee) formed, and protect our colleagues’ privacy, while being their advocate, and continuing our commitment to professionalism. We worked quietly within our building in direct communication with affected staff and the admin team remaining dedicated to professionalism and transparency. The positive change in KHS’ climate and culture is a direct result of that work. We have gone to great lengths to treat the administration with respect and dignity. For the good of KHS, staff, and students, we wish to move forward; continue our work in advocating for the faculty and staff of this building and not perpetuate unnecessary division or speculation.”
Rafferty, who has since retired from teaching but still coaches at KHS, echoed the committee’s message.
“I think this was a team effort with the administrators and the teachers. It wasn’t easy for any of us. It’s not easy to do. We all have different views as to our day to day workplace. One thing we have in common is problem solving and and the desire to move forward,” Rafferty said. “A decision has been made and we can live with that decision. If this keeps resurfacing, it’s bad for morale.”
Keezer, Moore and the other teachers who spoke out in support of Cressey said they are sad that she is not leaving on her own terms, but they are grateful for another year. They say Cressey is exactly the kind of leader they as staff members want. They say she always wants whatever is best for the students, and she’s “gentle, involved and incredibly kind with them. The kids love her.”
“She’s not the problem, and she’s kept a positive face through all of this,” Keezer said. “I’m glad she’s fighting back.”