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KENNEBUNK, Maine — The RSU 21 school district has spent more than $80,000 since March for the independent investigation stemming from a former teacher’s complaints about racism against the district, and that figure is expected to rise before the legal firm hired to do the work issues a final report on its findings.
Several board members expressed surprise at the size of the bills from the two law firms hired to investigate the administration’s handling of racist incidents outlined in former Kennebunk High School teacher Rosa Slack’s Maine Human Rights Commission complaint against the district, but also supported the need for the work to continue.
“We want to know the truth and we want to know the answers, so now is not the time to say we want to start cutting costs,” board member Rachel Phipps said at Monday’s board meeting.
RSU 21 Operations Manager Steve Marquis presented a financial statement to the board, which includes bills from the legal firm Brann & Isaacson for consulting work from attorney Peter Lowe, hired to help the board to create a scope for the project and put together an RFP, and for Sanghavi Law Office, the Boston-based firm brought on to conduct the independent investigation.
Invoices from Brann & Isaacson for work done from March 15 to June 28 total $30,590. An invoice from Sanghavi Law Office for work completed from May 1 to June 28 is listed at $47,488.
Marquis said anticipated costs from Sanghavi from July 1 to July 12 could add an estimated $6,220 to the total that will come out of the current budget. Additional expenses incurred after the present fiscal year’s books are closed at the end of July will come out of the fiscal year 2020 funds, he said.
Slack, a black woman, filed the race-based and whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in January 2018 against RSU 21 and Kennebunk High School. Slack has since left her position with the district, but filed the complaint while still employed at the school.
The district paid out $50,000 to Slack in a settlement reached last month.
In the complaint, Slack alleged she was retaliated against during her annual review process after she reported two race-based threats by students during the 2015-16 school year. She said that fall, a student in one of her classes told an education technician he felt like burning Slack’s house down, and the district took no action other than removing the student from her class. In March 2016, Slack said a friend of that student walked into her history class with a Confederate flag draped over his back, the word “Redneck” written down the center of it, as another student filmed her reaction.
When the complaint came to light in February, the district held a special board meeting where students, former teachers, parents and community members called for answers, action and accountability from the superintendent and school board.
Katie Hawes, who served as superintendent beginning in 2015, resigned in June for a university teaching opportunity.
Board Chair Mary Beth Luce shared an update on the independent investigation from Lowe saying Sanghavi has interviewed 24 people to date and have reviewed many documents. They have additional interviews scheduled for the next two weeks, and expect to have the investigation completed by the end of July, with a report on their findings slated for the end of August.
The board will have to meet with legal counsel and Sanghavi to decide how it wants the findings compiled and distributed, Luce said.
She said this is a time for the board to lead the community forward.
“We are in a state of crisis in our current situation in terms of our coverage in the media. So many of the good things that we do here are being far overshadowed by a lot of negative press at this time. I hope the talk of the finances tonight will move us forward in a positive way,” Luce said.
She has been asked many times about the board issuing an apology related to Slack’s case, and the independent investigation, and said Monday that she can’t answer the question of what the apology would be specifically “for” until the investigation is complete.
“What I can do is say I’m sorry that … there were members of the community who were hurt in this process. And I’m sorry that we are all collectively mired in what we are dealing with in the press and where we are. I really hope that we can start to move forward together as a community, and as a board with the administration to be able to do really good work to push ourselves and learn about ourselves and self-reflect to lead our schools and our community forward,” she said.
Newly elected board member Tim Stentiford gave a presentation to the board on framework for communication around the independent investigation report and ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion work in the district.
Stentiford said the ideas came from conversations with community members who feel improved communication should be at the forefront.
“We have heard loud and clear from the community that we need to rebuild trust. I have been personally inspired because since February there has been a tremendous response from the school district and the community,” he said.
The framework he outlined includes a trust and transparency pledge from the board, communications updates, a readiness plan to address findings in the report and a plan to learn from other school districts that have handled the response and communication around racist incidents in positive ways.
The board grappled with how best to work together on building its cultural competency around diversity, equity and inclusion. Acting Superintendent Phil Potenziano said the district’s administrative team, along with two staff groups have taken the Intercultural Development Inventory administered by the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. This tool is the premier instrument, used nationally and internationally, to measure a group’s and individual’s abilities, skill sets and mindsets to bridge effectively across cultural differences, to create an inclusive environment.
Potenziano told the board that if they chose to take the inventory, their results would be public, while the work done by school employees is protected under privacy laws.
He said the consortium advised against this tool being used by the school board, and suggested other tools the board could use to reach their goals.
Luce said it’s important for the board to participate in the work they have tasked the administration and staff to do.
“We are the leadership group for this district, and we have tasked the administration and our staff with making big strides toward diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools, but so far we have been silent as a board,” she said.
Board members Sarah Dore and Loreta MacDonnell both expressed concern over board members with professional businesses, licenses and jobs outside of their work on the board that could be affected, and said they preferred the idea of alternative programs.
“To put something that is potentially charged and conflicted, where we are right now as a board, is not a good idea. I don’t think we are currently in a place to be vulnerable with each other,” Phipps said.
Kennebunk resident Marie Louise St. Onge agreed with the board members, but asked the board to put time parameters on their diversity, equity and inclusion work.
“Everyone in all three communities wants to feel safe. The students do, the faculty does and I appreciate that the board wants to feel safe too and community members want to feel safe.”
Board member Ira Camp said he would support something designed for school boards.
The board agreed to forgo the Intercultural Development Inventory, and will discuss alternative programs at its next board meeting on July 29.