Kennebunk High School. Credit: York County Coast Star

KENNEBUNK, Maine — The new school year is off to a controversial start with the hiring of Dr. Maryann Perry as the new interim superintendent of Regional School Unit 21.

In January, Perry announced her retirement amid budget controversy and allegations of mismanagement during her time as superintendent of the Marblehead School System in Massachusetts. Locally, controversy has stemmed from the RSU 21 board of director’s handling of its process of hiring Perry.

The board announced its hiring of Perry after a unanimous vote on Sept. 9. At a public meeting this past Monday, Chairman MaryBeth Luce addressed the concern and criticism that has surfaced in the public since.

“I would like to publicly recognize that the way that the board has handled Dr. Perry’s hiring process has not been in line with community expectations, and for that I apologize,” Luce said, reading from a statement.

Luce admitted that the board did not discuss the “publicly accessible information” related to the Marblehead situation with Perry during its interview process with her. Luce stated there was “considerable confusion” among board members regarding the legal ramifications and best practices as they pertain to conducting internet searches on candidates.

“However, having had subsequent, extensive conversations with Maryann and with members of the Marblehead School Board, a significant majority of the board stands by our decision to hire her,” Luce continued. “And, as a board, we are ready to move forward with the large amount of student-focused work that we have ahead of us this year.”

Luce said the board will fully review its hiring process this fall, ahead of a permanent superintendent search in early 2020.

“I expect a full discussion of that process will begin at the board level in public session at one of our next three meetings,” Luce said. “I don’t have that date yet. We will make clear notice of it on the agenda, and we will also make the hiring process public, including specific ways the community will be engaged throughout the process.”

Perry was at the meeting, making her first appearance as interim superintendent. After Luce spoke, she addressed the public, as well.

“I have over 35 years in public education,” Perry began. “I started my career as a preschool special needs teacher and retired as a superintendent. I have worked in only three districts in my entire career, which speaks to my commitment to a district. During my successful career, I have been instrumental in working in partnership with school districts and school committees that were seeking stability. My administrators, teachers and parents will attest to my leadership style of collaboration, transformation, and always focusing on students first … I’m extremely proud of all of our accomplishments in Marblehead.”

Perry spoke of a “situation” in Marblehead during the 2017-18 fiscal year that resulted in “unpaid, out-of-district special education invoices being paid in the 2018-2019 school year.”

“The mishandling of the invoices was the result of the actions within both the school district business office and the town business office,” she continued. “An independent financial audit was performed. The audit recommended changes in the internal controls and protocols we put in place. As the superintendent of the district, it was my responsibility to stand in front of my administrations, and that’s exactly what I did and have always done.”

Perry ended her remarks with an appeal to the community.

“I hope the community of RSU 21 will give the board of directors and I the opportunity to build a district that focuses on student achievement,” she said.

Perry joined the school district in Marblehead in 2012. She admitted to state officials that she withheld fiscal year 2018 special education out-of-district tuition bills and paid for them with 2019 funds, which is against state regulation, according to the Marblehead Reporter. She explained to the publication that at the time she had been planning to retire for more than a year and that the situation with the funds had no bearing on her decision to retire.

Here in RSU 21, Perry is serving as superintendent in the interim as the district searches for a permanent replacement of former superintendent Katie Hawes, who resigned in June. Perry’s contract went into effect on Sept. 10 and runs through June 30, 2020. Her approved salary is $130,000.

Luce has praised Perry, saying she “brings a wealth of experience and leads through example. Maryann believes that communication and transparency are the keys to a successful school district. We are very happy to have her on board.”

During the first public-comments segment at this past Monday’s meeting, Marie Louise St. Onge of Kennebunk presented a formal, written request that the RSU 21 board revisit its vote to hire Perry and move forward with an independent investigation to look into the hiring process, the findings of the independent auditor for the town of Marblehead, and “also what happened with Maryann Perry’s employment at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Winchester, Massachusetts.”

St. Onge said that more than 50 residents had signed the request, to which she and others wanted a response. Luce replied that the board would respond, but “not right now.”

Later in the meeting, during another public-comments segment, resident Art LeBlanc spoke on the matter. LeBlanc, a former school board member, noted that the revelations about Perry are surfacing at a time when RSU 21 is trying to “rebuild credibility” with the community, following other recent and unrelated legal controversies.

LeBlanc said the district has two paths forward from which to choose.

Of the first, he said, “we can ignore or come to some sort of justification” that the district has made an offer, which has been accepted, to hire an interim superintendent to “lead us for the next year through this difficult time that we ourselves are going through.” LeBlanc encouraged the board members to ask themselves if they still would have made the same decision to hire Perry if they had known all of the information that is available to them today.

Of the second path, LeBlanc said, “The other decision is to instruct our counsel to enter a negotiation to terminate the contract and reopen the search for the superintendent, or the interim superintendent.”

LeBlanc said that, regardless of which option is chosen, the process will have significant ramifications on the community, on the board, and on others, including Perry, who are involved. LeBlanc encouraged the board to examine the process that led to the current situation, identify any existing “gaps” in the procedure, and remedy them.

“Use whatever resources you need to remedy them, to understand how you got where you are, because, as I said, there are people involved,” LeBlanc told the board. “It’s a very difficult situation, for the community, for the people in the process, and for yourselves.

“We are still in search of a superintendent, and that is the major hire for the school board because that superintendent reports to you and is your method for getting things done in our school district. Given that, I encourage you all to really take a look at the process and your own thoughts on what happened this time and what may be done to make it a better process for everyone involved going forward.”