RSU 22 board members sit spaced out in a bus before touring various Hampden-area schools in August 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A controversial vote last week to make masks optional in Hampden-area schools for the upcoming year would have narrowly failed if school board members’ votes were weighted properly, according to the school district’s superintendent.

As a result, Regional School Unit 22’s board will hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday night at which it will decide how to move forward, Assistant Superintendent Christine Boone said.

The error awarded more weight than normal to two board members’ votes, meaning the policy to make masks optional would have narrowly failed, Superintendent Regan Nickels said.

RSU 22’s board weights its members’ votes according to the number of students in the town they represent. RSU 22 serves Hampden, Frankfort, Newburgh and Winterport.

During a Wednesday night meeting, board member Anthony Liberatore of Hampden introduced the motion to make masking optional, which passed by a weighted vote of 442 to 430, according to the initial calculation.

That vote, with six members in favor and six opposed, went against Nickels’ recommendation that children in pre-K through 6th grade be required to wear masks because they aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Masking requirements for other students would be contingent on local COVID-19 transmission rates under Nickels’ proposal.

Employees, volunteers and visitors are still required to wear masks, Nickels said. Liberatore’s amendment exempted only students from that requirement.  

During Wednesday’s meeting, a data entry error caused the vote-tabulating software to malfunction and give more weight to the votes of members Jessica Hamilton of Newburgh and Chris Labonte of Winterport, Boone said.

Hamilton was given 76 points instead of 57 points, and LaBonte was given 76 instead of 69. Both voted for Liberatore’s mask-optional amendment.

If the vote had been recorded properly, the true count would have been 416 for making masks optional and 430 against, Nickels said.

The board consulted a lawyer after realizing the error, and is obligated to hold an emergency meeting, which should be held as soon as notice can be given. The board will decide then whether to hold a new vote or to move forward with the amended plan, Nickels said.

The emergency board meeting will take place at Hampden Academy at 7 p.m. Tuesday night. It will take place the night after the Hampden Town Council is set to appoint a local resident to fill a school board vacancy, which could determine the outcome of a close masking vote.

Residents Debra Plowman, Jillian Sarnacki-Wood and Brian Moussally have applied to fill the vacancy. Plowman, a Republican, previously represented the area in the state Senate.

School boards throughout the Bangor region and Maine have been deciding recently whether to require that students and staff wear masks for the school year that starts in the coming weeks amid a rise in coronavirus cases and the more infectious delta variant.

Schools in Bangor, Brewer, Orono, Milford and the Bucksport area are among those in the region that will require masking. Hermon has made them optional.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.