Amid Scarborough School Board recall push, ACLU joins fray over free speech

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SCARBOROUGH — Petitioners delivered about 3,000 signatures to the town clerk Monday afternoon, saying they have enough support to begin recall proceedings against three School Board members. 

The action came as questions surfaced about free speech in the schools, following the forced suspension of a student voter registration drive at Scarborough High School. Members of the senior class met Wednesday morning with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to discuss their options.

Petitioner Paul Johnson said his group, called Road to Renewal, hopes to recall Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea, and to seek the resignation of Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger for what they consider to be poor leadership and an unwillingness to listen to the community.

“We’re not celebrating what we’re doing, there are no winners in this situation, and we’re not claiming victory today. But this is a fair representation of the people of Scarborough,” Johnson said. 

He said the group is apolitical, and its only agenda is to elect School Board members who think critically, ask questions, and listen to the community. He said there has been significant interest from people who want to run for the three positions if a special election is held. 

Clerk Tody Justice said the town has 10 days to certify 2,622 signatures. Per the Town Charter, the Town Council or clerk will set a public hearing, and a recall vote would be held in May. An election of new board members will then be scheduled if the recall vote is successful.  

The three members were singled out because Beeley is the chairwoman, and Lyford and  Shea have served on the communications committee, Johnson said.

Johnson said in an earlier interview the board should work collaboratively with the superintendent, but instead has let Kukenberger set policy, including the plan for earlier start times, a new grading system and, most recently, the resignation of Scarborough High School Principal David Creech.

In an email March 28 responding to a request for comment, Shea said she has no plans to resign.

“While I am disappointed in the recall petition being filed, my focus right now needs to be on my family,” Shea said. “It has been a difficult few months for my kids, especially the last month has been hard and I need to make sure they are OK going forward. It has been a learning experience for all of us on how to treat others, how to think of others’ feelings and how one’s behavior impacts others.”

She said the recall is short-sighted, does not help the community move forward, and the three board members are being used as pawns in what she called a dangerous chess game.

“It’s important to note that there was no reference in their statements or on their recall documents on improving our school system, achieving greater funding, seeking cost-saving initiatives, enhancing the learning and teaching experience here in Scarborough or making our students and staff safer,” Shea said. 

Voter registration

On March 22, Kukenberger sent out an email to the school community, saying she had received calls from parents concerned that students felt pressured at the high school to register to vote and sign the petition.

She said with planning, a voter registration drive could be a valuable activity at the school, and is encouraged in the curriculum. 

“I have received several complaints from parents that their children are feeling pressured, and have concerns that politics are being brought into the classroom, and that as a result, the culture and climate at the High School are not conducive to teaching and learning for all of our students,” Kukenberger said.

“With proper planning, a voter registration drive could be a valuable activity at the High School. However, given that students are reporting that they are feeling pressured, I have asked the principal to suspend this activity during the school day until we have time to review the process in order to balance the concerns that are being expressed to me by parents with the importance that this type of civic opportunity holds for our students,” she said.

The ACLU sent Kukenberger a letter the next day, March 23, asserting the First Amendment protects controversial speech on school grounds as long as it does not materially disrupt classwork. 

“Given the superintendent’s acknowledgment that voter registration drives would be valuable at Scarborough High School, we hope she will promptly rescind the current restrictions on such drives,” ACLU staff attorney Emma Bond said.

Scarborough Education Association President Justin Stebbins also responded to Kukenberger’s effort to suspend the registration, posting on SEA’s Facebook page March 26 that while it is against School Board policy for staff to engage students in biased political discourse or action, the association has received no substantiated evidence any staff has violated this policy.

“In response to the superintendent’s and School Board Chair’s broad-based concerns over the voter registration drive, the SEA has communicated clearly with them how insulted high school staff feel to be lumped into one group as acting inappropriately, even if it is just an accusation,” the post by Stebbins said.

He continued that the association will not condone the actions of staff to push an agenda or to pressure students and create an environment that is not supportive of all viewpoints.

“Democracy is only allowed when all voices can be heard,” the post concluded.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net

Petitioners filed signatures with Scarborough Town Clerk Tody Justice Monday afternoon in an effort to recall three Board of Education members. 

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