Backlash follows Cape Elizabeth decision not to rehire special-ed director

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CAPE ELIZABETH — A decision not to renew the contract of the School Department special education director is being criticized by parents and school staff.

Jessica Clark was hired in July 2016, replacing Jane Golding, who retired in 2015. Steve Floyd served as interim director from 2015-2016. There have been four special education directors in the district since 2007. 

Clark signed a two-year probationary contract, which allows the School Department to evaluate whether an employee is a suitable fit before being granted permanent employment. 

The School Board on Feb. 13 unanimously approved interim Superintendent Howard Colter’s recommendations for administrator probationary contract renewals for the 2018-2019 school year. Clark’s name was not on the list. 

In a Feb. 16 email, Colter said he is responsible for making decisions about contract extensions for probationary employees and that, while the board can either approve or reject his nomination, it cannot select someone to hire independent of a nomination. 

Colter said he could not discuss personnel matters and therefore could not say why Clark’s contract would not be renewed – a response that has people in the community puzzled and upset. 

Clark’s husband, Richard, wrote an email to the School Board saying “recent events put into place by the leadership of Howard Colter” have not only come as a surprise to many in the district, but have also had a “very personal impact here at home.”

“My wife has not been given reason for her non-renewal status other than her not being the right fit,” Richard Clark wrote. “Jessica is the only one not being renewed. It appears as though she is being treated differently and she has no idea why.”

When asked if his wife would speak with a reporter, Richard Clark said she would not be speaking publicly on the matter. 

Instead, parents and faculty spoke on her behalf at the Feb. 13 School Board meeting that drew what Colter called a “full house.”

Jon Delisle, a special education teacher at Pond Cove Elementary School who has worked in the district since 2009, asked the board to reconsider Clark’s contract. 

“She is not only a good fit for Cape Elizabeth, but rather a perfect fit,” Delisle said.

He noted the district’s mission statement: “Open Minds and Open Doors.”

“Recently the one word that sticks out to me in that phrase is ‘doors,'” Delisle said. “When it comes to special education leadership over the years, it does not feel like an open door here in Cape. It feels like a revolving door.”

Before Clark joined the department, Delisle said, “staff morale plummeted and trust was broken on many levels” because of frequent turnover in leadership.

“I can whole-heartedly agree that if Jessica Clark is not offered a contract for next year, we will be doing a disservice to students, parents, and staff,” Delisle said. “I can think of no other person it this district who has put more effort in and done more over the past year than Jessica Clark.”

Delisle was one of six speakers who addressed the board in support of Clark. No one spoke to urge not renewing her contract. 

Jennifer Brooking said she has three students attending Cape schools, two of whom receive special education services. 

“Our children have attended Cape schools for the past nine years. In that time, we have worked with four different special education directors. Jessica Clark has been the best by far,” Brooking said, calling Clark “respectful,” “helpful,” and “educated.”

Clark has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut, a masters from Simmons College, a certificate of advanced studies degree from the University of New Hampshire, and is a board-certified behavior analyst.

Prior to joining the Cape Elizabeth schools she was a consulting specialist at the New England Center for Children, where she provided behavioral and educational consultation for 12 school districts throughout New Hampshire since 2014.

She also served as NECC coordinator for teacher training and professional development for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and as as a special education teacher, educational coordinator and education department specialist for the center from 2005-2009.

Before that, she was lead teacher, coordinator and behavioral consultant at Northwood Elementary School in Northwood, New Hampshire, and has two years of experience teaching special education in Maine at John F. Kennedy School in Biddeford.

“Jessica has been the intrinsic factor in productive, affirmative changes (in the special education department),” Brooking said. “Jessica has been understanding and responsive to our children’s needs, much more so than we have seen in other directors the district has employed over the years.”

The School Department’s clinical psychologist, Alina Perez, and occupational therapist, Maureen Cahill echoed Delisle’s and Brooking’s remarks.

“This decision (to not renew Clark’s contract) will negatively impact Cape Elizabeth schools as well as the view neighboring communities will have on us if this is not reconsidered,” Cahill said through tears.

Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs did not respond to questions about whether the board is considering looking into the renewal of Clark’s contract.

According to Brooking, parents and faculty have asked for an explanation, but are being told it is a personnel issue.

“The decision was made very quietly,” Brooking said in a Feb. 16 email. “With Ms. Clark’s level of education and understanding of special ed law, policies and procedures I cannot imagine that anything has been done to warrant a non-renewal.”

Since this is Clark’s first administrative position, Richard Clark said non-renewal of her contract would be the “scarlet letter placed on her for the rest of her career,” and would “literally erase the last 20 years of her career.”

“I would prefer to not go into the details of the physical and emotional strain this has put on her, but I need to express that they are significant,” Richard Clark said. “The impact that this decision is having has forced us as a family unit from being concerned with building our future, to simply surviving as a unit.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

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