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TOPSHAM — Acrimony on the School Administrative District Board of Directors led the panel Feb. 28 to unseat Chairwoman Kim Totten and appoint a new search committee for a permanent superintendent of schools.
The actions came nearly three weeks after the Feb. 8 resignations of longtime Harpswell representatives David Johnson and Joanne Rogers, who both spoke at the meeting in defense of Totten, and lamented a breakdown in board relations and processes.
Meanwhile, an online change.org petition of no confidence in Totten’s leadership had 108 signatures as of March 6. Started by SAD 75 parents Brandy Robertson of Bowdoin and Bill Keleher of Topsham, it cites a lack of trust among board members and criticizes the vetting of the district’s new interim superintendent.
Topsham member Holly Kopp’s motion to remove Totten as chairwoman was supported by all members but Totten, who has been on the board for 14 years, and Julie Booty, who abstained. The board unanimously elected Tyler Washburn of Bowdoin, who started with the panel in 2009 as a student representative, to replace Totten. Washburn abstained from that vote.
Member Alison Hawkes of Harpswell then moved for the board to remove all members from the superintendent search committee, and start with a new slate, which the board approved.
Totten, of Bowdoin, said she had already stepped off that panel, which she had chaired. Rachel Tome of Bowdoinham, Jane Scease of Topsham, and Johnson had also served on that committee.
“This is not a personal issue, this has nothing to do with anybody personally,” Hawkes said. “This has to do with doing my job as a School Board member.”
The board then caucused to appoint a new panel: Washburn, Tome, Hawkes and Matt Drewette-Card of Topsham.
Speaking during the meeting’s public comment period, Rogers and Johnson both denied Totten had anything to do with their resignations.
“Kim is one of the most hard-working, most dedicated and honest individuals I have ever served with on the School Board,” Rogers said.
She spent 34 years on the board; Johnson served 22 years.
Although the online petition in part states that it was Totten’s leadership and “the lack of trust within the Board” that led to the two resignations, Johnson said “nothing could be further from the truth” and decried a “social media witch hunt” against Totten.
A mutual lack of respect for and a failure to listen to one another in recent years brought the board to a breaking point, he said.
“I’m pleading with you, please, start with good boardsmanship,” Johnson said, adding later, with his voice breaking, “I gave a third of my life, trying to do the best I could for the students of this district.
“And all but one of you cut me to the core,” he added angrily. “You did, you cut me right to the core, where I had to leave this board. Don’t do it to anybody else.”
Totten was that one exception, Johnson said, as he and Rogers left the Mt. Ararat High School meeting. He said he strongly disagreed with her removal as chairwoman, claiming she had become “a public scapegoat for the board’s own shortcomings.”
Although he did not pinpoint the specific cause of his departure, Johnson alluded to friction during the superintendent search process, which began after Brad Smith’s June 2018 retirement. Assistant Superintendent Dan Chuhta, who the board hired as interim school chief, left Feb. 15 to become the state’s deputy commissioner of education.
The board, which then hired former Regional School Unit 68 Superintendent Bob Lucy as interim superintendent, has aimed to have a permanent school chief start July 1.
The online petition suggested a vote to hire Lucy stirred discord on the panel, and said Totten was “intricately involved in the vetting of the candidate brought forward to the full Board.”
A Bangor Daily News story in 2014 about Lucy’s hiring as RSU 68 superintendent noted that a Maine Department of Education report in 2011 found that his prior actions as principal of Orono Middle School had violated the state’s testing rules.
Speaking outside the meeting, Robertson called it “unfortunate (that) things kind of imploded on (Totten’s) watch,” but noted that with Totten as chairwoman, “it’s her responsibility to bring forward a superintendent that’s suitable for our district. And even though (Lucy is) interim … it was disappointing to our community that it didn’t seem like he was very well vetted.”
The concern among SAD 75 board members was that “something happened before, and you didn’t tell us,” Rogers said, not specifying which members criticized the vetting process.
Rogers would not comment on the DOE report, but called Lucy “a really nice gentleman who’s going to do a good job as interim.”
“Bob Lucy is a fine, fine, good man,” Johnson added.
Lucy on Monday said the matter in Orono “was resolved many years ago, and my focus will be on MSAD 75 and my responsibilities as the interim superintendent.”
He said he looks forward to working collaboratively with the SAD 75 community “to provide a top-quality educational experience for students.”
Drewette-Card later in last week’s meeting spoke about the need for the board to be more transparent.
“We need to be able to communicate to the folks in the community, more than what we have, because it’s led to a lot of misinterpretation,” he said. “When there’s not a lot of information, you’re left to make judgments.”
He asked for Lucy and Washburn to work together to “help open things up, and to let those things air out.”
Washburn offered some thoughts about charting a new course.
“This last month is one that I don’t believe any of us are going to look back fondly on,” he said. “But we as a board can’t continue to look backward at the past differences, and we need to go forward together to accomplish the important work that lays ahead of us.”
“None of us on this board are perfect,” he added. “No one has all of the answers. I know I don’t. But I believe that we all bring something to the table, and we all share a common goal of providing the best education possible to our students. … We’re all in this boat together, and I hope that going forward, we can move forward together.”
After being removed Feb. 28 as chairwoman of the School Administrative District 75 board, Kim Totten gives up her seat to newly elected Chairman Tyler Washburn.