Brunswick School Board strips Watson of leadership over e-mail to Pingree, 'angry' comments

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BRUNSWICK — During an emotionally charged meeting that pushed budget deliberations to the periphery, the School Board on Wednesday removed Byron Watson as chairman.

Watson, who has publicly criticized the town’s state legislators and recently sent what some said was an inappropriate and sexist e-mail message to the speaker of the state House of Representatives, did not go quietly. He called the furor over his Feb. 5 correspondence a political power play by the town’s all-Democratic legislative delegation.

After the meeting, Watson, 30, who has previously worked for Republican campaigns, said the board’s 6-2 vote to strip his leadership was orchestrated by the delegation, adding that local lawmakers had used board members to gather support for his removal.

“If they can do this to me, they can do this to anybody,” Watson warned.

His father, Town Councilor David Watson, compared the exercise to a political hit.

“They saw him as an up-and-comer, a threat,” the elder Watson said. “And they took him out.”

Several board members, however, expressed concern over Watson’s leadership ability in light of his remarks to House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

The e-mail message, which Watson said he wrote to seek help in reviewing a $3 million loss of state aid, began, “Let me start off by stating you are the most gorgeous member of the Legislature.”

He ended the first sentence with a smiley-face emoticon, then told Pingree he wasn’t writing to “hit on her.”

Members of the delegation described the comments as inappropriate and sexist, a charge echoed by several residents on Wednesday.

Watson last week called the remarks a “miscalculation,” adding that he was writing as a private citizen, not a member of the School Board.

But Janet Connors, the most senior member of the School Board, said she was upset Watson initiated correspondence with Pingree without the board’s knowledge.

“As a chairman, you speak for us,” she said. “You can’t take the hat off as chairmanship at will.”

Watson later said his remarks were an attempt to get Pingree’s attention.

“(Pingree) probably receives hundreds of e-mails a day,” he told the board. “I was trying to find a way to stand out.”

Although some board members were upset by Watson’s written remarks, most said they were more disturbed by Watson’s reluctance to apologize and his continued assault on the delegation.

Board member Michele Joyce said she heard from 38 residents, most of whom called for Watson’s removal. Member Michelle Small said she received about two dozen communications, the majority of which said Watson’s remarks had hurt Brunswick’s image.

“Many (residents) were upset you dug in your heels, rather than immediately apologize,” Joyce said. “True leaders … don’t manipulate a situation to become the victim.”

“That was one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard, coming from you,” Watson responded. “I can’t even believe I’m hearing this.” 

Resident Peter Lowe said Watson’s e-mail could have been forgiven if not for his repeated “broadsides launched at our delegation.”

“This is not a very thoughtful strategy … at a time when we need (the delegation) the most,” Lowe said. “This ballistic missile attack shows a profound lack of judgment.”

Several residents spoke in support of Watson, as did board member John Jones, who said the e-mail resulted from Watson’s “youthful exuberance and enthusiasm.”

Resident Erik Johnson called the issue “a silly, manufactured controversy,” and compared the outcry to the post-World World War I atmosphere that led to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. 

Jones and Vice Chairman James Grant were the dissenters in the board’s vote to remove Watson’s chairmanship.

The majority, meanwhile, appeared to solidify as Watson continued to blast the delegation for smearing him and engaging in what he called “character assassination.”

Members Corrine Perreault and James Corey said they originally planned to support Watson, but grew concerned that the board could not move past the issue with Watson at the helm.

“Byron, we’re friends, but I’m concerned that you’re so angry about this,” Perreault said. “You’re hurt now. … I’m afraid your anger is not going to go away.”

During his remarks, Watson said the timeline of events following his Feb. 5 e-mail proved the delegation was trying to take him out. He said a member of the delegation promised to “smooth this thing over,” then went public with the e-mail before making any real attempt to do so.

“They never even wanted an apology,” Watson said. “They wanted to get rid of me.”

After the meeting, Watson said he felt ambushed by the board.

“I talked to some people before (who) said they were going to support me,” he said. “But they didn’t.”

The board will elect a new chairman at its next meeting. Grant, a friend of Watson’s, said, “I will not put my name in that hat, just so you all know.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or

Sidebar Elements

40 jobs cut in Brunswick school chief’s budget proposal

BRUNSWICK — In an effort to meet the Town Council’s mandate of no property tax increase, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski on Wednesday presented the School Board with an initial spending plan of $32.4 million for fiscal 2011, a $1.03 million reduction from the current budget.

The plan will not come without pain.

Perzanoski had to slash $1.4 million because of cuts in state aid and revenues. The result is that about 40 employees could lose their jobs, including 18 of 21 school resource assistants.

A special education position at an elementary school, as well as the special education department head at Brunswick High School, could also be let go.

Perzanoski said he has met with each worker personally over the last week.

“Looking into the eyes of someone losing their job, 40 times, has not been fun,” he told the board.

The resource assistant cuts were of particular concern to several board members. The assistants primarily help elementary school students who are falling behind in literacy and math, leading Board Member Michelle Small to say the district “was balancing the budget on the backs of elementary school students.”

Small said she’d rather see deeper cuts in the technology department. If the resource assistants had to be cut, she said they should be cut at the high school level.

Perzanoski didn’t disagree, but said the district would have to navigate restrictions in Title I funding.

Responding to the depth of the cuts, Vice Chairman James Grant said it wasn’t unreasonable to look at an alternate budget with a 1 percent or 2 percent property tax increase – about $600,000. The amount, Grant said, would be about half of a projected 4 percent increase in valuation.

Doing so would also restore the nearly $423,000 that would otherwise have to be cut in resource assistant positions.

Perzanoski said the budget is a work in progress.

“Nothing in here is set in stone,” he said. “This will be an ongoing discussion with the board over the next six weeks.”

The Town Council is expected to see a preliminary municipal budget when it meets March 15. 

— Steve Mistler