Cape Elizabeth School Board won't meet with Town Council

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CAPE ELIZABETH — After seeking legal advice, the School Board rejected the Town Council’s request to hold a joint workshop on concerns about School Department management. 

On April 9, resident Janet Villiote presented the council with a memo questioning how the School Department manages money, pointing to high turnover in administration, frequent executive sessions, salaries paid to principals who no longer work for the district, and a “significant deficiency” noted in a recent audit.

Last week, the council voted 5-2 to formally request a meeting with the School Board, prior to June 12, to discuss increased collaboration between the two panels. At the meeting, the board would present their responses to Villiotte to the council.

However, during a May 22 workshop, board attorney Bruce Smith said the Town Council has very limited oversight over the School Board. He advised that any matters concerning the board should be presented directly to and dealt with by the board or superintendent. 

Smith said the council “airing and hearing complaints” about the School Board would be “structurally inconsistent with the law.”

When asked on May 8 why she approached the council, rather than the School Board, Villiotte said board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs was “patronizing and dismissive” when Villiotte asked her three years ago about access to School Department documents.

In a memo to the board, Smith said the matters raised by Villiotte “fall exclusively within the purview of the School Board.” 

“Both the letter and spirit of law require that these matters be addressed by the School Board rather than the Town Council,” he added, citing state law that says a school board has “sole authority to oversee the affairs of a municipal school unit.”

The mandate goes on to say the only exception is the council’s authority to approve a total school budget to submit to voters for validation.

Smith noted that the true authority over the School Board is the Maine Department of Education.

“The council does not have legal authority to require the School Board to appear before it or to meet jointly with it to respond to complaints about the operation or management of the schools,” Smith wrote. “Such a joint meeting … would blur the lines of authority between the (board) and (council), erode the legal authority of the elected School Board and increase public confusion about the respective roles of the two governing bodies.”

In response to requests from residents that the joint meeting be held for the sake of transparency, board member Hope Straw said she did not understand what the desired outcome would be.

“What more could we do?” she said.

Measelle Hubbs echoed Straw’s thoughts, saying the School Board’s response to Villiotte’s concerns had been sent to Villiotte, posted on the town’s website and presented in a May 8 meeting.

Measelle Hubbs said further discussion of Villiotte’s concerns about administrative turnover, executive sessions and the departures of former principals was prohibited by law. 

In regard to a 2017 municipal audit that noted a $4 million “significant deficiency” due to School Department bookkeeping issues, Measelle Hubbs said the School Board and interim Superintendent Howard Colter have taken the deficiency seriously and “have taken all necessary steps to not only understand how they occurred, but how to avoid similar reports in the future.” 

“There’s no more to transpire,” she said. “The only thing that hasn’t happened … (is) a joint meeting … There’s nothing more we could possibly say that we haven’t already said.”

The board also sought an opinion from Smith regarding any state or local law that would prohibit the School Board and Town Council from meeting earlier, and perhaps more frequently, in the budget process prior to budget adoption by both panels. 

Last week, the council adopted a $25.4 million school budget for fiscal year 2019 that is $249,000 less than what the School Board requested – the same amount that was budgeted for a facilities study of Cape schools. 

Had meetings occurred while they were crafting their budget, board members said they would have gauged a lack of support for a $249,000 study and considered funding other projects, such as improvements to the Pond Cove Elementary School playground. 

A $115,000 allocation for the playground and other capital improvements did not make the proposed budget, but the board on May 8 gave the elementary school the go-ahead to start raising funds to improve at least a portion of the playground. 

“Had we been given any sort of feedback, perhaps we would’ve said ‘OK, the (facility study) is not in the picture,’ so let’s then put another item in that is smaller,” Measelle Hubbs said. 

Smith said there was nothing prohibiting the two panels from interacting whenever they want during the budget process, but neither can compel the other. 

“(One panel) could solicit (feedback on a budget item), but it’s up to (the other) to engage,” he said. “… These types of discussions depend upon the voluntary engagement of both bodies.”

On May 23, Measelle Hubbs emailed council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan to say the board “does not wish to hold a joint meeting to discuss Janet Villiotte’s concerns in regards to the School Board.” 

“We look forward to moving ahead and working together in the near future,” she added. 

According to Sullivan, there will be no further effort by the Town Council to “convene a joint workshop regarding Janet Villiotte’s concerns.”

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

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