Cape Elizabeth special-ed director resigns after contract snub

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Prompted by the School Department’s decision not to extend her contract, Special Education Director Jessica Clark has resigned, saying she’s hopeful for both her future and the future of the school district. 

Clark submitted her resignation March 1, effective June 30.

On Tuesday, March 27, Clark said she still had not received a reason her contract was not extended. 

Staff and parents also remain confused by the School Board’s unanimous approval last month of interim Superintendent Howard Colter’s recommendation that Clark not be included among administrator probationary contract renewals for the 2018-2019 school year. 

Clark’s two-year probationary contract, which she signed in July 2016, allows the School Department to evaluate whether she is a suitable fit before being granted permanent employment. 

Lorie Dorrance, a member of the hiring committee that selected Clark, this week said Clark was “head and shoulders” above others who had applied and was the only candidate who was a board-certified behavior analyst – a quality which, to Dorrance, was “critical” to the district.

Dorrance’s son, Nolan, was in the department’s special education program for six years before graduating in June 2016, before Clark joined the team. 

Last year, Clark hired another board-certified behavior analyst to serve the district for the first time since Sonia Croft resigned from the post in 2014.

“Clark came highly qualified,” Dorrance said. “… She understood the importance of having a behaviorist in the school. That’s why she stood out to me. (Special education directors) have not been easy to attract. When we got her, I felt like we won the lottery. … Some other district will be very lucky to have her.”

Clark replaced Jane Golding, who retired in 2015. Steve Floyd served as interim director from 2015-2016. Since 2007, there have been four special education directors in the district.

Jon Delisle, a special education teacher at Pond Cove Elementary School, said on Feb. 13 that before Clark joined the department “staff morale plummeted and trust was broken on many levels” because of frequent turnover in leadership.

Clark said she has repeatedly asked the School Board and Colter why her contract wasn’t extended, but has been ignored.

“I’ve spent my entire career working for this position,” Clark said. “Not having my contract extended caught me completely off guard.”

Almost four months ago, Clark said, administration approved her request for contracted tuition assistance to earn her doctorate and appropriated the money into the budget for next year.

“That would’ve been a good time to tell me, had there been a problem,” she said. “Yet there was no indication.”

Clark said over the course of her two years in the district, the only feedback she had received during formal or informal reviews was that she was “too ambitious.” 

In a Feb. 16 email, Colter said he is responsible for making decisions about contract extensions for probationary employees and while the School 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 could not say why Clark’s contract would not be extended.

Clark’s husband, Richard, said a common issue with public-sector administration or management is that “policy becomes primary when individual personnel issues need to be handled as just that, individually and personally,” in a March 27 email.

“Policy should never be used as an excuse from doing what is right for the taxpayers and moral for the community,” he added.

School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs said Clark, with the support of special education teachers and staff, deserves credit for “greatly improving” the services offered to students. 

“For that we are most appreciative,” Measelle Hubbs said. “The entire School Board is grateful for the positive changes Ms. Clark is responsible for and wish her the very best.”

“I wish Jessica Clark only the best as she moves on to her next assignment,” Colter added in a March 27 email.

Although Clark said she is optimistic, she does not know what that “next assignment” will be.

“To have my time (in the district) end like this, I’m just not sure I can do this again,” Clark said. “I have a couple months to think about what I want to do … (But) having no communication around what I did wrong has me questioning my path.”

She said she decided to resign so the department could use the last three months of her tenure to search for a replacement. Clark said she realized going back and forth with the School Board about her contract would be time-consuming and unproductive.

“I’m in this job for the kids,” Clark said. “It wasn’t worth the fight for me if it hindered getting the kids and the staff what they need.” 

To many, Clark was what the department needed. 

Six speakers addressed the School Board in support of Clark during a meeting last month and more sent emails ask the board to reconsider. 

Jennifer Brooking, who has three children in Cape schools – two of whom receive special education services – said along with hiring a behavior analyst, Clark was integral in reintroducing the department’s life skills program after it was cut by Golding. She said Clark also helped the special education parents become a recognized school group.

“In the time Jessica has been in the position we have seen wonderful staff hired, staff morale increase dramatically, and programming implemented that has benefited our children,” Brooking said in a March 26 email. “I believe the fear amongst most staff and parents is we will see these positive changes disappear.”

Clark said she’s been overwhelmed by the support from staff and parents.

“If I’m to walk away with knowing that people understand that the work we were doing was a good thing, I think I’ve made an impact,” she said.

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