Board defends private meeting about Scarborough principal
SCARBOROUGH — The principal of Scarborough High School said she has not ruled out any options after learning the School Board may have acted inappropriately when it discussed whether she should be reappointed.
Principal Patricia Conant said she was told on Friday, Feb. 5, that she would not be reappointed because she doesn't have the support of the School Board.
Conant said the news came as a surprise to her, since neither Superintendent of Schools David Doyle nor the School Board has ever expressed displeasure with her performance over the last four years.
"Not one School Board member has said anything to me other than complimentary things," she said.
The decision not to reappoint Conant next year was made in a Feb. 4 executive session, publicized on the board's agenda as a private meeting "to discuss (1) duties of an employee" and "(2) employment of an employee."
Although executive sessions are not open to the public, state law requires that when a specific employee is the subject of an elected board's private discussion, that employee or their representative has the right to be present.
Conant attended the public portion of the meeting that preceded the executive session, but left at the end along with the rest of the public. She said she was not invited into the closed-door session.
The following day, Conant said, the superintendent told her she didn't have enough School Board votes to be reappointed.
"In (Doyle's) words, 'I didn't have the votes to go forward with the renewal of my contract,'" she said. "It is my understanding that perhaps that conversation took place in that executive session, of which I had no advanced knowledge."
It took conversations with Doyle and two School Board members this week to determine that Conant's employment was the topic of the Feb. 4 executive session.
Doyle was combative when asked by a reporter to explain the decision-making process. At the mention of Conant's name, he insisted he would not discuss her situation, even though the line of questioning was about the process alone.
"I just told you I will not be commenting on anything relative to Pat's departure," Doyle said.
When the reporter persisted, Doyle raised his voice.
"What part of this don't you get?" he said. "I'm not going to discuss this."
Doyle would not confirm that the reappointment was discussed in executive session, but insisted the process was "appropriate." He would also not elaborate about how he ascertained the board's lack of support for Conant, but said a search committee is being formed to find a replacement.
School Board Chairman Brian Dell'Olio later confirmed that Conant would not be returning next year, but said the matter is a private issue between the administration and the principal.
While the superintendent appoints employees, including principals, it is up to the School Board to publicly confirm the appointments.
Dell'Olio defended the board's process, but would not say if Doyle surveyed the board on its support for Conant.
But he did confirm that the discussion took place Feb. 4.
"If anything, the discussions of executive sessions are private," Dell'Olio said. "The district is in compliance with the law."
When asked how that could be the case, since Conant wasn't invited into the private session, Dell'Olio suggested "she could have been invited and chose not to attend."
Conant maintained she was not invited.
But according to board member Jacquelyn Perry, an "informational meeting" occurred in the executive session regarding Conant. She said board members were not told in advance which employee would be discussed, but raised no objections about discussing Conant without her being in the room.
"There was no evaluation at all," Perry said. "My recollection (of the law) is if there is some sort of unfavorable evaluation that would lead to something, then the person needs to be present."
State laws says that a board may enter into closed session to investigate complaints against an employee and that "any person being charges or investigated shall be permitted to be present if he desires."
Attorney Sigmund D. Schultz, who provides legal advice to the Maine Press Association, said the executive session raises many questions.
Schultz, of the Preti Flaherty law firm in Portland, said the motion to enter into closed session was insufficient, since it did not indicate the employee or position being discussed.
"A motion to go in (to executive session) needs to indicate the precise nature of the business," he said. "I would question whether that was sufficient ... when the employee has no idea she is about to be terminated or her contract not renewed."
Also, Shultz said a discussion about a specific employee may be conducted in private only if that discussion could damage the employee's reputation or violate her privacy.
"If they had a basis for terminating her, wouldn't that be some sort of charge or complaint?" he said. "If there was no charge or complaint against her, then what basis did they have to demote her or refuse to renew her contract?"
Conant is part of an administrators collective bargaining group, but said she does not want file a grievance to get her job back.
"If you don't have the support of the superintendent and the School Board, you're pretty ineffectual," she said. "A reinstatement would not really be appropriate, because I can't be an effective leader without their support."
Conant, who was principal of Falmouth High School for eight years, said she is concentrating on developing next year's budget and getting it passed by the board and residents.
However, the Scarborough resident said she has not ruled out seeking legal recourse with aid from the Maine Principal's Association.
"At this point," she said, "I haven't closed my mind to my options."
MPA Executive Director Dick DeRoss declined to discuss legal services the organization provides to its members.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org