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Compliance with policies problematic for South Portland School Board

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Compliance with policies problematic for South Portland School Board

SOUTH PORTLAND — Although School Board rules require four meetings a year with the superintendent of schools, to set goals and evaluate her job performance, it appears the board is not meeting its obligations.

Although the board chairman, in response to a written request for information, said the board has annually evaluated the superintendent's performance, he did not answer questions about why the board is apparently not following its own published policies.

The policy questions follow recent revelations that the board has allowed the superintendent to shepherd the appointment of an interim board member and has conducted private, consensus-building talks outside the public's purview. 

According to its policy manual, the School Board "shall" meet with the superintendent in closed sessions three times a year: in July session to discuss the superintendent's achievement of previously established goals, in August for a formal employee evaluation and in September to plan personal and professional goals. In December, the policy manual states, the board "shall" review its contract with the superintendent, but not necessarily in a closed session.

But a review of past meeting agendas reveals no specific private sessions with the superintendent since she was hired in 2007, and indicates only that the board has met twice in closed sessions with "officials/appointed officials."

School Board Chairman Richard Carter and Superintendent Suzanne Godin each pointed to two dates when formal evaluations supposedly occurred, March 10, 2008, and March 9, 2009. The board's agendas for those dates included executive sessions to discuss "compensation for officials/appointed employees," but not specific meetings to evaluate the superintendent.

Godin said officials and appointed employees supervised by the School Board are non-union employees, including herself, the assistant superintendent, business manager, technology director, director of instructional support, assistant director of instructional support and other Central Office staff.

"The March 2008 meeting was about compensation for officials, appointed employees and to do my evaluation with the board," Godin said. She did not address the nature of the March 2009 executive session.

Maine's Freedom of Access Act, which is designed to keep the public's business public, allows elected boards to use closed sessions to discuss personnel matters and negotiate contracts, among other specific areas. But even then, public officials are encouraged to disclose specific reasons for their private meetings and must do so on a public agenda.

Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said the School Board's practice apparently meets the minimum standard for public notice, since it includes the subsection of Maine law that allows private sessions. But the board did not meet the intent of the law, he said, which encourages officials to explicitly state the reason for closed-door meetings. 

"What they didn't do, and which they're urged to do even by the Maine Municipal Association, is to tell folks what they're going to do in that executive session and not leave it to (people's) imagination what it means," Leary said. 

The total budget for the city of South Portland is $80 million, $40.5 million of which is school spending. But the municipal managers bear the brunt of public scrutiny. 

Unlike the School Board's public notification process, the City Council has provided specific notice of closed-session evaluations of City Manager Jim Gailey, who was hired in 2007. Across the Casco Bay Bridge, agendas for the Portland School Committee clearly describe closed-session evaluations of the superintendent. 

But regardless of how meetings are described on agendas, the South Portland School Board's policy manual also lays out a specific schedule and procedure for not only evaluating the superintendent, but also for conferring with the school chief to make sure she is meeting not only her own professional goals, but goals for the School Department.

Under that requirement, the board should have met with Godin four times since she was hired in 2007. While officials said her evaluation was conducted in each of those years, none of the other required meetings, if they occurred, have appeared on board agendas.

Carter did not respond to questions about why the board does not seem to be holding those meetings, or if it is, why it is not providing public notice of them.

"The school board has met in executive session annually to evaluate the superintendent," he said in an e-mail. "Superintendent Godin's initial contract was issued Feb. 12, 2007 with a start date of July 1, 2007. As the Superintendent was in her position for only a few weeks, it didn't make sense to review her in August." 

He did not suggest the board has met publicly when asked about the requirement to review the contract with the superintendent in December.

"I think you are referring to the certification of employment letter that we are required to send to the State Department of Education each year," Carter said. "Ms. Godin was formally hired in February (2007). Each year thereafter, the form is sent in December."

State law requires school districts to provide proof they employ a certified superintendent. But sending the letter does not appear to meet the board's own policy, which requires it to meet and review the superintendent's employment contract every December.  

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net