Deadlocks force Cumberland-North Yarmouth School Board to appoint co-chairmen

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CUMBERLAND — After a series of votes for a chairman Wednesday resulted in continued 4-4 deadlocks, the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors unanimously compromised on Bill Richards and Jeff Porter as co-chairmen.

The discussion had been continued from a prior board workshop, where different members were nominated as chairmen. Jim Bailinson, the board’s chairman until Wednesday, was one choice, along with Richards and Porter.

A vote early in that meeting resulted in the first of several stalemates, with Porter supported by himself, Bob Vail, Jim Moulton and Bill Dunnett. Richards was supported by himself, Bailinson, Martha Leggat and Virginia Dwyer.

“We have a 4-4 standoff here, folks, as has been the case in all of our recent discussions,” Bailison said. “… It’s been a distraction and it’s been kind of preventing us from moving forward with the year, not to be able to put this issue behind us.”

Following that first stalemate, he said he understood that if the board were unable to choose a new chairman by majority vote, the current chairman would remain in place until a decision could be made. When Porter challenged that notion, Superintendent of Schools Robert Hasson said he had been told that by the district’s attorney, but did not have a formal, written opinion.

“I’ve read every document about the operation of this board,” Porter said. “… There’s nothing that addresses this issue.”

A nomination for Vail resulted in the second 4-4 stalemate, with Vail, Moulton, Porter and Dunnett in favor, and Richards, Bailinson, Leggat and Dwyer opposed. Dunnett was then nominated, with the same people voting the same way.

Moulton – who, like Porter, was elected to the board in June, but previously served on the board from 2002 to 2005 – was then nominated. He said he was not interested in serving as chairman, but would do so for a short time in order to break the stalemate.

The same members voted for and against.

A short recess failed to resolve the situation. Bailinson’s motion for Richards as chairman again ultimately drew the same 4-4 vote.

Bailinson lauded Richards as an educator, school superintendent, assistant commissioner of education, and longtime member of the community who is able to work with everyone.

“If Jeff wanted to serve as vice chair under Bill, or as finance chair, I would endorse that,” Bailinson said.

Vail said the citizens of Cumberland and North Yarmouth “deserve better.”

“I think that the motion on the table should be the offering of our resignations, and an election of a new board, with the exception of the new members who were just recently elected,” Vail said, adding that the board’s inability to work together “just speaks volumes.”

“It’s terribly important that we move this on, and focus upon what’s really important, and that’s the kids in the school district,” Richards said. “… I’m very concerned about the implications of this deadlock, with respect to professional staff and the support staff, and eventually it trickles down to the kids, because it has an impact upon climate.

“You’ve got something precious here,” he urged his colleagues. “Don’t destroy it.”

Bailinson expressed the importance of a member going through “at least a cycle on the School Board” before assuming a leadership role.

“This is nothing about Jeff being unqualified, or inappropriate to be board chair; I think it is inappropriate to come onto the board and to step into the chair role,” Bailinson said, noting the array of responsibilities included in that position.

Porter pointed out that while he was new to the School Board, he had served 12 years on the Cumberland Town Council, three of them as chairman; he had also served as chairman during part of his nine years on the People’s Regional Opportunity Program board.

“I know exactly what the role of chair is,” he said, acknowledging that it would likely be somewhat different on the School Board.

Porter expressed respect for Richards, calling him “the heart and soul” of the education discussion. But he said he did not think Richards would be the best chairman.

“The problem with this board, over the past five to 10 years, is you don’t have eight members of this board fully engaged,” Porter said. “Part of that is the problem with the board, part of that is the chair’s job. … This needs to change.”

Dunnett helped turn the tide when he suggested Porter and Richards serve as co-chairmen. Porter said he would be happy to co-chair the board with Richards, and that the two of them could decide how to share responsibilities. Richards later agreed as well.

Hasson said the board attorney told him that the board could have co-chairmen. Dwyer expressed concern that chairmen tend not to serve on board committees, and that two chairmen not on committees would overburden the other members. Porter, however, expressed willingness to serve on committees.

“If we truly believe in compromise, here it is,” Moulton said.

Bailinson said he had not liked this option in earlier discussions, thinking of it as a sign of weakness that the board could not reach a decision, and that it could cause damage to the board’s standing in the community.

“We’ve probably done that damage already tonight through this process,” he said.

Although public comment was not allowed during the discussion, John Campbell of Cumberland managed to get his point across. He expressed the importance of community input in the decision, which he opined solved nothing.

“It ends the meeting and we can feel good for a few minutes,” he said. “Sparta had two kings; that didn’t work. There’s a reason school boards don’t have two chairs, there’s a reason America doesn’t have two presidents.”

But Leggat said the compromise does have potential to work.

“There’s no reason to think that we need to have one person above another to run a functional board,” she said.

Prior to the board’s unanimous vote for its co-chairmen, Richards requested that the board evaluate the effectiveness of the joint role in a few months.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.