Frustrated co-chairman quits Cumberland-North Yarmouth school board

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CUMBERLAND — Citing ongoing frustration with the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors, co-Chairman Jeff Porter said Tuesday that he will resign from the panel effective July 1.

The Crossing Brook Road resident called the board “dysfunctional” and said he will not serve the two years that remain in his three-year term.

“I can say that in 26 years of public service, this has been by far the worst year of service,” he said. “After serving in federal, state, local, municipal, nonprofit worlds, I have never encountered a situation where the tail wags the dog. The School Board reports to the superintendent, not the other way around.”

Porter, who served on the Town Council for 12 years before joining the School Board, said he never quit anything before. He apologized to people who voted for him last year, “and expected me to be able to effect some change. I have failed them.”

School Board member Jim Moulton said he knew Porter was considering resigning.

“I was hoping he wouldn’t, but I understand why he is,” Moulton said. “He’s frustrated, and justifiably so. … Jeff’s a straight-up guy. In my mind, he doesn’t play politics; he does what he thinks is right.”

Moulton added that “I think that there’s a lot of people that sit on that board that don’t make decisions based on facts, and Jeff does, and … he’s a joy to serve with and a man of integrity.”

“In my opinion, this board does not welcome diversity of opinion,” Moulton said. “We want to rubber stamp stuff, and just move along.”

Jim Bailinson, who with Bill Dunnett has reached the end of a term and opted not to run again, offered a different perspective.

“People have said that there is sort of suppression of debate on the board, and that contrary views are not tolerated, which I’ve always felt was ridiculous,” Bailinson said. “No one can seriously argue that debate was stifled this year. … The issue is really how that debate is carried out, and what happens after a decision is made.”

He referred to the board’s code of conduct, which in part calls for members to work collaboratively “in spite of differences of opinion that arise during vigorous debate of points at issue.”

Bailinson also noted the code says members should support a board decision “graciously once it has been made by the majority” of the panel.

“And that has been totally lost,” Bailinson said. “If you look back over the course of what the School Board has done this year, there has been less discussion about educational issues, curriculum, ways to continue to improve performance, working on the strategic initiatives and challenges that face the district.

“… That’s something that I hope will change next year,” he added. “I hope the debate continues. I hope there are dissenting viewpoints on the board. But the issue is, what happens after the debate and a decision has been made; moving forward and backing the work of the district. And I think that’s been lost this year.”

Board member Virginia Dwyer said that “I welcome everyone’s opinion … Diversity is great. But sometimes we have to come together and make decisions. And that’s what was hard this year – that we didn’t always come together and make good solid decisions.”

Bailinson said he does not think this has been a successful year for the board. While he is glad of the movement behind the closure of North Yarmouth Memorial School and expansion of Greely Middle School, as well as the passage of the fiscal 2014 budget, he said he thinks “we lost progress this year.”

He said his decision not to run again is unrelated to the board’s dynamics.

The current School Board got off to a rough start at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. After a series of votes for a chairman last September resulted in continued 4-4 deadlocks, the board unanimously compromised on Porter and Bill Richards as co-chairmen.

“I think that we need to do a better job, generally, with respect to educating people about what the role is for a School Board member,” Richards said. “There’s a policy obligation, there’s a fiduciary obligation, but it’s not the management of schools. That’s why there’s a superintendent. … So there’s always some tension there.

“It’s not unique, certainly, to SAD 51; it’s throughout the state,” he added. “I’ve been in several superintendencies … and I’ve run across this from time to time.”

Richards said he has known Porter “for quite a long time, so I’m somewhat disappointed (with him) not having an opportunity to continue his role, but he has to do what’s best for him.”

Porter acknowledged that he did enjoy a good working relationship with SAD 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson for several months up until this March, when it was discovered that a security system the district purchased was significantly more expensive than originally expected.

Hasson in January presented the School Board with an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000 for a system including picture identification cards and swipe machines to manage visitors. The cost eventually multiplied to nearly $276,000; Hasson said police and the security company demonstrated the need for a more comprehensive system.

Porter has sharply criticized the purchase, calling it a violation of board policy and saying the board should have been more involved in the decision-making process. He said there is “no question” that the matter prompted him to think about stepping down.

“You don’t go from $50,000 to $276,000 without informing your bosses,” he said, adding that “it’s no secret that, given the security system (situation) and some other mistakes by the administration, that … I had thought and expressed that we needed a change in leadership.”

Hasson could not be reached for comment on Porter’s resignation.

Earlier this spring he said the security system decision was about “keeping kids safe … keeping the staff safe, and I needed to move quickly on it.”

He also said that the time that “the mistake that was made was that I didn’t keep the board informed. The project was moving very quickly, there was new information coming in, and I should have kept them informed as to the movement on the (cost).”

Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane said the Town Council will have to appoint a replacement for Porter to serve until the June 2014 election.

“I think it’s disappointing,” Shane said of Porter’s departure, adding that it will be “a big loss” to the School Board.

“I’ve known Jeff for over 20 years; he’s a good friend, and he was an excellent councilor,” the manager added. “He always had a tendency to raise the uncomfortable topics, and … made everything fairly transparent.”

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

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Jeff Porter

School Board OKs amended purchase policy, tables school chief vote

CUMBERLAND — The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors voted 5-2, with one abstention, Monday for an amended policy on district bidding and purchase requirements.

The amendments include a stipulation that competitive bidding or a request for proposals process must occur for purchases of more than $35,000, an increase from the former $25,000 threshold.

A paragraph in that section had stipulated that the superintendent “may forgo the competitive bid or RFP process only when he/she determines that quality, expertise, time factors, or other important considerations outweigh the possible benefits of bidding or requesting proposals. In each such case, the Board shall be informed of the Superintendent’s decision and the reasons for it in advance of entering into a contract.”

That paragraph was amended to state that the Finance Committee must vote to approve the superintendent’s decision in such cases, with the full School Board to be notified of the decision.

Board member Virginia Dwyer, who voted with co-Chairman Jeff Porter against the policy amendment, said she wanted a clause included that allowed for emergencies. She questioned what would happen if a catastrophic occurrence like a gaping hole in a roof needed to be addressed immediately, and Finance Committee members could not be reached.

Board member Jim Moulton abstained from the vote.

The policy discussion was a response to the district’s recent purchase of school security equipment, which Superintendent Robert Hasson presented as a $50,000 to $60,000 expense that ultimately grew to nearly $276,000.

Later in Monday’s meeting the School Board met for more than 2 1/2 hours in executive session to evaluate Hasson. The panel was then to vote whether to authorize negotiation of a contract extension with him, but it opted 6-2 to table that decision. No date has been set for the matter to be addressed again.

Two years remain in Hasson’s current contract, which was extended a year ago.

Board member Jim Moulton, who voted with co-Chairman Bill Richards against delaying the decision, said Tuesday that he thought tabling would be “the wrong message to send to the public, that we’re kicking this thing down the road.”

Richards said “I (thought) it was important for the board to address the question at hand at that time.”

— Alex Lear

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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.