Resignations bring SAD 75 leadership crisis to light

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TOPSHAM — The resignation Feb. 8 of two longtime members of the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors prompted the panel Wednesday to hold an emergency meeting that sets the stage for a possible leadership change later this month.

Joanne Rogers and David Johnson, both Harpswell representatives on the 14-member board, informed Chairwoman Kim Totten they feel they “no longer have the trust of the Board and therefore should not continue to serve,” according to a statement Totten released.

Rogers served on the board for 34 years; Johnson served 22 years.

After Wednesday’s meeting began, the board met with its attorney in executive session for about an hour to discuss its legal rights and responsibilities.

When the board returned to public session, no discussion of leadership issues occurred, but the panel set five agenda items for its Feb. 28 meeting: a board removal from office, a removal from a committee, appointment of an officer to a board position, appointment of a new committee member or members to a committee, and to pause the search process for a permanent superintendent of schools until after Feb. 28.

Although board members did not identify anyone, Totten is a likely target. “Board removal from office” would remove her as chairwoman and as chairwoman of the superintendent interview committee.

At least two SAD 75 parents have said they hope to have the board remove Totten from the board entirely.

In a Feb. 10 letter to Totten and Interim Superintendent Dan Chuhta, Bill Keleher of Topsham and Brandy Robertson of Bowdoin requested an item be placed on the Feb. 28 agenda to vote on Totten’s removal.

They said they “feel this is a necessary step to re-establish comity and accountability to the MSAD 75 school board.”

Keleher expanded his concerns in an email Tuesday, stating Totten “has consistently shown poor leadership skills and a complete lack of transparency and accountability in her role as Chair of the Board. Of greater consequence, she has created a hostile environment within the district: one of fear and coercion.”

The resignations of two board members “should come as no surprise given the current Chair and the situation that she has now put the district in due to the decisions she has made,” he said.

He said he planned to say more at the Feb. 28 meeting.

Totten and other board members declined to answer questions about the board’s action after Wednesday’s meeting.

Totten was elected to the board in 2005. Her current term expires in July 2020.

While the School Board can remove a member from an office or committee by a two-thirds majority vote by the full board during a regular meeting, it lacks the authority to remove a member from the board.

That decision would rest with the member’s town.

The leadership crisis comes at a time of transition in SAD 75.

Superintendent of Schools Brad Smith announced his retirement in March 2018, effective June 30. The School Board conducted an initial search for Smith’s replacement last spring, but decided in June to appoint Chuhta on an interim basis.

Kopp, chairwoman at the time, said then that the board decided to appoint an interim superintendent “to avoid any rushed decisions.”

The district posted the vacancy last month, and the board appointed Totten, of Bowdoin, to chair the interview committee, comprised of members Rachel Tome of Bowdoinham, Jane Scease of Topsham, and Johnson.

Chuhta announced last month that he would be leaving SAD 75 Feb. 15 to become the state’s deputy commissioner of education. The board, which hired former Regional School Unit 68 Superintendent Robert Lucy as interim superintendent, has aimed to have a permanent school chief start on July 1.

Filling the vacancies

Harpswell, meanwhile, now has three seats to fill on the School Board. Besides Johnson and Rogers, board member Linda Hall did not file papers for re-election when her current term expires in July.

The town’s fourth representative, Alison Hawkes, has a term that expires next year.

Voters at Harpswell’s March 9 annual Town Meeting will decide who will fill Hall’s seat. No one submitted nomination papers for that position, but Molly Perry of Harpswell Neck Road is a declared write-in candidate, Town Clerk Roz Knight said Tuesday.

It’s too late for the vacancies left by Johnson and Rogers to be decided at Town Meeting, Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said Monday. The Board of Selectmen will appoint people to fill those positions.

Given the recent timing of the resignations, “we haven’t really put a plan in place for what the appointment process will look like,” she said.

Since the School Board is developing its fiscal year 2020 budget, “my sense is that the board would want to get these appointments filled fairly soon, so we have that representation reflected,” Eiane added.

She said she was waiting for word from the Maine Municipal Association’s legal department on whether the appointments could be made until a special election this June, or until Harpswell’s next annual election, in March 2020.

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors held an emergency meeting in Topsham Wednesday to discuss leadership issues following the resignation last week of two longtime members. Chairwoman Kim Totten, second from right at the far table, is also under fire.

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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.