Second SAD 51 board chairman resigns; Cumberland council to fill 2 seats

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CUMBERLAND — Upheaval on the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors continued Monday when Bill Richards, the remaining co-chairman, resigned because he is moving out of the district.

Richards’ action followed the July 1 resignation of the other co-chairman, Jeff Porter, who blamed frustration with the board for his decision to leave with two years remaining in his term.

Richards, who served on the board for five years, said in a June 27 letter to Superintendent of Schools Robert Hasson that he and his wife are moving to Sandy River Plantation in Franklin County.

Richards, a former school teacher, principal and superintendent, served this year as interim superintendent in the Wells-Ogunquit school district. The 70-year-old, a resident of Cumberland for 35 years, had also served as associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, providing leadership for the Bureau of Instruction, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and before that was director of curriculum for the state.

“Although this year has been a challenge, I’ve enjoyed my five years as a member of the Board,” Richards wrote in his letter of resignation. “The opportunity to explore education’s future with the Strategic Thinking/Strategic Planning Committee was both interesting and professionally rewarding.”

He added that “I’ve also enjoyed our acquaintance as colleagues and wish you the very best next year with a new Board of Directors.”

Three of his sons went through the SAD 51 system, and he had been encouraged to serve on the School Board, Richards said on Tuesday. One year remained in his current term.

The Town Council is expected to appoint two residents next month to replace Richards and Porter, joining Bethany Hanley, Gigi Sanchez and Karen Campbell as Cumberland’s representatives on the nine-member panel shared with North Yarmouth. The appointees would serve until June 2014, when elections will be held to fill the final year of Porter’s unexpired term and to elect a successor to Richards for a new, three-year term.

Interested applicants must have lived in Cumberland for at least one year, Town Manager Bill Shane said, and should submit a letter of interest no longer than two pages that includes the person’s name and address, number of years they have lived in the community, community involvement and knowledge of the school system.

Letters must be postmarked by July 19 or hand-delivered to Shane’s office by 9 a.m. July 22. The Town Council on July 29 will hold a televised public meeting at which it will ask each candidate a series of questions in a public interview format similar to a meet-the-candidates’ night.

The council would like to fill the two seats by mid- to late-August, Shane said.

He expressed hope “that people will actually see that the council is very serious about this … I’m excited about the process; I think it will be a very open process, and a very public process. … Everybody’s going to see the questions asked, and everybody’s going to see how the candidates respond, and we’ll televise it multiple times.”

The new School Board got off to a rough start at the beginning of the 2012-2013 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 Richards as co-chairmen.

Hasson said Monday that Richards, as co-chairman, “provided solid leadership to the board.”

“I’ve known Bill for 20, 25 years,” Porter said Monday, adding that he has “always had the highest respect” for him.

But Porter also said it was “unfortunate” Richards accepted the interim superintendent position in Wells while continuing as a member of the board. “He obviously had a conflict of interest at that point,” and his attention was divided, Porter said.

Richards, who served with Porter in the Cumberland/North Yarmouth Lions Club, is “just a good guy,” Porter said. “I just think that it’s a very difficult thing for him to be both a member of a school board, and a superintendent.”

Richards noted that the School Board is a citizen’s board, and not a professional one.

“I was carrying out my citizens’ duty,” he explained. “… I certainly don’t see it as a conflict. (The interim superintendency) was my employment.”

School Board member Bob Vail said Monday that he had also served on the Planning Board and in the Lions Club with Richards, and “always enjoyed” working with him.

Vail said he “thought that (Richards) provided balance. I didn’t always agree with him … but probably 90 percent of the time we were on the same page. And I would certainly consider him a good friend and an asset to the community.”

“He had a wide variety of job skills and talents to call on,” Vail added.

In his letter of resignation to Shane, Porter expressed distrust of Hasson and SAD 51 Finance Director Scott Poulin. He said the “debacle” concerning the purchase of a security system for the district’s schools “convinced me that the tail does wag the dog. Unfortunately a majority of the School Board did not wish to hold the administration accountable for their actions.”

The School Board’s March discovery that a security system the district purchased was significantly more expensive than originally expected was the key element in Porter’s decision to leave the board. He has criticized the nearly $276,000 purchase – up from the $50,000 to $60,000 Hasson presented in January – as a violation of board policy, saying the board should have been more involved in the decision-making process.

Hasson has said the system purchase – which followed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December – was about keeping students and staff safe, but acknowledged this spring 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).”

Poulin said this spring that administrators did not know the ultimate cost at the time, and that “we were doing time and materials as we rolled along. We also had community members who wanted to know what we were doing to ensure that students were safe.”

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

Sidebar Elements

Bill Richards, left, and Jeff Porter, co-chairmen of the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors, both recently resigned from the panel.

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.