Officials in School Administrative District 6 and the district’s teachers union clashed Thursday over the motive for the union’s allegations last spring that the superintendent had improper communications with a student.
A letter posted on the Bonny Eagle school district’s website and sent to parents Thursday said the allegations, made public in a Portland Press Herald article the same day, were untrue and were a product of the union’s resistance to change.
The Saco Valley Teachers’ Association responded by saying it doesn’t know what resistance the board was referring to and “the letter shows a complete lack of support and respect” for teachers.
Rumors about Superintendent Frank Sherburne have been circulating through Buxton-based SAD 6 for months. Last month, the superintendent began posting his daily appointments schedule online to dispel rumors that he was on administrative leave.
The rumors apparently began in the spring, when the union claimed in a letter to the school board that Sherburne’s communications with an unidentified student had caused a delay in providing the boy with mental health care, which included hospitalization.
The union said that Sherburne made himself “available via phone, text and email” to a student, that he said the student “was engaging in suicidal behavior âfor attention,’ ” and that he told the student that if he “went to Spring Harbor (Hospital) they âwill strip you down and put a catheter in your penis.’ “
In response to the rumors and the complaint, the school board hired the Portland law firm Pierce Atwood, “at a significant expense to the taxpayers of the district,” to investigate Sherburne, officials have said.
The district has refused to release the findings of that investigation, but school officials said that it cleared Sherburne of wrongdoing and that the matter was dropped.
The superintendent “did not act in a manner that was inappropriate with any student,” said the letter to the community Thursday.
The letter on the district’s website was signed by school board Chair Charlotte Dufresne, but she said Thursday that it was written collaboratively by her, Superintendent Sherburne and the district’s attorney, Peter Felmly of Drummond Woodsum.
The letter said that the family of the student mentioned in the union’s letter felt the “staff did not seem interested in helping the student” and that the superintendent “was forced to become involved with the student because the family came directly to him for help and support.”
It said statements that the union claimed Sherburne made “must be taken with extreme caution.”
“The employees involved in writing the letter from the (union) had no direct involvement in the conversations between the superintendent and the student and do not know what was said nor the context of any of the conversations,” the letter said.
It said the union made the allegations because the district is going through “significant change,” which is being carried out by the superintendent, who was hired in 2011.
“A reaction from the union is not uncommon when change occurs. The reaction is typically intended to distract the district and the public from the change and to insure the status quo is maintained,” the letter said.
The Saco Valley Teachers’ Association said Thursday that it “accepted the results (of the investigation) and made no additional actions regarding this matter.”
However, it responded to Dufresne’s letter Thursday afternoon, saying it is “very concerned about the board’s letter besmirching the union” and referring to a statement earlier this week by union President Eric Curtis about its efforts to work collaboratively. The two sides are scheduled to begin contract negotiations soon.
“I’m absolutely concerned it’s going to have a negative effect on the work we’ve been doing,” Curtis said Thursday about the board’s letter.
He said that 15 to 20 union members either emailed him or came to his classroom Thursday, upset about the statement regarding their resistance to change. “We’re not resisting change whatsoever,” Curtis said.
When Dufresne was asked Thursday what change her letter referred to, she said, “I can’t tell you. I don’t have the letter in front of me.”
Pressed about what changes are occurring in the district, she pointed to the relatively new superintendent, the transition to standards-based assessments and the adoption of the Common Core curriculum.
The union on Thursday defended its reasoning for going to the board with the complaints about Sherburne. It said the letter in May “was based upon concerns brought to the union by members of the teaching staff after they tried repeatedly to resolve their concerns directly with Superintendent Sherburne.”
The union said its action was prompted by its understanding of the board’s policy, which says “staff members are expected to be sensitive to the appearance of impropriety in their conduct with students” and are required to report “a situation that may constitute a violation of this policy.”
The district has denied the Press Herald’s request for the report from the investigation under the Freedom of Access Act, saying it includes confidential employee information.
The Press Herald also has requested the associated legal bills, which the district has yet to provide. Dufresne said Thursday that she did not know how much the investigation cost.
“Although we all should find this situation troubling based on the articles and the letter from the (union), there is a great deal of inaccurate or missing information that cannot be shared with the public,” said the letter from Dufresne.
The letter also took the newspaper to task, saying, “It is unfortunate that with the many positive things that are occurring in the district, the media has chosen to focus in (sic) such negative and false issues.”
Sherburne first made it public that rumors about him were circulating when he sent a letter to parents on Sept. 26. It said he would post his daily appointments schedule on the district’s website to end speculation that he was on administrative leave, a rumor that had come up three times since August on days he was out of the district.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]Twitter: @lesliebridgers