May 16, 2013

For Biddeford superintendent, it's new home or new job

Biddeford requires the leader of its schools to live in the city, and a bill seeking to override the rule was vetoed.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

After months of uncertainty, Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray must decide whether to move to Biddeford or give up the job he has held since last summer.

"I'm not sure what my future holds at this point," Ray said Wednesday, a day after the Legislature upheld the governor's veto of a bill that would have allowed school boards to decide whether superintendents must live in the districts they lead.

Because of Biddeford's requirement that the superintendent live in the city, Ray has until December to move from Saco to Biddeford.

He said he knew about the residency requirement when he took the job but had the impression that the issue would be resolved.

He was initially given six months to move, then the school board extended that period to December.

Though Ray has not decided what to do, the School Committee is preparing for the possibility that it will have to find a new superintendent.

The committee voted Tuesday to set aside $35,000 in next year's budget to pay for moving costs if the district has to hire a new superintendent.

The School Committee has not otherwise discussed the ramifications of the bill's failure or what it could do to keep Ray.

Biddeford is one of six municipalities in Maine with charters that require superintendents to live in their school districts.

Opponents of that requirement, including state Rep. Alan Casavant of Biddeford, say it makes hiring good superintendents even harder because candidates are hesitant to uproot their families.

After Biddeford voters rejected a charter change that would have eliminated the city's rule, Casavant submitted the bill, L.D. 6, to prohibit cities and towns from requiring residency.

Casavant -- who also is the mayor of Biddeford and chairman of the School Committee -- said he submitted the bill at the committee's urging.

The bill was later amended to authorize school boards to make the decisions.

The bill passed easily, with a 115-22 vote in the House and a 28-6 vote in the Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Many House Republicans who initially supported the bill switched to support the governor's veto in voting on Tuesday.

"I was disappointed in the vote because it was so overwhelming the first time," said Superintendent Ray. "I was surprised so many people changed their mind, but that's how our country is set up. It's true democracy."

Casavant and School Committee members aren't sure what will happen next.

They're wondering whether they could have done more to explain to Biddeford voters why they wanted to eliminate the residency requirement. The change, proposed in November, failed by 1,167 votes.

"As a school committee we failed Superintendent Ray," said Bil Moriarty, a committee member. "We did not communicate how important this charter change is for the district."

During Biddeford's last search for a superintendent, several potential candidates called for information about the job, but the city never heard from them again after they were told of the residency requirement, Casavant said.

"My great fear is we're going to lose our superintendent, and that will be devastating to the community," Casavant said. "If we have no ability to attract the best and most creative candidate, we're at a huge disadvantage."

Casavant, who was frustrated by the Legislature's vote to uphold the veto after it showed bipartisan support for his bill, has faced a political backlash for proposing the legislation. Critics in Biddeford have told him he disregarded the will of the voters.

"The bottom line is, if I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again," Casavant said.

Ryan Fecteau, who served on the charter commission that recommended the rule change, did not favor eliminating the residency requirement.

(Continued on page 2)

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