May 18, 2013

Our View: Residency mandate puts Biddeford in tough spot

School superintendents shouldn't have to live in the communities where they work.

The Legislature was poised to offer a simple fix for a sticky problem last week. Then politics happened. After passing the House and Senate with overwhelming support, a bill that would have ended local residency requirements for school superintendents was vetoed by Gov. LePage.

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Legislators weren’t able to override Gov. LePage’s veto of a bill that would have ended local residency requirements for school superintendents. The city of Biddeford, which has such an ordinance in place, may have to replace its superintendent because he lives in Saco.

When it came time to override, a bunch of Republicans changed their minds and voted to uphold the governor's veto, so the law won't go into effect.

Keep in mind that this had little to do with substance of the bill, and almost everything to do with party discipline in the final weeks of the legislative session. Republicans who changed their votes were sending the message that they would stand with their governor, setting the stage for bigger showdowns on taxes, the budget and health care legislation now pending in the Legislature.

But where does that leave Biddeford? The city hired Superintendent Jeremy Ray last summer. But it may have to replace him this year because he lives not in Biddeford, but across the river in Saco. While that's hardly a cultural divide that would make him insensitive to the needs of the students in the system he runs, it is a violation of a city ordinance. Since the Legislature could not resolve the issue, it's up to Ray to decide whether he prefers his job or his house.

Which is not in the interest of the people of Biddeford.

Superintendent searches are expensive. The city's school board has put aside $35,000 in case it has to conduct one this year. At a time when all schools have to watch every dollar spent, this is wasteful.

And you don't change school superintendents like lightbulbs. They each come in with their own ideas and leadership style, and it takes them a while to settle in. Replacing an otherwise successful CEO of the most costly and important arm of city government just because he lives on the wrong bank of the Saco River doesn't make a lot of sense.

School board members, who make policy, should be taxpayers. But employees who carry out those policies shouldn't have to be. As long as the roles are clearly defined, there is no need to conduct another expensive serch.

Since the Legislature could not solve this problem, it's up to municipalities like Biddeford to take a common-sense approach to this issue.


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