Parents have plenty to say about a superintendent who hired his son for a district job, but school board rules prevent them from expressing their opinions.

Since news broke that the superintendent of schools had hired his son as an ed tech – and that the son had been charged with sexually assaulting a student in another district – residents of Buxton-based School Administrative District 6 have packed school board meetings to make their disapproval known.

But they’ve had to shout, hold up signs and pound their fists to be heard, because the board hasn’t permitted them to speak from the podium. At a meeting Monday, police removed a woman who started yelling “Resign!” Other people at that meeting, where the board found that Superintendent Frank Sherburne had violated the nepotism policy but didn’t punish him, expressed frustration with being silenced.

“There is no forum for the public to speak whatsoever,” said Heather Pike, a parent.

Unlike in the vast majority of districts in the area, the SAD 6 Board of Directors allows members of the public to comment only on items that are on that meeting’s agenda. There is no open comment section for residents to raise questions or lodge complaints about anything else. Furthermore, the board invoked a policy against making complaints about employees in public to shut down speakers who have tried to use agenda item discussions to call for Sherburne’s removal.

The restrictions have only added to the anger for some residents.

“They’re sitting there real arrogant, like, ‘We don’t have to listen to the things we don’t want to, because we’re the school board,’ ” said Chris Day, who has two sons at Bonny Eagle High School.

SAD 6 is the state’s fourth largest school district, serving about 3,700 students and covering five rural communities in York and Cumberland counties.

There is no legal reason for a Maine school board to cut off public criticism of a superintendent or any government official, said Sigmund Schutz, an attorney from Portland firm Preti Flaherty who specializes in freedom of information law.

But boards are not legally obligated to open meetings to public comment, either, he said. It’s just what most of them choose to do.

School boards and city and town councils often have work sessions, or workshops, that do not include public comment sessions. But formal meetings, when votes are cast and policies are made, typically include a chance for constituents to comment in front of the board and whoever else might be listening.

A survey of 20 school districts in southern Maine, ranging from Regional School Unit 21 in Kennebunk to the Lake Region school district in the Bridgton area, found that three districts – Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and SAD 6 – limit public comments to agenda items only. All other districts hold open public comment periods at their regular meetings. Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport has two open comment sections, one at the beginning of the meeting and one near the end.

Jacquelyn Perry, a longtime school board member in Scarborough, said she understands why the SAD 6 school board limits comments.

The Scarborough board stopped having an open comment period about 15 years ago when the “open mic” sessions became disruptive, Perry said. There had been a change in policy to prohibit holiday celebrations in school because students of different religions, especially around Christmastime, were feeling left out, she said.

Parents would show up at meeting after meeting to voice their complaints about the change after it was made, and it was making it hard to get the board’s regular business done, Perry said. “They shouldn’t be able to just get up and vent.”

Another reason for the policy, she said, is to prevent people from airing problems with employees in public. “When it gets personal, it’s very difficult,” she said.

Perry has thought about what it would be like to be under the circumstances that SAD 6 is facing.

“If that was going on in Scarborough, we’d be doing what they’re doing,” she said. “You can’t allow people to be vilified in public.”

SAD 6 officials who responded to questions for this article didn’t know how long the district has limited public comment.

The policy was last revised in 2014. Minutes from a meeting Feb. 3 of that year say there was a “lengthy discussion” regarding the policy and that several board members “suggested moving the public comment from the beginning of the agenda and allocate time for public comment during the actual agenda item,” though there’s no indication from those minutes that a public comment period had been held at the beginning of the meeting. It seems, however, if there was, it was limited to items on the agenda.

“All agreed that allowing time for public comment during board meetings was important,” the minutes said. “Some members believed that public comment should not be limited to agenda items designated as action items.”

In meetings since the news broke that Sherburne had hired his son, who was charged with sexually assaulting a student in another district where he worked, residents hoping to speak about the situation were told to send a letter to the chairman of the board’s Negotiations Committee, Todd Delaney.

Complaints made in writing to the school board are public records under state law. But they are not aired in a public setting and do not readily become part of the community debate – especially if the board does not want them to be.

Delaney did not respond to an email sent Tuesday asking if he’s received written complaints. The board also has a policy that the chairwoman, Rebecca Bowley, is the only member allowed to speak to the media. Bowley hasn’t responded to questions sent by email.

She said after Monday’s meeting that the board is “taking steps to address the personnel matter” and referenced its upcoming annual evaluation of the superintendent.

That’s on the agenda for a meeting May 23, meaning the public should be allowed to comment.


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