KENNEBUNK — The Regional School Unit 21 board mishandled the hiring process for its interim superintendent because confusion over internet searches led it to overlook information that should have been discussed with the candidate, the board chairwoman said Monday night.

Last week the board unanimously approved the hiring of Maryann Perry, who retired from the Marblehead, Massachusetts, school district amid allegations it violated state law by purposely withholding nearly $600,000 in out-of-district special education tuition bills in 2018 and then paid them using money from the 2019 budget.

Perry’s hiring comes as the Kennebunk-based district is emerging from the fallout generated by a former teacher’s complaint it retaliated against her for reporting two incidents of racism in her classroom, prompting a Maine Human Rights Commission complaint and $50,000 settlement paid by the district.

“We recognize the way the board handled Dr. Perry’s hiring process has not been in line with the community’s expectations and for that I apologize,” board Chairwoman MaryBeth Luce said in a statement read at the start of Monday’s meeting.

The district includes the towns of Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

“To be perfectly clear, due to considerable confusion among us regarding the legal ramifications and/or best practices of conducting internet searches on candidates, we admit we did not discuss the publicly accessible information from Marblehead with Maryann during the interview process,” Luce said.

The allegations against Perry were documented in several articles in local Massachusetts news outlets including the Salem News and Marblehead Reporter and can be easily produced with an internet search.

Asked what legal ramifications there might be for conducting an internet search on a candidate, Luce said she was not sure.

“There was confusion about what the best practices were,” she said.

More than 50 people signed a petition presented Monday night calling for the board to revisit the Sept. 12 vote it took after an emergency executive session rejecting a call for an investigation into Perry’s hiring. The voted failed 9-3.

The petition calls for the board to conduct an independent investigation of the hiring process, the findings of an audit done for the town of Marblehead and “what happened with Maryann Perry’s employment at St. Mary’s in Winchester, Massachusetts.”

A letter posted on the website of the Catholic school on June 29 announced Perry as its next principal and said she was scheduled to start July 8, the day before the RSU 21 board voted to launch its search for an interim superintendent.

“We are hoping for a response from the board, which I realize you might not be prepared to make right now, but we are asking for a response,” said Kennebunk resident Marie Louise St. Onge, who presented the petition to the board.

Another Kennebunk resident, Art LeBlanc, was not among those who signed the petition but said Monday night that he was frustrated the district is “trying to rebuild credibility” and in the midst of that “extended an offer and hired a person who recently went through a disruption of their own involving the misappropriation funds in excess of $600,000.”

LeBlanc said he saw two options for the district, to either come to terms with the decision they made and reflect on the hiring process, or consult an attorney about terminating Perry’s contract.

“Regardless of whatever happens, this process has significant ramifications not only on our community and yourselves as a board but also on the people involved,” he said. “I’d encourage you regardless of what you do to examine the process that led to these events.”

Luce said Monday night that since the vote the board has had “extensive discussions” with Perry as well as members of the Marblehead school board and a “significant majority” of the RSU 21 board stands by the decision to hire her.

Moving forward the board will be reviewing its hiring process as it prepares to embark on the search for a permanent superintendent in early 2020, she said.

“I expect a full discussion of that process will begin at the board level in public session at one of our next three meetings,” Luce said. “We will make clear notice of it on the agenda and will also make the hiring process public, including specific ways the community can be engaged throughout the process.”

The entire board was involved in Perry’s hiring and she was selected from among three finalists.

Last week, Luce said the board had “not discussed at length” the allegations against Perry when asked if it was something members were aware of prior to her hiring.

“I don’t know who was aware of what,” she said Monday.

Board member Rachel Phipps said Monday that she wanted to make it clear many board members were not aware of the allegations before the hiring on Sept. 9.

Perry, who is scheduled to start full-time on Sept. 30 and earn a salary of $130,000, was present at Monday’s meeting and defended her time in Marblehead Public Schools.

“There was a situation during the 2017-2018 fiscal year that resulted in unpaid out-of-district special education invoices being paid in the 2018-2019 school year,” she said. “The mishandling of the invoices was the result of actions within both the school district business office and the town business office.”

Perry said an independent financial audit was conducted that recommended changes in protocols.

“As superintendent it was my responsibility to stand in front of my administrations and that’s exactly what I did and have always done,” she said. “I hope the community of RSU 21 will give the board of directors and I an opportunity to build a district that focuses on student achievement and students first.”


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