MaryBeth Luce

KENNEBUNK — With criticism mounting following the controversial hiring of an interim schools superintendent earlier this month, RSU 21 school board chair MaryBeth Luce has resigned and vice-chair school board chair Mike Mosher has announced that he will step down from his leadership role, but remain on the board.

This follows an emergency executive session by the board on Sept. 12 and a vote against launching an investigation into the hiring of the new interim superintendent, who joined RSU 21 after serving at a Massachusetts school district where she allegedly was criticized for her handling of special education funds. During the executive session, the board voted 9-3 to not investigate the hiring of Dr. Maryann Perry as interim superintendent.

Critics of the hiring have said that the board failed to properly vet Perry’s candidacy and is the latest in a series of controversial actions taken by RSU 21 in the past year, including a former teacher’s complaint alleging she was subject to retaliation for reporting racist incidents at Kennebunk High School.

In June, the Salem, Massachusetts News reported that Perry had resigned her position as superintendent of Marblehead Public Schools in the wake of an audit which found she intentionally withheld nearly $600,000 in 2018 special education tuition bills for several months before paying them with 2019 funds, a violation of state finance laws and regulations.

In her resignation from the board, Luce acknowledged the board’s shortcomings.

“Last week, I apologized on behalf of the board for not meeting community expectations during the hiring process of the interim superintendent,” Luce said. “Today, I am stepping aside to allow for new leadership to move us forward.”

Mosher echoed her sentiments.

“It is clear to MaryBeth and me that it is time to let a different team take the helm,” he said.

Luce also said that the board did not consider publicly available information about any of the candidates and that the board followed its current protocol for all candidates considered for hire.

The Maine Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on age, gender, race, ability, orientation, national origin, and other protected classes.

“That’s why we don’t want individual board members performing internet searches on a candidate during a confidential hiring process,” Luce said. “We need to safeguard candidates from the risk of bringing bias against any protected class status into the decision-making process.”

Instead, the Maine School Management Association, the state’s leading advisor to school boards, recommends that a non-voting person conduct any internet searches on candidates.

“That way, protected class information can be redacted, and online search results can be shared safely with the board,” Luce said.  “This was the best practice protocol that in hindsight we should have followed. The Maine School Management Association had advised our Human Resources committee several weeks before our Sept. 9 vote about this best practice, but unfortunately the advice was not incorporated into the committee’s recommended hiring process, and that’s where we let the community down.”

The next RSU 21 board of directors’ public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7 at Kennebunk Elementary School. The community is encouraged to attend for a public discussion on where the school board goes next.

“We realize that repeated negative headlines are a distraction and take away from our job of focusing on students and staff,” Mosher said. “We have important work on our school start times, elementary school enrollment decisions, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and other student-centered needs that must take priority.”

Perry is replacing Dr. Katie Hawes as RSU 21 superintendent. Hawes resigned in July to take a teaching position at the University of Southern Maine.

The Arundel Select board will appoint a successor to fill Luce’s remaining term through June 2020. An Arundel town election will be held in June to chose a candidate for a three-year term on the board starting July 1, 2020.

A new chair and vice-chair will be voted on by the school board at an upcoming public meeting.

RSU 21 serves the communities of Kennebunk, Arundel and Kennebunkport and has an enrollment of about 2,500 students.

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be reached at 282-1535 or by email at [email protected]

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