A sign outside the home of Shawn McBrearity in Cumberland showing school board member Ann Maksymowicz seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. McBrearity has been a vocal critic of SAD 51’s equity and inclusion training and of school officials. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer 

Tensions between school board members in Cumberland and North Yarmouth and a resident who has accused the board of illegally hiring a consultant to work on racial equity issues have escalated to the point where some board members say they feel unsafe.

Cumberland resident Shawn McBreairty has been a vocal critic of the board and superintendent since the summer, when the district sent a letter to the community that commented on the death of George Floyd and outlined its work with a firm it hired in 2019 to conduct anti-racism training.

McBreairty’s criticisms have become more public recently. Last month, outside his home across from Greely Middle School, he set up a life-size poster of board member Ann Maksymowicz sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. When Maksymowicz went to McBreairty’s house to talk to him about the sign, which is surrounded by rat traps and illuminated at night, she was served a criminal trespass warning. Even before the sign went up, Maksymowicz had sought a cease of harassment notice from police against McBreairty.

“I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t think he’s breaking laws, but it’s gotten nasty,” said board member Mike Williams. “It’s just disappointing. We’re a community, and we feel like the ugliness of national politics is being injected into our town.”

The tensions come amid a national reckoning with racism and police brutality and as communities across Maine and the country are taking steps to address systemic racism. Navigating the issue hasn’t been easy for school districts, which in some cases have stumbled along the way or encountered pushback.

In Scarborough the superintendent apologized after the district’s curriculum coordinator told employees to avoid “controversial” phrases such as Black Lives Matter, sparking a student protest. In Portland, Deering High School principals faced backlash after issuing a statement expressing outrage for a grand jury’s decision not to indict police in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black Louisville woman killed by officers.

“These are real conversations people in our country have all the time,” said SAD 51 Superintendent Jeff Porter. “Just because we live in a state with little diversity doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be teaching our students about this. It’s critical work, and unfortunately it gets politicized.”

TENSIONS OVER A LETTER

The tensions in SAD 51 date back to June, when the district’s equity leadership steering committee issued a letter to the community in response to the death of Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man killed in police custody.

“We call for justice for George Floyd and for the many other Black lives that have been taken by white supremacy in our nation,” the letter said. “It is our duty to educate ourselves and dismantle the violent and oppressive structures which have kept us divided.”

A sign outside the Mabel I. Wilson School in Cumberland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The letter was mostly met with support from the community (the school board chair said at the time that out of about 110 emails she received only two were negative). But some people in the community interpreted the letter as a political statement, Porter said. Two days later he sent a follow-up letter explaining that the committee was formed in response to a series of hate speech events in 2019 and that their statement was an example of their mission to address past inequities and ensure everyone has equal opportunity.

“I realize not everyone is going to receive the message in the way it was intended,” Porter said. “I also recognize that some of the terminology may have felt confrontational, such as ‘white majority’ and ‘white supremacy.'”

As a lifelong resident in a predominantly white state, Porter said, the equity training helped him personally to better understand the country’s history. About 94 percent of Maine’s population is white, and 93 percent of students in SAD 51 are white.

“Maine is relatively insulated by national issues of race and equality so it is harder for many of us here to accept the imbalance of equality that people of color experience every day,” Porter wrote.

Kate Perrin, who served as school board chair at the time the equity committee letter was issued, said she started hearing from McBreairty shortly thereafter.

“As things became inflamed at a national level, we have an individual who has voiced a very vocal opposition to the way we have gone about the racial equity work and the work itself,” Perrin said.

McBreairty declined to be interviewed and said he did not feel comfortable talking to a reporter “given the amount of retaliation from the school board,” though he regularly speaks at school board meetings. At a September school board meeting, he said the equity committee’s letter was perceived by some in the community to be a “very divisive statement” and the “community has yet to be healed by the responsive follow-up communication.”

“The letter states that ‘We cannot move forward until we reconcile the intentional barriers white people have built to harm Black people,'” McBreairty said at the meeting. “The agenda-based learning principles of MSAD 51 should be very alarming to the parents in the district. To quote another concerned community member, ‘This is indoctrination, not education.'”

McBreairty also has accused three members of the school board – Maksymowicz, Perrin and Tyler McGinley – of holding an illegal meeting when the district hired Community Change Inc., a consulting and educational group they had been using earlier this year for work on equity issues. There was no public notice for the meeting.

Bruce Smith, the school district’s attorney, said in a letter to the superintendent last month that the superintendent had acted within his legal authority and received approval from the district finance committee for the expenditure. Smith also said the ad hoc group of three board members who met with the superintendent to discuss the hiring do not meet the definition of a government body subject to public notice requirements, and even if it did, it would have no bearing on the legality of the expenditure.

Sigmund Schutz, an expert on open meetings and public records law and attorney for the Press Herald, said even temporary or ad hoc groups of school board members are subject to the public access law.

“The issue is this was a government function about advising which vendors to hire with taxpayer dollars,” he said. “That’s a government function and that type of meeting is supposed to take place in public.”

Schutz said the legality of the hire could be challenged if the meeting was not conducted properly under the Freedom of Access law, though it would be difficult if the hiring decision was not actually made at the meeting. “The district may be correct that if there was no decision made other than by the superintendent later the decision would stand even if the meeting was unlawful,” he said.

Porter said he and the board did not intend to act nefariously. “It’s fine if people want to disagree, but if it goes beyond that and becomes personal, it worries people,” he said.

‘THIS IS NOT OK’

In the six months since those June letters, five of nine board members said they feel the discourse from McBreairty has elevated to a level beyond what’s reasonable and civil.

Recently, the district has been staffing board meetings with police. The phone numbers of board members have also been removed from the district website because they were receiving calls and text messages at inappropriate hours, Porter said.

In October, Maksymowicz filed a protection from harassment order in Portland District Court. She claimed McBreairty has been slandering her name and took a picture of her seated during the Pledge of Allegiance at a board meeting Oct. 5. Maksymowicz stays seated for the pledge as a way of showing respect to people in the country who are not treated equally.

McBreairty posted the photo in a community forum on Facebook along with specific directions to Maksymowicz’s house. That evening, a Black Lives Matter sign posted at the end of her driveway was vandalized, Maksymowicz wrote in her complaint for protection from harassment.

The court denied Maksymowicz’s request for a temporary protection from harassment order because her allegations were insufficient. She then voluntarily dismissed the complaint, acknowledging that she is a public, elected official who is subject to scrutiny. Still, Maksymowicz said she is disheartened by the situation. “Even though this isn’t illegal, we should be able to find a way as a community to say, ‘This is not OK,'” she said.

McBreairty took things a step further by putting the photo on a large sign and posted it in his front yard. Maksymowicz left a note on McBreairty’s house asking for the sign to be removed and then showed up again at his house the next day and spoke to McBreairty’s wife after the sign was not removed. Maksymowicz was then served a criminal trespass warning.

The display outside Shawn McBrearity’s house in Cumberland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In the court records, McBreairty said publishing Maksymowicz’s photo was not intended as harassment.

“It is certainly not intimidation, nor is it confrontational, nor was there any use of physical force, or the threat of physical force,” he wrote in a motion to dismiss.

McGinley, the current board chair, sought a cease of harassment notice from Cumberland police but has not pursued anything in court. She said McBreairty crossed a line when he began calling a family member for information about her.

“I totally understand we are subject to scrutiny, but I felt when my personal life was being affected that it was appropriate to contact the police department,” she said.

‘IN NEED OF AN AWAKENING’

Board members and people in the community have said they feel strongly that equity and inclusion work is an important undertaking. At a June school board meeting, Jameel Moore, a 2007 graduate of Greely High School, said he was overwhelmed with pride and admiration when he read the equity committee’s June letter. Those feelings quickly turned to disappointment, however, when Moore said he learned the letter was met with backlash from people who disagreed with the language in it.

Growing up in SAD 51 as a person of color, Moore said he did not have a lot of resources to help him navigate academics and social life as a minority in a predominantly white community. At school his pockets were emptied on suspicion of carrying drugs, while those of other students were not. Police would stop him walking down Main Street to ask where he was going, and some parents did not want him hanging out with their children.

“It was clear to me then, and even more so now, that the SAD 51 district is desperately in need of an awakening on how the rest of the world works and how people of color have been and continue to be treated,” Moore said.

McBreairty has said he believes racism is real but that systemic racism “is a complete sham.” At an October town council meeting, he said he does not agree with how the district has decided to address the issue. “It shouldn’t be taught at Greely that a kid, parent, or any other member of the community needs to feel bad for being born. White guilt is a myth created by the left and supported by the Greely administration,” he said.

He has also said he believes equity and inclusion training should take place. “But it should be no more important than any other bias related training,” McBreairty wrote in a Facebook post Sept. 4.

A sign on Tuttle Road in support of the school district’s equity and inclusion work. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

McBreairty’s protests have worked, to some degree. The school district ended its relationship with CCI, which did not include a contract and was based on a fee-for-service understanding. Porter acknowledged the decision came after McBreairty and a Cumberland town councilor brought up concerns about Twitter posts by CCI’s executive director, Shay Stewart-Bouley.

Porter said the district was happy with the training it received from CCI and had not been in direct contact with Stewart-Bouley, but he decided to stop working with CCI after looking into what he characterized as political tweets from her about the 2020 elections.

Stewart-Bouley said CCI does not take a political stance. “I am entitled to my own opinions that I can share on my personal social media,” she said. “If a person has a problem with that, they are entitled to those feelings, but that doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

SAD 51 has partnered with other districts to do equity work through the University of Southern Maine. McBreairty has also attacked that relationship, accusing McGinley of selecting USM without a school board vote and calling the university a “full blown Marxist company.”

Porter said no board meeting was necessary for the decision because the board delegates the responsibility of carrying out the district’s strategic plan, including equity work, to the superintendent, and he decided to hire USM with input from the equity committee. He also communicated to the board about the decision.

The work will focus on policy development, how to develop an equity plan, training for staff, students and the community, and how to tailor equity work to an individual district.

“This is an issue I think multiple towns and districts around the state are dealing with,” Williams said. “It stinks we’re the ones dealing with a vociferous person, but that hopefully will help bring to light that this is hard.”

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