The fight over how much time Cumberland-North Yarmouth students should be in the classroom during the pandemic has led to a recall effort of four school board members.

Cumberland residents Nicholas Begin and Robert Greco are petitioning to recall Mike Williams, Tyler McGinley, Jennifer Stewart and Peter Bingham.

If 1,505 signatures are collected by May 7, representing 20% of residents who voted in the last election, the recall will be put to voters at a special election, according to Town Clerk Tammy O’Donnell.  

If voters approve the recall, the town council will appoint replacements, she said, citing the town charter.

At issue is the ongoing hybrid school model, with students spending part of the week at school with in-person instruction and part of the week at home learning remotely.

The board members subject to the possible recall and Superintendent Jeff Porter said this week that there is not enough physical space on school property nor adequate staffing to handle full-time in-person instruction while following state pandemic guidelines. The board voted on April 6 to keep the hybrid model in place for the remainder of the school year.

That vote came after Getting Back to Green, which Porter described as a 27-person task force made up of students, teachers, parents, administrators and school board members, recommended against full in-person instruction at this time.

Porter said overcrowding issues had led the district to employ portable classrooms even before the pandemic.

“We do not have enough space,” he said. “We’re very tight on space.”

Some staff members are on pandemic-related medical or family leave, Porter said, further complicating a return to in-person instruction. Williams said some classes, such as allied arts, would have to be canceled, and that was a big factor in his decision to back the task force’s recommendations.

“We’d have music teachers teaching fourth grade,” Williams said. 

Tensions rising

Begin said he and other parents had asked the district for the chance to do a walkthrough of school properties to see firsthand the space problems. Despite multiple conversations with board members and officials over the past several months, he said, the walkthrough never happened, and the task force never performed one, either.

“They didn’t do the work,” he said.

Begin said the walkthrough question is emblematic of what he called a board that doesn’t listen to concerns from parents, especially regarding virtual instruction.

Porter did not respond to an email regarding the walkthrough.

Begin started a private Facebook group, Back to 5, in February to serve as a local discussion group. A description of the group advises posters to “Be kind and courteous,” not to attack teachers or other staff members, and not to revert to political discussions.

Begin said he is trying to keep the conversation constructive, despite rising tensions. 

As one of the targeted SAD 15 board members, Williams said the effort amounted to a personal attack, one that is dividing the town.

“We’re not a big community,” said Williams. “It’s deeply personal. It’s hauling out four school board members into the town square and saying, ‘Judge.'”

Throughout town, maroon signs have appeared emblazoned with “Fire Porter” in white letters. Resident Shawn McBreairty, who has clashed with the board in the past, is behind the sign campaign, according to the Portland Press Herald, but this week Begin hesitated to even mention McBreairty’s name.

“We don’t support what he’s done,” Begin said.

Begin said he agrees Porter’s voice carries a lot of weight with the board, but he would not say if he wanted the board to dismiss Porter.

“I want a board that holds him more accountable for his actions,” Begin said.

Board members stand firm

The four board members said they stand behind their April 6 decision and disagreed with Begin’s accusation that they don’t listen to parents.

Williams said he’d like to get his own second grader with learning issues and his fifth-grader back to full-time, in-person instruction, but the enormity of the task this late in the school year puts that out of reach.

“It’s just too much, and it stinks, and I hate it,” he said.

Williams said he also wanted parents to have a walkthrough, saying, “I think it’s bananas that people didn’t get to do a walkthrough.”

Bingham, who has served on the town council, planning board and school board for the past 36 years, said he hopes his record of service will speak for his commitment to the public interest.

“I closely weigh what those folks say,” he said.

McGinley, in an emailed statement, said, “I am choosing to focus all of my energy on getting our students back to school full-time, five days a week this fall. Although I support and believe in the democratic process, I think this recall is a profound distraction and will only hurt the most important part of all of this, our students. I wish them luck.”

Stewart said she wasn’t on the task force, but took its recommendations, along with all parental concerns, seriously.

“They are noted, and we take them all to heart,” she said.

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