Members of the Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 school board are pushing back on an effort to recall two board members that an organizer says stems from concern large numbers of teachers have been quitting over the last year and a half.

While no official paperwork has been filed to start a recall in any of the three towns in the district, which also includes Kennebunkport and Arundel, Kennebunk resident Norm Archer said he has collected the necessary number of signatures to file affidavits starting the recall process for board Chair Art LeBlanc and board member Tim Stentiford. And the board acted preemptively in responding to the recall by issuing a six-page letter to the community Tuesday in its defense.

Art LeBlanc is the chair of the RSU21 school board and the target of a recall effort, along with another school board member, Tim Stentiford. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Archer, a former board chair who served as a member from 2007 to 2012, said teacher attrition along with concern about increases in human resources spending are the main reasons he and others are seeking a recall. “We want the community to be engaged around these issues and this is a way to get an up or down vote on the job this board is doing,” Archer said.

The impending recall comes as two other members of the 12-person board recently submitted their resignations and as the teacher’s union says teachers are feeling “fractured and defeated” by the current culture. School boards in Maine and around the country are facing similar challenges and criticisms as they continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is nothing like it was for those seven years,” said LeBlanc, who previously served on the board for seven years ending in 2014 before his most recent term. “The real concerns parents had when the pandemic first started about sending their children into schools and would it be safe, the ability to have remote learning and the hybrid learning option… this has been an unbelievably stressful time for the entire community and that gets reflected in the work the school board has to do.”

In the letter to the community Tuesday, the 10 remaining board members defended the work of LeBlanc and Stentiford. They said it has been a challenging last year and a half for the district as it has navigated the pandemic and the “recall based on the claim of a lack of support for teachers is unfounded.”

Archer, the former school board chair, said meanwhile he has gathered more than the 25 necessary signatures from qualified voters on each of two affidavits he plans to submit to the town office Monday to initiate recall petitions for LeBlanc and Stentiford.

Norm Archer, a former school board chair in RSU21, is planning to submit affidavits to Kennebunk Town Hall, in background, on Monday to initiate a recall vote on current school board chair Art LeBlanc and school board member Tim Stentiford. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The town clerk has five days to verify the signatures on the affidavits, after which a recall petition can be launched. The petition for each recall must gather signatures from registered voters at least equal to 10 percent of the number of town residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

That would mean 669 valid signatures must be gathered for each recall petition to be successful, said Kennebunk Town Clerk Merton Brown. If those signatures are validated and there are no legal challenges, the Board of Selectman can then give notice of the petition to the elected official in question and, if they do not resign within five days, order a recall election.

Archer said the recall effort is focused on LeBlanc because he is board chair and on Stentiford because he has been “instrumental” in teacher and human resources issues. He said he has heard a variety of reasons from the people supporting the affidavits as to why they’ve signed on to them, but those are the two primary issues propelling the recall effort.

“I know there are parents frustrated with a lack of response to COVID last year when we couldn’t get kids back in the building five days per week and then, knowing about the Delta variant, it was a few weeks into the year before anyone really had a demonstrable plan to address COVID issues,” Archer said. “That’s definitely an issue for some. I just think as a group, collectively, the way the teachers have been treated and the spending are the two biggest issues.”

Archer said he has tallied a count of 43 teachers and education technicians who have retired, resigned or taken a leave of absence since the start of the 2020-21 school year, using information presented on board agendas. “It’s just alarming… for a district that’s one of the best in the state, why are we creating an environment where 50 teachers have left?” Archer said.

There are 239.5 full-time equivalent teachers in the district and 550 employees total.

According to the board, there have been 18 teacher resignations and seven retirements since August 2020, not including resignations or retirements of education technicians. One of the teacher resignations was for a hired teacher who never started in the district and three others resigned and returned as part-time instructors or substitute teachers.

“RSU 21 currently has no vacant teaching positions,” LeBlanc said in the letter. “Pre-pandemic data in the State of Maine shows average yearly turnover for teachers ranges between 7 percent to 12 percent while we have experienced a 5.8 percent turnover during the 16 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, an excellent retention rate in any environment.”

In an interview Wednesday, LeBlanc said he did not have data on ed tech resignations and retirements, but acknowledged staffing those positions has been a challenge. The district currently has over 30 ed tech vacancies. “That is an issue of known concern for the board and (Superintendent Terri Cooper) and it is something we’re working hard on,” LeBlanc said. Cooper did not respond to an email or phone message Wednesday.

Last spring the board and teacher’s union, the Kennebunk Arundel Kennebunkport Education Association, underwent a difficult round of contract negotiations that involved teachers instituting work to rule — where employees strictly adhere to performing only required work and stop doing voluntary additional work — and organizing a march to bring public awareness to their negotiations.

“We were once praised for going above and beyond to ensure that our students’ needs were met, but lately we have experienced nothing but resistance and a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude,” KAKEA President Jenessa Cadorette said at the time.

In an email Wednesday, Cadorette said the various unions within the district were asked to provide statements of support for the board’s letter this week. “After consulting with my executive board, here is what we responded: ‘The KAKEA declines to comment on the recall situation. Teachers are fractured and defeated by the culture that has been created and feel that only time and a commitment to change can heal the divide,'” Cadorette said.

LeBlanc said there are challenges across the country as teachers try to do their jobs during the pandemic. “The administration and the board are doing our very best to support the teachers in a very difficult time and we’re going to continue to do our best to support them in every way we can,” he said.

He said the district has had plans to hire a human resources director since before he became board chair and Cooper became superintendent in the summer of 2020, but they didn’t make the hire until this past winter. They’re also adding a human resources generalist who will start next week for a total of 2.5 full-time equivalent employees in human resources.

“There’s not any runaway spending in HR,” LeBlanc said. “I think some people had a problem with hiring an HR director because it was another administrator, but when you look at the fact we had no administrator dedicated to the employees of RSU21, I think it was a really good investment.”

Only two school board members, Todd Shea and Amanda Oelschlegal, did not sign the board letter. LeBlanc said both submitted their resignations earlier this month for reasons unrelated to the recall. Shea did not respond to a phone message left at his office Wednesday or emails.

Oelschlegal, in an interview, said she resigned after 2.5 years on the board because she found it too difficult to manage the demands of life and being a parent and spouse with being a board member and she felt she was no longer effective.

“The whole world is in this state of flux and yes, the pandemic brings challenges to people’s personal lives, especially to the Department of Education and schools and communities,” Oelschlegal said. “You have voices that you listen to that are very much validated in their way of thinking and what they want to see done and then you have opposing voices that are also validated and have a different reality and want to see different things done.

“I think it’s been a challenging time trying to find that middle ground between people who are appropriately passionate about their views and trying to find that grace and compromise is really hard. We’ve been absolutely attacked as board members verbally, through emails and on social media. It’s a tough time.”

Oelschlegal declined to comment on the recall but said she has no ill will towards the administration or other board members. “The board can be doing better, the administration can be doing better and certainly we have a community that can be doing much better,” she said. “I think all three of those groups need to bring more grace to the other parties and I felt I wasn’t effective in helping be that catalyst. If I can’t be effective, maybe someone else can.”

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