2013-04-11 / News

Biddeford PTA urges letters to governor

By Tracey Collins
Contributing Writer

BIDEFORD/AUGUSTA— Biddeford’s Parent Teacher Association is lending its support to a bill scheduled to go before the Maine Senate this week. The bill would determine if school Superintendent Jeremy Ray will be forced to move from Saco to Biddeford to keep his job.

Ray is a Saco resident and took over as Biddeford’s superintendent of schools last September. Currently, Biddeford’s city charter states that the superintendent must establish residency in the city within a six-month period after being hired. That deadline has been extended until December.

Alan Casavant (D-Biddeford) has been working on a bill to change the residency laws. Casavant is also the mayor and chairman of the school board. Last week his bill, LD 6, went before the House of Representatives, where it passed 115- 22. The bill was expected to go before the Senate Tuesday, and, if approved, will go before Gov. Paul LePage.

Casavant said the Senate vote scheduled to take place at noon Tuesday did not happen.

“The governor (recently) spoke with a state representative from Biddeford and explained that he had received letters from people against the bill, and he may be forced to veto it,” said Biddeford PTA President Shelley Kane in an email forwarded to parents this week. “Governor LePage values letters written to him and states that he reads each and every one. He has concerns about local control being taken away with LD 6.”

In addition to Biddeford, Augusta, Waterville, Lewiston, Brewer and Presque Isle require superintendents to live in their districts. Supporters of the bill believe the state law (which gives school committees control over hiring decisions) creates a conflict that pits supporters of home rule against local educators.

Casavant said the language of LD 6 has changed significantly since it was first proposed.

“The bill does honor home rule,” Casavant said. “The new language approved by the House does not take away local control, it gives it to the local school committee to make hiring decisions.”

“Most superintendents in the state don’t live in the district they work in,” Kane added. “We can’t speak for all parents in Biddeford, but as a PTA we would hate to lose a good superintendent because he lives across the bridge. He lives closer to the school than I do; it doesn’t prevent him from doing a really good job.”

If the bill fails, Casavant worries it will impact the school committee’s ability to find the most qualified educational leaders.

“Evidence suggests that the average superintendent remains in a district for about three years. The pressure from both the state and local communities to balance educational excellence with declining financial resources means superintendents burn out very quickly. When it comes to negotiations, it’s not always a possibility for a superintendent to move to another community,” Casavant said, pointing to the Regional School Unit 21 superintendent who works in Kennebunk but lives in Gorham. “If you have a young family or property that you have to sell in this real estate climate it can really limit the talent pool we have to choose from.”

City Councilor Richard Rhames disagrees.

“One of the reasons we went through the recent school consolidations throughout the state was because schools were top heavy and there were too many superintendents. So there should be a large pool of extra superintendents now looking for work.”

Rhames said many people on the council are hearing complaints from the public for what he characterizes as contempt for the decision that was made by voters in a high-turnout election.

“The existing school board was not elected based on their position on home rule. If the public is dissatisfied, they’ll eventually be able to vote out the school board. In the meantime the council is bound by the charter and the council is hearing that.”

According to Casavant, existing state law gives school committees sole control over a superintendent.

“There is no mention whatsoever in state law of a city council or municipality having any interest or control. Thus, it appears that the charter conflicts already with existing state statutes. This language clarifies the contradiction.”

For parents like Shelley Kane, the real worry is providing the best education possible for Biddeford students.

“My children have been through the Biddeford school system and I still have a 4-year-old yet to come. As a mother, I’m definitely worried about the impact of losing a new superintendent in the midst of so much change and financial turmoil. I worry that decisions we make now will impact the school system by the time my 4-year-old starts, and more important, where will it be when she ends? Jeremy has done a really good job of scrutinizing the school budget without impacting the classroom. We would be losing out if we have to go for another superintendent.”

The issue isn’t stopping the Biddeford City Council from seeking a legal opinion by the city solicitor on the impact of home rule. Rhames says the solicitor is expected to present that opinion at the next city council meeting on Tuesday, April 16.

In the meantime, optimistic that LD 6 will pass in the Senate, Kane and the PTA board are more concerned that LePage will veto it. That is why the PTA is asking the public to consider writing a letter to the governor in coming days to help him understand why LD 6 is a good bill for the state of Maine and school committees.

“Maine students deserve to have the best qualified superintendent possible. There are many points of concern that would be important to help the governor to understand. Please forward to anyone who may also be interested helping to support LD 6,” Kane wrote.

Kane is urging parents to contact the governor and provided his address and email, adding, “For as long as I’ve been president, I’ve tried really hard to be informative. You can’t vote on what you don’t know about.”

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