York's Town Clerk Mary-Anne Szeniawski is seen in this 2016 file photo by The York Weekly. Credit: Deb Cram | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Voters will head to the polls on Saturday, April 7, to determine if School Committee member Dick Bachelder should be recalled from office. Underlying that election is the question of whether Bachelder violated the committee’s Code of Ethics in connection with to the employment and subsequent termination of former York High School football and basketball coach Randy Small.

While Small’s coaching tenure forms the backdrop for the election, the focus is on Bachelder. Coaches and Kids Matter members, who spearheaded the recall campaign, say he “worked behind the scenes” to undermine Small, in contravention of his stated committee duties. Bachelder himself is adamant that the charges against him are “baseless and wasteful. I’ve been the subject of private and public criticism with no just cause.”

As such, regardless of the outcome of the April 7 election, Bachelder has filed papers to run for re-election in May.

[Local group wants to remove school board member over coach controversy]

Meanwhile, Town Clerk Mary-Anne Szeniawski said the election itself is not generating much interest, if absentee ballots are any indication. She said 215 people had taken out ballots as of Tuesday morning, a low number by her reckoning for an election that has been “suspiciously quiet” in the past month.

She said some people thought they were recalling Bachelder simply by signing the petition, not realizing that the petition only sets the stage for an election. It could also be that the recall “doesn’t affect a lot of people,” who are opting to sit out this particular vote.

She said she anticipates total costs to be around $2,000 for the special election, mostly from town staff time. Ballots will be hand counted.

Small was terminated from his position as head basketball coach in early November by interim Superintendent Mark McQuillan, after an incident during a huddle at a quarterfinal football match at Fryeburg Academy. Small’s actions in that huddle have been intensely disputed, with a group of parents saying that Small lost control and swore profusely at players; and with Small himself saying he was under control at all times and that it was the players, not him, who were swearing.

[Fired Maine HS coach speaks out about claims: ‘I’m not guilty’]

But the recall petitioners say they can trace Bachelder’s comments and actions back several years. The petition outlines a list of Bachelder’s alleged violations of the School Committee Code of Ethics. The allegations center on what petitioners say are two incidents in the past three years that they can verify — but that they believe form a overall pattern of behavior by Bachelder.

“The best way I can describe it is it’s all bits and pieces of information. If I was a police investigator, I could put it all together,” said Kevin Talty, a former assistant basketball coach for Small. “I have a longstanding relationship with Dick. I like him as a person. But what is clear to me is that he hasn’t served as a member of the School Committee appropriately.”

Talty and others claim Bachelder is friends with a group of parents who are heavily invested in their child’s sports experiences, some of whom believe Small was not coaching in the best interest of York athletics. These relationships have caused Bachelder to step outside the bounds of his School Committee role on occasion, the petitioners claim. It’s an assessment Bachelder denies.

“I would agree that our parents are heavily involved in their kids’ sports. But this trend is not just seen in York. It’s nationwide. But I have in no way been persuaded one way or another about the coaching staff in York,” he said.

[School board member facing recall vote: ‘I have done nothing wrong’]

One of the incidents cited by Coaches and Kids Matter involve comments Bachelder made two weeks after being elected to the School Committee in 2015. Talty, Bachelder and others were at Ruby’s following a boys basketball game. Talty said Bachelder told the group he didn’t think Small should coach two varsity sports, “that he had too much power over kids’ lives, and that he was going to do something about it.”

“I remember how shocked I was,” said Talty. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was in public with no regard for privacy issues.”

Bachelder denies that he was talking specifically about Small. He said he personally does not believe that one person should coach two high school varsity sports “in which the coach clearly determines playing time” — a general belief that is not confined to Small or anyone else. He said he is not talking about sports like track or swimming, where a student’s objective performance dictates participation.

“I am referring only to sports where the coach manages playing time during interscholastic competitions. There is undeniably a risk that a coach’s experience in one sport may impact his/her decisions in a second sport, and this is both unnecessary and unfair,” he said. He said he experienced this bias during high school “and it distinctly impacted me.”

He said although he doesn’t remember what he said at Ruby’s specifically, he said it’s not unlikely he might have expressed that opinion. “But I vehemently deny ever saying, including to that same group of people, that I would do something about it.”

He points to the fact that he has consistently voted to pay Small’s stipend as coach of both teams for the past three years. But he said there’s something more to consider here.

“It is critical for your readers to understand that as a public figure an individual does not give up his or her right to free speech. Public figures are entitled to have opinions as private citizens,” he said. “But the pledge I took as a public official is to rise above my personal biases and do what’s right for our community.” And that is what he has consistently done, he said.

Talty and fellow petitioner Kent Kilgore said, however, that Bachelder crossed the line from private citizen to School Committee member interference in the days after the Fryeburg game. What is undisputed is that Bachelder did receive calls from concerned parents over the course of the next day or so, as did other School Committee members.

Bachelder also does not dispute that he called one particular parent who attended the game for his take on the situation, because the parent knew both Small and Bachelder and was “someone I trust to give an honest answer.”

That parent was at the Fishermen’s Dock restaurant, which was owned by Kilgore and Small, in the days after the game to have lunch. In a statement made by waitress Shelley Coite, who said she spoke with him, the parent said Bachelder was indeed looking for his take on the situation, but then also told the parent he was looking for “dirt” on Small and intended to go to McQuillan with his findings.

The parent would not provide a statement to Coaches and Kids Matter, nor did he return a phone call placed to his home by the Weekly.

Talty and Kilgore said they believe the account of the waitress. To them, that comports with what they say is Bachelder’s general pattern. They also believe that Bachelder called other parents with the express intent of bringing Small’s tenure to an end, although they have no direct proof of that.

“This is all behind the scenes stuff. He was working behind the scenes and that’s where he’s guilty,” said Kilgore. “You don’t take matters into your own hands.”

“The recall election is about drawing attention to the bad behavior that was happening with Dick,” said Talty.

But Bachelder disputes he took anything into his own hands. First of all, he “categorically denies” that he told the parent he was looking for “dirt” on Small. In fact, the parent “called me and told me he never told that waitress that.” He said that each and every time a parent called him, and there were several, “I said something to the effect that if you want to submit a formal complaint, you need to direct your concerns to the superintendent.”

He does say he called McQuillan “to make him aware of the events that had taken place with which he would have to deal upon his arrival at work the next morning.”

The special election to recall Bachelder is a single issue ballot. Voting will take place on Saturday, April 7, at York High School from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots are available at the town clerk’s office until Wednesday, April 4.

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