YORK, Maine — A School Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday was canceled Monday morning, after chairwoman Brenda Alexander said she was concerned “election-related discourse” would disrupt the meeting. But that decision set the stage for parents just hours later to attend the Board of Selectmen’s meeting to express their opinions there, instead.
Alexander said she alone had the responsibility to cancel the meeting and the other committee members were not involved in the decision. She said she did consult Superintendent Lou Goscinski.
The cancellation, she said, was based on the business and administrative needs of the school department, respect for the public meeting process and the committee’s uncertainty that invited guests will be afforded a courteous environment.
“Given the tone and tenor of recent social media posts concerning candidates running for the School Committee, there is a very real concern that our meeting could not be conducted in a manner consistent with the committee’s professional norms of decorum and civility,” Alexander said.
She said she has watched in the past as audience members followed guests or presenters into the library’s atrium during recent meetings and had interactions that “were not courteous.” On the agenda for the May 15 meeting, kindergartners were supposed to give a presentation, as well as the town’s Energy Steering Committee. She said she was concerned similar behavior might occur.
“We have been in front of angry crowds of people. That is not what this is about,” Alexander said. “We have seen audience members follow guests out of meetings and show discourteous behavior. I can’t be confident something like that would not happen again, given that the election is Saturday.”
But parents Monday night said they were discouraged by the cancellation, with several alluding to frustration with the committee’s reluctance to allow public comment. Further, they asked the selectmen to help initiate an investigation into what they feel is a Code of Ethics violation by members of the committee, and by extension the committee itself and the administration.
Alexander said the School Committee has made clear through policy that people can only speak about matters on the agenda, and not about anything on their mind. While state law does not require the School Committee to allow public comment, said parent Michelle Hanson, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” confine comment to agenda items.
“We have no public forum to voice our concerns,” she said.
Several parents and community members said they were very concerned that the School Committee has violated its Code of Ethics.
“Who governs the governors?” asked Julia Glidden. “School Committee service is a matter of public trust. The School Committee has an ethical responsibility to not only avoid the conflict of interest, but appearance of conflict of interest.”
The issue was raised in connection with recent issues surrounding School Committee candidate Cheryl Neiverth, as brought out by a Freedom of Access Act request. Initially, the York Weekly received an anonymous email with various FOAA school documents, but after several days School Committee member and candidate Meredith Schmid stated that she had sent the documents initially after receiving concerns from community members.
Although no names were used, Glidden and others said the fact that a School Committee member received documents and subsequently passed them on gets to “the heart and soul and integrity of the School Committee — using their position to benefit themselves,” said Glidden.
William Gladhill said he served on boards in other communities and if someone came to him with a concern, “I would say I can’t discuss that with you in a private setting,” that there is a chain of command.
“Why be clandestine?” he said. He said the School Committee has a two-page Code of Ethics, and the Board of Selectmen, an eight-page code. “We’re one town. We should have one code of ethics,” and asked the board to look into that.
“I feel things weren’t done properly and it did irreparable harm to people and the town,” he said.
Amy Phalon, a lawyer who works exclusively on special education law, said in all the years she’s been an attorney “no school district has had more cases than York. Dozens of parents are unhappy with the services. This is coming to a head,” she said.“The more parents are shut down, the more they are dismissed, the stronger the fight is going to get.”
She offered her services to the town to investigate whether there has been a Code of Ethics violation and what if any role there is for the Board of Selectmen.
Neiverth also spoke briefly, thanking people for their support, which she called “overwhelming and humbling.”
Alexander is also running for election to the committee, along with Neiverth and Schmid. There are two open seats. She said her candidacy “didn’t enter into my mind” in making the decision to cancel Wednesday’s meeting.
“My job as chair is to manage meetings and organize the agenda,” she said. “While I could possibly manage the meeting, I have concerns about the business items being overrun by non-business items.”
She said she decided to “allow the election to take place prior to the next School Committee meeting.” She said there was no business on the May 15 agenda that could not wait until the next scheduled meeting June 5.
Meanwhile, Board of Selectmen chairman Todd Frederick said at least the board and committee needed to meet after the election to discuss these issues. Several selectmen agreed with Mike Estes, who said he has served on many boards over the years, and “I have never seen this town so angry with one another. I hope when this is all over, we can bring civility back to the town.”
Selectman Liz Blanchard said it is “very unfortunate that the school system is in a mess here. We have been asked to do whatever we can. If there is anything in the charter, we should investigate that,” she said.
“We need to put this all behind us and move forward so we are not an embarrassment,” said Estes.