YORK, Maine — School Superintendent Lou Goscinski looks back on the past several weeks as among the most challenging in his career, as he deals with multiple Freedom of Access Act requests from parents, interviews teacher candidates who express reservations about York, and handles plummeting staff morale.
“It is my sincere hope that recent the recent negativity associated with the political climate will subside,” he said. “Because unfortunately, I think our reputation is becoming tarnished. That’s a shame. York is an outstanding community, and we’ve accomplished some really good things here. The sky is not falling in York.”
Three weeks ago, the York Weekly published a story involving school department documents procured through a FOAA request. The emails and letters indicate that over a four-year period, School Committee candidate Cheryl Neiverth acted intemperately on several occasions with school personnel. This led at one point, according to the documents, to police intervention. Neiverth strenuously objected to the characterizations of her, saying they were not only inaccurate, but that school administrators are to blame for putting up “roadblocks” against her and other parents.
As a result, there has been a significant online campaign in support of Neiverth and in opposition to the Weekly, school administrators and Meredith Schmid, a School Committee member and candidate. Schmid said in a Facebook post that she was the one who requested the documents after hearing concerns about Neiverth from concerned community members, and then sent them to the Weekly anonymously.
In voting May 18, Schmid and Chair Brenda Alexander were returned to the School Committee; Neiverth came in third in the race for two open seats.
Goscinski said he immediately felt the heat after the story appeared. He has received six FOAA requests from among members of the group that spoke out on Facebook.
“I have not experienced anything quite like this before,” he said. “The number of requests in the past few weeks is more than I have received in my entire career as a school administrator before coming to York.”
The requests are taking “valuable time and resources away from serving our students,” yet he is required by law to respond to the requests and then estimate the time to do the search necessary.
“In some cases, thousands of emails are being requested, and I have to go through each of them,” he said. “The volume of requests is taking valuable time and resources away from serving our students. From my perspective, it feels like a form of retaliation. It’s pretty telling what has been going on.”
He said this is the time of year when teacher candidates are being interviewed for openings next fall. In many of those interviews, he said, the candidates have read about the school department and the comments made by parents online.
“The key to a healthy school community is stability. When you have instability, you have chaos,” he said. “Unfortunately, some people thrive in chaos. That’s the reality on a daily basis. I’m hiring people right now, and those conversations are coming up. ‘What is going on?’ ‘Will my job be safe?’ It’s discouraging.”
And it’s not just teacher candidates. “Other superintendents are calling me and saying, ‘What’s going on down there?’ They know what’s happening.”
Staff have also been feeling the pinch, he said. “The reality is, it’s impacting morale. The public perception of what we’re doing here is having its effect on the staff. We’re not bad people. The school department has dedicated administrators, teachers and staff. They are wonderful human beings.”
He said he’s “discouraged” that the negative discourse of recent weeks has affected not only him and his staff, but parents that have stood up for them. For instance, he said, one disparaging email sent to a parent came from a Swiss account and can’t be tracked. “This is the kind of stuff we’re dealing with. They’re being attacked personally for supporting the schools.”
On the plus side, he said, he’s heard from many parents and community members who told him they support the schools and his efforts since arriving. In a letter home to parents last Friday, he talked about the work that has been undertaken since he arrived last July.
He has created a “listening group” of parents, community members and administrators who were instrumental in developing a communications survey. With regard to special education, recommendations in a recently completed analysis by an outside consultant are already being implemented, he said. And programs in diversity and mental illness have been held.
“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘Lou, hang in there, stay.’ Town officials tell me, hang in there. I want to stay here. I really do,” he said. But he admits social media has torn at the fabric of the job, not just here in York but around the country. “You get to the point where superintendents say, ″I’m out of here. It’s not worth it.’”