Members of the public fill the seats at the first York School Committee meeting after a contentious election in town. Credit: Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — The School Committee met before a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday night for the first time since a controversial committee election was held in mid-May.

Parents, community members and teachers crowded the library meeting room, at times bursting into applause when someone spoke. Public comment was respectful for the most part, and involved questions about the committee’s Code of Ethics, support for Superintendent Lou Goscinski and requests for more inclusive public comment — a plan already in the works.

Among those speaking were residents who spoke at a Board of Selectmen’s meeting in May. Supporters of Cheryl Neiverth, an unsuccessful candidate for School Committee, want selectmen to investigate what they see as an ethics violation on behalf of a committee member.

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Though her name was never used, member Meredith Schmid worked to provide school department documents to the York Weekly in late April that indicated Neiverth had several intemperate interactions with staff over the years. The group wants selectmen to investigate that action, citing the home rule charter for authority and intimating it was unethical. Selectmen are to hear from town counsel on the issue Monday night.

Committee Vice Chair Dave Herbein took umbrage with the idea that selectmen would “spend tax dollars to review the town charter when it is very clear in Maine statutes where the School Committee’s authority derives, and it is not in a home rule charter.” Rather, he said, state law governs committee action.

Chair Brenda Alexander said the charter only allows for removal of an elected official through recall or general election; in the only exception, the committee has authority remove a member if there is a documented violation of meeting attendance, said member Julie Eneman.

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But Selectman Liz Blanchard, who spoke during public comment, asked “If state statutes take precedent, then why does the charter have this wording in it” that allows selectmen to investigate the conduct of an official? The board was asked to look into that provision, and “given that so many people are concerned about what’s going on in the schools, we need to” hear from town counsel, she said.

There was discussion about when an elected official becomes a private citizen. Parent Michelle Hanson has raised this issue several times and brought it up again Wednesday. “The line has been blurred,” she said, suggesting the committee include specific language in the code that “unless it’s a discreet issue about a child, anything that comes to them from any citizen comes to them as a School Committee member.”

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Eneman said Maine law “does not give school committees any power to administer consequences for violations of ethics policy. This policy serves as a guideline for us. It is not intended to take away the voice of members, or their constitutional rights of freedom of speech.”

Goscinski said the “notion that this policy (the Code of Ethics) has legal teeth is a fallacy. You can’t remove someone from the School Committee because of ethics violations. The only way you can remove them is by a recall or the election booth.” The town charter allows citizens to initiate a recall of any elected official after he or she has been in office for six months.

Former committee member Dick Bachelder was the subject of a recall election last year, which he survived; but he was later voted off the board in the general election.

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“Here we are a year later, and I’ve got goosebumps,” he said. “Take the money you put into red signs that say ‘Resign’ and put it into the York Education Foundation. Volunteer in the classrooms. Get behind the schools. I am always about the glass half full, but a year ago all that stuff got dragged out of me and my wife and it was tough. But you know, I’m still here. I beg us to direct our energy in a positive way, every sentence you make, every action you take.”

His remarks ended in thunderous applause and a standing ovation by some in the audience.

Resident David Chase said the committee’s policy limiting comments to items on the meeting agenda “constitutes an abridgement of citizens’ rights.” “Other boards are open to comment from the public,” he said. “It’s time for York’s School Committee to get on board.”

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Chase’s comments came after Goscinski recommended the committee hold at least three workshops open to the public to discuss anything on their minds. He cited the selectmen’s public forum on the Davis property June 3. “That’s what I’m shooting for. It was a highly effective format,” he said. “I’m looking for forums that provide in-depth and meaningful discussion.”

Goscinski said the workshops would be an extension of “listening sessions” he’s held since last fall, and he will institute a series of open-ended coffees for anyone interested in talking with him in a more informal setting.

Schmid called the workshop idea “fantastic” and suggested a 15-minute “open mike” session be held at the end of the meeting. She received support from Meaghan Schoff, but there was no further discussion of the idea Wednesday.

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Finally, Goscinski received praise from senior Noah Fox, who thanked the superintendent for his involvement in the schools.

“As a student at YHS, I’ve gone through many different principals and administrators. But there hasn’t been one quite like our superintendent,” said Fox. “I see him constantly around the high school. And I hear from teachers he’s in the middle school and elementary schools, too. He’s been to my drama club performances, concerts and games. That doesn’t go unnoticed. To see you walking into York High School means a lot to us. Thank you so much for what you’ve done for us, and I want to see you around more.”