Hermon City Clerk Kristen Cushman (center) and town employees count ballots Thursday night at a special town meeting. Resident voted 35-10 to pay $54,000 for a company to test the security of the internet owned by the school department. Credit: Judy Harrison / BDN

Hermon voters Thursday approved 35-10 a proposal to have an outside firm test the security of the town’s internet network, a plan that has pitted the Town Council against the local school department, which said the review of the network it runs is unwarranted.

About 30 people, excluding town council members and town employees, attended the special town meeting held in the bay of the public safety building. Two deputies with the Penobscot Sheriff’s Office were in attendance, as Hermon has a contract with the sheriff’s department to provide police coverage.

Several residents — who spoke before voting — expressed concern that the council and the school board are at odds, which has been and will continue to be detrimental to the community.

Patricia Duram, the former superintendent, urged the council to sit down with the school committee and discuss the council’s concerns. She said that the $54,000 cost of the audit would seem like very little money compared with potential legal fees if the school department sued the town.

Several residents said that audits and testing of internet security are not unusual and occur regularly at the businesses where they work.

School board member Stephanie Oiler said that the citizens of Hermon can and should decide what is best for the community and the students.

“Every job I’ve ever had, there’s been an audit,” she said. “I don’t understand why there’s opposition to an audit.”

Sally Hartford pointed out the school system and the municipal office share a network and both collect and store information about residents.

“It needs to be audited to find any holes rather than to have a cyber attack,” Hartford said.

The question to test the internet security was one of six on the warrant but the only one that was controversial and voted on by secret ballot.

In a letter to councilors read prior to the vote, Hermon School Superintendent Jim Chasse  denied the school’s network was vulnerable in a letter. He also said there are no improprieties in the department’s relationship with Nightscape Tech, a firm founded by two school employees that supplies equipment and technical advice to the schools. It also is an internet service provider to residents.

“Without specific concerns expressed [in social media posts] to address, this seems like a fishing expedition,” Chasse said in the letter.

The school department’s lawyers said that it most likely would be illegal for the town to test the school department’s network without its permission because the town and the school department are separate legal entities.

Councilor Charles Lever IV, who works as head of IT for the Bangor Housing Authority, earlier this year raised questions about the relationship between Nightscape Tech and the school department and about network security practices.

Chasse, however, said Wednesday the school department did respond to the council’s questions and that he has not received follow-up questions from the council.

Nightscape on Thursday afternoon released a statement through its attorney, Jeffrey Russell of Bangor, answering many of the questions Lever raised.

Nightscape has collaborated with the Hermon School Department to provide internet access to local residents using the school’s network, taking advantage of the network’s capacity during hours when school isn’t in session, according to the company’s website. That collaboration appears to have evolved from a dial-up internet connection offered free to residents the year after Hermon High School opened in 1995.

The service, now through an upgraded, fiber-optic network, costs $9.99 a month for residents and $34.99 for small businesses on top of a $99.99 installation fee. Nightscape offers only connectivity to its customers through Hermon.net, which has not been profitable, the statement said. In the past year, subscription income totaled less than $2,200 while expenses, including the purchase of network hardware, came to nearly $18,000.

“This was not a profitable venture,” the statement said. “Nightscape Tech was, in fact, subsidizing the school’s HermonNet with revenue earned from other business customers.”

The company was founded, with the knowledge of the school committee, to act as a potential broker in purchasing equipment for faculty, staff and students in Hermon and other school districts. Nightscape is subject to the bid process followed by the towns and the school departments under Maine law.

Using bulk purchases and low markups — to cover operating costs — Nightscape passed the savings directly on to the school, according to the company. Many of the purchases were made through Ebay, Amazon and auctions, which saved the department a substantial amount of money over time.

“As a private business entity, Nightscape was able to purchase technology, generally desktop computers, tablets, laptops and other hardware at lower cost than those accessible via the school department’s traditional purchasing regimen,” the statement said.

Hermon Council Chair Steve Thomas said after the vote that he was pleased with the vote.

“I do look forward to working with the school committee to resolve our collective concerns,” he said.