Portland High School on Cumberland Avenue. The school district's superintendent defended an educator's First Amendment rights Monday while calling a set of inflammatory comments she made in June "examples of unchecked biases" made on false premises. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND — The superintendent of the city’s public school district denounced recent racially prejudiced comments made by a veteran teacher in June while also defending his decision to not fire her for them.

The teacher was later promoted to interim principal at a Portland school. Educators in the district learned of the comments after her appointment.

In a letter sent to Portland school district faculty Monday night, Superintendent Xavier Botana wished to “set the record straight” about events set off by comments made in a June email to the mayor and city council by Robyn Bailey, an assistant principal at Lincoln Middle School.

Botana also defended the school board’s discussion of those comments, which some say violated due process laws, as well as Bailey’s First Amendment rights.

“We would not punish any employee for engaging in speech that is constitutionally protected,” Botana wrote.

The superintendent’s letter is an attempt to close the book on a public letter that has come to symbolize a backlash to a progressive political wave in Maine’s largest city.

Bailey also wrote an apology letter, which she sent Tuesday.

Felt in City Hall, the school district and in recent citizens’ initiatives, that wave has centered on racial equity and brought several people of color into elected leadership positions looking to make change. It has also prompted some to target those progressives for embodying what they see as a “lack of civility” and unprofessionalism, which has led to the resignation of two school board members.

In an email sent to City Hall two days after the June 8 election, which saw a slate of progressive candidates elected to the city’s charter commission, Bailey slammed “many of the progressive party’s newly elected” as “downright disgusting,” “dividing a city that doesn’t need dividing,” and “spreading hatred.”

She lashed out specifically at two newly elected Black women — Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Shay Stewart Bouley.

“We simply don’t have the same racially charged issues as big cities, but we are creating them,” Bailey wrote, arguing about the commissioners that “we all know that if the people saying these things were NOT people of color, they’d be done, gone and trashed.”

Bailey, who did not respond to a request for comment, didn’t mention in her email that her husband had lost his bid for a Charter Commission seat in the election two days prior.

On Aug. 17, two months after she sent the email to city councilors, Bailey was being considered for the interim principal position at Lincoln Middle School, prompting the school board to bring her June comments into consideration.

School board member Roberto Rodriguez alerted Botana to Bailey’s comments privately before discussing them in a closed-door executive session, at the recommendation of the district’s attorney. The board considered whether the comments violated the district’s equity policy, which “recognizes the historical, generational, and compounding reality of the systems, structures, and practices that have created and continued to afford advantages to some groups while perpetuating inequities for others.”

No action was proposed or taken during the confidential session, but it was made public when school board member Jeff Irish disclosed the contents of the email on October 5, when he resigned from the school board.

Once the contents of the email were made public, Stewart Bouley joined many others in objecting to Bailey’s comments, which targeted Stewart Bouley’s social media activity in an attempt to argue she was unfit for office. Stewart Bouley penned a rebuttal on her online news site, Black Girl in Maine Media.

The executive session’s consideration of Bailey’s comments outraged Irish. To him, the issue was “never about race” — it was a first amendment issue.

“Whether I agree with the email or don’t wasn’t the point,” Irish said. 

It’s one thing if school leaders wished to respond to the email privately, he said, but calling out Bailey’s personal views in a closed-door session “poisoned” her consideration for the job without giving her an opportunity to defend herself.

Ultimately, the closed-door meeting did not affect Bailey’s consideration for the job. Bailey was hired for the assistant principal position. She has worked for the district for 23 years, including many as a teacher of English to immigrant students.

In his letter to faculty on October 18, Botana dismissed the concerns Bailey wrote in her June email, which questioned “whether Portland schools needed to change to address the gaps in achievement and disparities in discipline and her stated belief that based on their race, ‘people of color’ are allowed to get away with actions for which others would be held accountable,” the superintendent wrote.

“We have incontrovertible evidence that both of these premises are false. Furthermore, they are patently inconsistent with the work that we have been engaged in as a school district for the past five years,” Botana wrote.

The superintendent said that Bailey has “expressed remorse” for her comments and “an understanding of how her words in that email could be perceived as examples of unchecked biases,” he told faculty.

Botana said that Bailey intends to learn from her mistakes.

“She affirmed her commitment to learn from this experience and to take steps to restore the trust that was lost as a result of those words.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the timing of Ms. Bailey’s appointment to interim principal relative to the School Board meeting’s executive session.