Two Millinocket school board members who criticized the school department for a lack of transparency around its management of funds and a key program resigned on Tuesday night.
Erika Mackin and Michelle Brundrett resigned in an executive session at the Tuesday board meeting.
The resignations followed months of controversy in which Brundrett, Mackin, town councilors and community members repeatedly raised concerns about a lack of information concerning how the school department was managing its finances and an international student exchange program, and spending federal COVID relief funds. They have also been skeptical of the numbers behind the school department’s 2022-23 budget.
Mackin cited “months of unanswered emails, requests for agenda items [and] the total lack of respect toward any of my questions or comments asked in the meetings.”
“I cannot serve on a board that is completely dysfunctional, biased and untrusting of anyone outside the school,” Mackin wrote in an email to town officials that she forwarded to the Bangor Daily News.
Brundrett said in her resignation letter that she had been “mistreated, ignored, scolded, yelled at and humiliated” since joining the board in November 2020 and that she felt “bullied” at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The board is beyond dysfunctional,” she said. “Last-minute agenda items are added hours before the meeting with no communication. There is no time to process the information I was given, and when I would ask for more time, I have been shot down.”
Mackin was appointed to the board in February after Peter Jamieson resigned to become the Millinocket town manager. Her term was slated to end in November.
Brundrett’s three-year term was set to expire in November 2023.
The resignations leave chair Warren Steward, vice chair Donald Raymond and Kevin Gregory as the remaining Millinocket school board members.
Mackin and Brundrett have been publicly critical of the school department and its leader, Superintendent Dr. Joshua McNaughton, over management of bank accounts holding more than a half million dollars and the international student program.
The school department had operated its own bank accounts for years independent of the town treasurer’s control, which were discovered during an annual audit last July. The town’s auditors said the school department was managing those accounts in violation of state law, which required that the town have control over the funds. McNaughton, however, refused to hand over control of the accounts, which contained $630,000, for three months.
On Tuesday, the school board met to discuss amending the budget for the 2022-23 school year, which it had already approved on May 31. McNaughton had asked to revisit it because of concerns that the international student program wouldn’t have the funds to support itself.
But in recent days, the superintendent said, Millinocket had agreed to new contracts with two Chinese schools under which 136 students would participate in Millinocket school programming. As a result, he said, the program would run a $188,000 surplus in the coming school year.
Brundrett was skeptical, however, and she and Mackin had asked to delay a budget vote so they could have more time to consider the new international program numbers.
“[T]o suddenly have a commitment of 136 students when in the past 10 years there has only been an average of 30-40 students participating in the dual diploma program seems unrealistic,” Brundrett wrote in her resignation letter.
McNaughton also said that the department’s lawyer was examining the international program — through which Millinocket hosts foreign students and franchises its curriculum to Chinese schools — due to an unspecified legal issue. However, Mackin, Brundrett, Jamieson and Town Council Chair Steve Golieb said they’ve never been told what the legal issue is.
Mackin’s and Brundrett’s resignations came during a meeting characterized by accusations from audience members and the head of the local teachers’ union that the two board members were undermining the superintendent.
“I just get a sense that you guys have a certain level of mistrust of the superintendent that I find disturbing,” said an audience member who did not identify herself. “You have to trust your leaders.”
Terry Given, an English teacher at Stearns High School, urged the board to vote for the new budget that contained the updated international program figures.
“The townspeople deserve this,” she said. “I feel as though there is a great deal of distrust for our administrators.”
Both Mackin and Brundrett said that they had been elected to ask questions and obtain the most accurate information possible.
“Every time we meet, there’s five different versions of this,” Brundrett said, referring to the budget proposal.
The president of the Millinocket Education Association, Matthew Waite, accused board members at the Tuesday meeting of violating policies overseeing their powers and responsibilities and their code of ethics.
He accused board members of “creating an unhealthy and hostile work environment, which leads staff to question if our employer has the best interests of our students and staff at the heart of its decisions.”
Waite said that he couldn’t publicly discuss details about how those policies were violated because of Maine labor law and federal privacy laws.
He declined to comment further when the BDN contacted him.
School board chair Warren Steward did not respond to a request for comment.
The Town Council will need to appoint new board members, hold a special election or leave the seats vacant until the next election in November, McNaughton said in an email to the BDN.
Golieb declined to comment publicly about the resignations, and said that the town had not yet considered what it would do to fill the vacancies.