It's just a month away from the start of school and both Deer Isle-Stonington's elementary school and high school are searching for new principals. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

School officials on Deer Isle are searching for two new principals as well as candidates for several other crucial positions at School Union 76 before the start of the new school year.

The openings in the small district, which also include a first grade teacher, a middle school English language arts teacher, four ed techs across the district, two high school teachers and several other positions, are exacerbated by both competition with larger nearby districts with bigger coffers and a lack of affordable housing — something felt in other sectors, too.

Superintendent Daniel Ross joined the district about a month ago and has been on the hunt for principals at Deer Isle-Stonington elementary and high schools since then. He wants to fill the positions before students return at the end of August.

This many open positions is a lot for a small district like SU 76, which also has elementary schools in Sedgwick and Brooklin, but Ross said that many superintendents up and down the coast are going through the same thing.

“Every school in Maine is scrambling to fill positions,” he said.

Elementary school principal Tara McKechnie left at the end of the school year after five years with the district for a superintendent job at AOS 93 in Damariscotta. Laura Davis, who was hired for the high school position in 2021, resigned in July to be closer to family in Tennessee.

One thing that has made the search for their replacements difficult is the high housing prices in the small communities. In 2021, the difference between Deer Isle’s median income and the income needed to afford a median priced home in town was nearly $26,000, according to data from the Maine Housing Authority. Stonington was even worse, with the gap growing to just below $39,000.

The district is handing out $1,000 bonuses to try and attract teachers, but that’s still not enough of a draw to compete with other areas that have more affordable housing and larger school budgets.

Most recruiting is done off-island in areas such as Bucksport and Bangor in hopes that those people would commute down. But schools in those areas tend to pay more.

“That’s a tough prospect,” Ross said. “We can’t compete with the salaries in the Bangor area.”

Ross himself struggled to find a place to live on the island and now endures a 40-plus minute commute to work.

“When I committed to SU 76, I looked around to buy a home here. The closest I could get was in Bucksport,” he said. “It was either a cave or a castle. I could either buy a mansion or someone’s fishing shack along the coast.”

The schools do have some candidates for the principal jobs, but the search has been lethargic and it’s been hard to attract a robust set of prospects.

Ross, who started at the beginning of July after working as the superintendent in Cherryfield, has been able to fill some positions and this week hired Dan Campbell, who had previous stints in Jonesport and Sumner, to be the new athletic director.  

Administration job hirings often come down to the wire, and Ross was confident they’d have people in place before students returned.

“It’s just a little unnerving for people [being this close],” he said.