AUGUSTA — City councilors have expressed support for letting voters decide whether to continue to require the superintendent of schools to live in the city.
Some councilors said Thursday the city charter requirement the superintendent live in the city is archaic and outdated and has hindered efforts to draw qualified candidates for the job.
“I agree this is a bit antiquated,” said at-large Councilor David Rollins, echoing the thoughts of Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron. “It has negative value. What benefit do we derive from limiting the pool of candidates? Why defend a rule if it’s going to impact the quality of applicants? I can’t, personally, see the value of that.”
School board members voted Jan. 8 to ask voters, in a citywide referendum, to remove the superintendent residency requirement. Board members said requiring the superintendent to live in the city has been an impediment to hiring the best-qualified candidate for the superintendent’s job.
Changing the charter requires a citywide vote and voter turnout of at least 30 percent of the number of people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
Only the council, not the school board, has the authority to send charter changes to voters in a referendum.
On Thursday, councilors expressed support for a referendum question. They’re scheduled to vote at their next business meeting, in two weeks, on whether to send the issue to voters in November.
Ward 4 Councilor Mark O’Brien, a former member of the Charter Commission, said the requirement was first put in the charter about 20 years ago. When the charter was reviewed most recently, in 2008, it drew little public comment, according to O’Brien, other than a comment from then-Superintendent Cornelia Brown that she supported continuing to require the superintendent to live in Augusta. Brown lived in Augusta.
At the time the requirement was added, O’Brien said, the thought was that because the superintendent’s job is such a significant position and the School Department accounts for about half the city budget, the superintendent should live in the city.
“The thinking was the superintendent, being a resident of the city, would have more of a stake in what’s happening in the community,” O’Brien said, “much like the city manager.”
However, Mayor William Stokes said, while requirements that city managers live in the city they manage are common, that requirement is rare for superintendents.
He said Biddeford, and possibly one other community, are the only municipalities he knew of in Maine, other than Augusta, that require superintendents to live within their borders.
Officials are seeking a November vote because they fear the June elections wouldn’t draw enough voters.
Last year the school board voted to extend the term of interim Superintendent James Anastasio, the former principal of Cony High School first hired as interim superintendent in January 2013, until June 2015.
Anastasio lives in Gardiner.
Board members, none of whom attended Thursday’s council discussion of the issue, have said that their goal in wanting to remove the residency requirement is not to hire Anastasio as superintendent, though ultimately he could be selected for the job. Rather, they said, only a handful of school districts in Maine require superintendents to live in their districts, and the requirement has hindered Augusta’s efforts to attract highly qualified applicants.
Stokes said he was on the search committee for a superintendent after which Anastasio was hired as interim. He said applicants for the job weren’t of the quality they’d hoped for, and the committee received inquiries from potential candidates who said they were interested in the job but they couldn’t move to the city, because they didn’t want to sell their homes or move their children.
Legislation that would have allowed local school boards to override superintendent residency requirements was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage last year.
No public comment was taken on the proposal at Thursday’s informational council meeting. There will be a chance for the public to comment on it before councilors are scheduled to vote on it at their next business meeting, March 6.
Previously, some residents have criticized the proposal to remove the residency requirement, saying the superintendent should live in the city of the school system he or she leads.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 email@example.com