Question: How do you know when a school district is in deep trouble?

Answer: When its leadership flunks the straight face test.

This was supposed to be the week that those in charge of School Administrative District 6 stopped acting like the dog ate their homework.

By now, Superintendent Frank Sherburne, who hopscotched around the district’s nepotism policy in snagging a job as an ed tech for his 23-year-old son, Zachariah Sherburne, was supposed to finally have been held accountable for his transgressions.

By now, the district’s directors were supposed to have calmed widespread public concerns after Zachariah was charged with having sex with an underage girl in a nearby school district where he also worked at the time.

And, oh yes, the board also was supposed to have explained how Zachariah managed to work for a month last winter in SAD 6 with none of the credentials required by state law.

Finally by now, SAD 6 taxpayers (myself included) were supposed to have some reassurance that those in charge of our sprawling school system, the fourth largest in Maine, at least know how to read.

Which apparently they don’t.

“It is the policy of the MSAD 6 Board not to employ any person who is a member of the family of a Board Member or the Superintendent,” states the district’s nepotism policy.

Let’s start there.

Back when young Zachariah, already working as an ed tech in SAD 55, apparently spoke with his dad about coming to work in SAD 6, Superintendent Sherburne had two possible answers.

Right answer: “Sorry, son, but we have a policy against that.”

Wrong answer: “Hmm … let me see what I can do.”

Frank Sherburne chose the wrong answer.

Then when the superintendent sat down on Jan. 26 with SAD 6 board Chairwoman Rebecca Bowley and Vice Chairman Jacob Stoddard and brought up hiring his son, they had two possible answers.

Right answer: “Sorry, Frank, but we have a policy against that.”

Wrong answer: “Sure, Frank, we’re OK with that.”

They chose the wrong answer.

What’s worse, Bowley and Stoddard failed to inform the rest of the 14-member board of their winking and nodding until April 4. That was a full three weeks after Zachariah, charged with gross sexual assault and sexual abuse of a minor (who became pregnant), resigned from his SAD 6 ed tech position after just over a month on the job.

It gets worse.

Realizing they had a whopper of a public relations problem on their hands, the board then decided to investigate. But rather than bring in an outsider to sort through this mess, they gave the job to their regular counsel – the Portland law firm of Drummond Woodsum.

Think about that. The law firm conducting an inquest in which the potential exists for a variety of the players to have a variety of conflicting interests, already represents everyone involved.

That’s not an investigation. That’s a heavy coat of primer.

Thus we now have this hard-not-to-laugh-at narrative from the three-page “executive summary” of the investigation released following the board’s lengthy closed-door meeting Tuesday evening:

“The Superintendent, as requested by the Chair, checked with Ms. Hicks, the union president, regarding (Zachariah’s) application for employment and she indicated that she was ‘okay’ with (Zachariah) applying for a position as long as, if he received a position, the classroom teacher was comfortable working with the Superintendent’s son.”

Comfortable? Why on earth wouldn’t the classroom teacher be comfortable?

The executive summary continues: “The Superintendent subsequently informed the Buxton Center Elementary School Principal and Assistant Principal that they could consider (Zachariah’s) application, that they should treat him like any other applicant, and that he (the Superintendent) would not play a part in the decision.”

Zachariah, spoiler alert, got the job.

Back to the executive summary: “We found no evidence that the Superintendent was involved in the hiring process, or that the application process or the decision to hire (Zachariah) was influenced by the fact that he is the Superintendent’s son.”

We pause now for our communal forehead slap.

The elder Sherburne, the big boss, discussed his son’s job application with the school board chair … the vice chair … the union president … the school principal … and the assistant principal. Yet according to the in-house investigation, he had absolutely no influence over his kid getting hired?

Even the full board found that hard to swallow, noting in a statement Tuesday that Sherburne in fact violated the nepotism policy by failing to notify all of them, (not just the chair and vice-chair) before his son was hired.

“This decision displayed a lapse in judgment by the Superintendent and he has accepted responsibility for it,” read the board statement.

But then, having barely slapped Sherburne on the wrist, the board ran for cover: “But the Board is convinced that the extraordinary circumstances outlined in the Nepotism Policy existed and that the decisions made by the Superintendent, the Chair and Vice-Chair were made in good faith and with the best interest of the District in mind.”

Under the nepotism policy’s “extraordinary circumstances” exception, a candidate can be hired if it’s “in the best interests of MSAD 6” and if that person “is qualified for the position to which he/she has been or will be assigned.”

But Zachariah Sherburne, without the necessary state authorization (which he also lacked for his other ed tech job in SAD 55), without an official transcript on file with the Maine Department of Education (the one he’d submitted was deemed insufficient), without even a required eight-week temporary card showing that he had applied for a criminal background check (cue the irony alert), clearly was not qualified to be working as an ed tech in SAD 6.

And much as the board might wish otherwise, this debacle isn’t just about who was or was not acting in “good faith.”

It’s about basic competence, or the lack thereof.

And it’s about choosing to adhere to the law, or choosing to ignore it.

Back in March, one day after his son was arrested, Superintendent Sherburne sent out a sternly worded memo to SAD 6 employees emphasizing that it was their responsibility, not the district’s, to stay up to date on their state certifications.

The memo included this telling statement: “The district can no longer allow extensions on allowing proof of a valid certification, license or CHRC (Criminal History Record Check) because the number of non-compliant employees has grown to such an extent that it takes months for the District to become compliant.”

Meaning this thing is far from over.

Zachariah Sherburne, for all his notoriety, appears to be the tip of a much bigger iceberg when it comes to SAD 6 employees working on the edge of – or just outside – the law.

Frank Sherburne, whose own state certification as a superintendent requires that he stay on top of this stuff, still has plenty of explaining to do.

And the SAD 6 board of directors?

They’re only fooling themselves.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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