A public meeting Wednesday about the effort to unseat three Scarborough school board members reflected a bitter divide in town that has been deepening for weeks.

After entering its sixth hour of debate, town councilors voted 4-2 to set the recall election on May 8. One councilor was absent.

From left, school board members Donna Beeley, Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea

A group of residents has been seeking the removal of three Board of Education members – Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea. The Town Council’s goal Wednesday was to set the date for the recall election.

Absentee ballots will be available Thursday and there will be an extra absentee voting day Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The push for the recall grew out of tension between Superintendent Julie Kukenberger and high school Principal David Creech, which was the undercurrent of more almost five hours of emotional public testimony Wednesday. More than 120 people packed the meeting room at town hall, and dozens argued on each side of the issue.

Supporters of the recall election alleged the board members have been incompetent by failing to manage the superintendent, seek input on policy decisions or communicate effectively. They blamed the school board for the current turmoil in the district, and said leadership must change as a result.

Paul Johnson, one of the leaders of the recall group, pointed to a “no confidence” vote that was held in March. The district’s teachers union voted, 185-91, that members had no confidence in the school board and superintendent. About one-third of eligible staff members didn’t vote.

“Our superintendent is ineffective and incompetent,” Johnson said. “This is hard, but this is not the time to circle the wagons and defend ineffective leadership. This is a time to end the ineffective leadership as fast as humanly possible, or our kids are going to continue to have contact with adults day in and day out that do not have confidence in the leadership of this town.”

BOARD MEMBERS SPEAK IN THEIR DEFENSE

Recall opponents expressed confidence in the board members, saying they are being targeted unfairly by people who simply disagreed with their decisions. They defended the character of the women who are up for recall, and they argued the regular election cycle is the time to hold elected officials accountable.

“If we were honest with ourselves and each other, we’d acknowledge the complaints against them are rooted not in their competence, but in a deep-seated disagreement with some of the decisions they’ve made,” resident Sarah Crossman said.

Creech suddenly resigned the top job at Scarborough High School in February, effective June 30. He did not publicly say why, but his wife and his lawyer say the superintendent forced him out.

The district was embroiled in policy debates about proficiency-based learning and school start times, but neither Creech nor Kukenberger has spoken openly about what prompted his resignation. Creech received an outpouring of public support and then tried to withdraw his resignation, but Kukenberger and the school board have refused to accept his rescission.

The townwide battle since then has been divisive and even ugly.

A group of Scarborough residents formed the Road to Renewal group and started circulating petitions in March to remove the three school board members, citing “incompetence.” The targeted board members are three of the longest-serving on the seven-member board. Beeley’s term ends in November. Lyford’s and Shea’s terms end in November 2019.

On its public Facebook page, the Road to Renewal group has said that its mission is to force Kukenberger’s resignation and Creech’s reinstatement. The petition drive collected enough valid signatures to force the recall elections.

The dispute drew national attention in March, when Kukenberger tried to halt a voter registration drive at the high school, responding to complaints that some students felt pressured to sign recall petitions.

Earlier this month, police announced they are investigating a threatening and defamatory letter sent to Kukenberger’s husband, five board members and the town manager that suggested someone had listened to conversations in the Kukenbergers’ home.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the three board members each had the chance to make a public statement in their defense. They made passionate and at times tearful speeches, citing their past work on the school board and their commitment to their roles.

“Policy disagreements and decisions don’t equate with not listening and don’t make people incompetent,” Beeley said. “And they don’t make me incompetent.”

DISAGREEMENT OVER RECALL-VOTE DATE

In a memo, Town Council Chairman William Donovan said that he wanted to get the recall election over with as soon as possible. He also wrote that combining the votes on the recall election and the school budget would not allow each issue to be judged on its own merits.

“In choosing May 8 I have been painfully aware of the emotional trauma experienced by many in our community involved in or affected by the recall,” Donovan wrote in his memo.

Members of the Road to Renewal group advocated for a later recall election on June 12, when voting will take place on the school budget.

“People are very familiar with the concept of voting on two separate ballots on one day; to suggest otherwise is insulting,” the group wrote in a Facebook post.

Town voters will be asked to cast individual ballots on the three board members. All or none of them could be removed from office. If any members are unseated, a follow-up election would be held for their replacements.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle


Correction: This story was revised at 7:28 a.m., April 26, 2018, to state that one councilor was absent during the Town Council’s 4-2 vote to set the recall election on May 8.