FAIRFIELD — Over 300 Lawrence High School students walked out of class and gathered outside the superintendent’s office to protest what they thought was a forced exit of a well-liked principal. A handful of them plan to voice frustrations with the district’s leadership at Thursday’s school board meeting.

About 20 students gathered in the auditorium after school Wednesday to solidify what they want from the board. Suggestions included seeking clearer protocols for staff alterations, questioning the costs and intentions of a district restructuring plan and pushing for the board’s chairwoman, Shelley Rudnicki, and vice chairman, Tim Martin, to step down from their roles and become regular members of the board.

“We have no confidence in their ability to represent us,” said junior Haley Hersey, a student representative on the school board and one of the leaders of Wednesday’s meeting.

Superintendent Reza Namin did not make an appearance at Wednesday morning’s protest. Students waited outside for about 45 minutes in muggy weather, holding signs with messages about having “no confidence” in Namin and the school board and urging them to “hear our frustration.”

“They’re trying to silence us, but we’re not going to be silenced,” said Carson Hersey, a junior who helped organize the walkout.

Lawrence High School is part of School Administrative District 49, which serves Fairfield, Albion, Benton and Clinton.

In January, the SAD 49 school board approved a restructuring plan spearheaded by Namin that included eliminating the jobs of principals of Lawrence High School and Lawrence Junior High School, three assistant principals and changing the titles and job descriptions of six other officials. Mark Campbell, principal of Lawrence High School, resigned Friday after the school board approved a financial settlement with him. Students were surprised to learn of his absence Monday and said they had not been told about his departure.

“Mr. Campbell wouldn’t walk unless he was forced out,” senior Nathan Lafreniere said. “We believe he was forced out.”

Rudnicki said she felt that it was not the school board’s responsibility to communicate the staffing changes to students.

“That’s an administrative role,” she said.

Namin did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting a comment on the roll-out of the restructuring plan or the student protest. Lafreniere called Namin’s lack of appearance on Wednesday “pretty cowardish.”

“If he’s going to make changes to the school, he should at least stand (and face us),” Lafreniere said.

Carson Hersey agreed.

“I think it’s purposeful,” he noted. “He was made aware of this yesterday. … It’s disrespectful of us.”

Referencing a failed restructuring plan Namin rolled out in the Westbrook School Department nearly a decade ago, Lafreniere said, “There’s a good reason we don’t trust him.” After school, students drew up a list of questions they have about Namin’s past and his policy decisions. Several claimed that he had dodged their questions in the past or answered inconsistently in articles that have been published about him in the news.

Other students said that they are more frustrated with the school board than with Namin.

“Mr. Namin wants to hear our voices; it’s the school board (that doesn’t),” said senior Marian Zawistowski, who was holding a sign that read “WE are WATCHING; WE are LISTENING; WE WILL hold the School Board ACCOUNTABLE. #18andReadyToVote #OnceABulldogAlwaysABulldog.”

Senior Emma Robillard said two teachers told her they are looking for other jobs out of fear that they’re “on a blacklist to get fired.” Junior Mackenzie Roberts said that Namin has been overseeing the district’s special education since the director of this program also resigned after a settlement was approved on the same day as Campbell’s. She said she was concerned about his qualifications and the quality of education special education students will receive under Namin’s leadership, another topic students plan to broach at Thursday’s board meeting.

Students reported feeling that the board’s lack of transparency with them is troubling. Senior Bryn Mayo said that the SAD 49 Facebook page posted a comment around 7 a.m. Wednesday suggesting that the board meeting had been rescheduled to that evening, a move she and others believe was intended to block out their voices before they had a chance to organize.

SAD 49 board Chairwoman Shelley Rudnicki said that this post mistakenly advertised a school board meeting on Wednesday, and that the board always had planned to meet Thursday. Screenshot posted on “Lawrence Students Speak Out and Have Your Voice Heard” Facebook page.

It was not rescheduled, and it has never been rescheduled,” Rudnicki said Wednesday about the board meeting. “There was a typo originally that said the 25th, but it had the word ‘tonight’ in there. It has since been corrected. I told everyone it is 6:30 tomorrow night.”

The original post from Wednesday morning read, “April 24 2019. The school board meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30 tonight.”

Carson Hersey said that while plans have not been finalized, he thinks that students will “read as many letters and passages as possible” to the school board Thursday night. Hayley Hersey said she will read the messages of students who are not able to speak because of time constraints at a later point in the agenda, at which she has a designated speaking portion as the student representative.

Rudnicki said she does not intend to prevent students from voicing their opinions to the board.

“They have the right to speak,” she said. “We have citizens’ input and they have the right to speak. I have no problem with that. There will be a time limit. I guess it’s going to depend on the amount of people that show up, and I think our policy allows for three minutes per person, as long as the same thing’s not being repeated. However, we have a structure tomorrow night and somebody is coming in to do a board workshop, so there’s going to be a limited amount of time.”

The workshop, Rudnicki said, is related to “roles and responsibilities for board members.”

Rudnicki was unable to provide an immediate answer about whether she thinks student input on the restructuring plan and other school board decisions is valuable.

“I would have to think about that one,” she said.

Hersey said that this is at the crux of the tension between students and the school board.

“They just want to hear positives, things that make them look good,” he said.

Rudnicki disagreed.

I think we’re open to hearing the negative, because that’s the only way that you can correct issues,” she said.

Hayley Hersey said she stopped attending board meetings because she felt censored. After she read a letter to the board that highlighted positive aspects of school programming alongside complaints about bullying, she said that Campbell gave her pre-written statements to read instead in order to appease the board and avoid conflict. She was told that the board felt “threatened and attacked by what I had said.” Hersey, a junior, said she read the initial letter around December 2018.

Rudnicki maintained that the board never instructed Hayley Hersey on what to say and that she was the official who requested having a student representative on the board in the first place.

I’ve never told her that she couldn’t talk about things,” Rudnicki said. “To be honest, I don’t know where her concerns are coming from. I’ve never personally spoken to her about any of these concerns. I don’t even remember last time she was at the meeting. I can’t say I blame her, (but) I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

The SAD 49 school board meeting is scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Lawrence Junior High School multipurpose room.

 

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