FAIRFIELD — Embattled schools superintendent Reza Namin on Friday apologized for failing to engage enough with students and pledged to establish new lines of communication with them and staff a day after many district employees expressed no confidence in him and the school board’s leadership was upended in the wake of a massive student protest.

Meanwhile, a divided School Administrative District 49 board also voted Thursday night to evaluate Namin’s job performance at its next meeting, following pleas for his resignation and that of the board chair and vice chair during a contentious meeting the same night.

In an interview Friday, Namin said he’s moving forward by committing to have better communication and taking a step back from controversial district restructuring plans that are at the heart of the outcry. Lawrence High School Principal Mark Campbell resigned last week  as part of a settlement involving Namin’s restructuring plan, which prompted more than 300 students on Wednesday to walk out of class and gather outside the superintendent’s office to protest what they saw as Campbell’s forced exit.

“I think this process has allowed us to take a look in the mirror — I and the board — and to look at how we communicate with each other over every struggle and challenge,” Namin said. “I am working with them (students) to recommend a series of actions, a series of regular updates. We’re all accountable for what we do.”

Namin’s comments on Friday came after both the board’s chairwoman, Shelley Rudnicki, and vice chairman, Tim Martin, were ousted from their leadership positions but remain members on the board.

The votes to change leadership Thursday night required approval by a two-thirds majority, or nine members of the 13-person board. Under those rules, the motions initially failed, but board member Jenny Boyden later in the meeting brought up that the votes should have been counted using a weighted system that distributes votes based on the population of the four towns in the district.

SAD 49 includes students from Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield.

Using the weighted voting, a second vote to remove Rudnicki as chairwoman but keep her on the board as a regular member passed 8-4-1. Voting to remove Rudnicki were Danielle Boutin, Jenny Boyden, Janice Chesley, Katrina Dumont, Katie Flood-Gerow, Shawn Knox, Kara Kugelmeyer and Jeff Neubauer.

Voting against the motion were Neal Caverly, Tim Martin, Shelley Rudnicki and Caroline Toto-Lawrence. Roy White abstained from the vote.

A second vote was not taken on Martin’s position, as he moved to voluntarily resign as vice chairman before the second vote on Rudnicki. Elected as new chairman in a secret ballot vote was Shawn Knox. The new vice chairwoman is Jenny Boyden.

Also Thursday night, the board voted to discuss the superintendent’s job performance at their next meeting May 16 and to use the law firm Drummond Woodsum as legal counsel at that meeting.

The choice of district legal counsel has been controversial in recent weeks since Namin started contracting with the firm Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry without running the decision past the full board.

That motion, made by board member Kara Kugelmeyer, was approved 8-4-1.

Voting in support of the evaluation of Namin were Danielle Boutin, Jenny Boyden, Janice Chesley, Katrina Dumont, Katie Flood-Gerow, Shawn Knox, Kara Kugelmeyer and Roy White.

Opposed were Neal Caverly, Tim Martin, Shelley Rudnicki and Jeff Neubauer. Caroline Toto-Lawrence abstained from the vote.

SAD 49 Superintendent Reza Namin spoke during a school board meeting filled with students, faculty and parents in Fairfield on Thursday. At left is chairwoman Shelley Rudnicki. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Finally, the board also voted on a series of motions pertaining to Namin’s restructuring plan. Campbell’s resignation came shortly after board action to approve financial settlements with three administrators whose jobs were either eliminated or changed under the plan introduced by Namin, who became superintendent in September.

The plan, approved by the board in January, calls for three administrative jobs to be eliminated, five others restructured and advertised for, and two new jobs to be added. Five additional employees would be given new job descriptions and titles by July 1.

But the board voted Thursday to hold off on taking further action on hiring a grades 7-12 principal, as proposed by Namin, “until it has been substantively reviewed by the board, stakeholders and community members to determine if the board will proceed with this aspect of restructuring.”

Namin said Friday that he supports pausing the restructuring plan.

“I respect the fact the school board — which I appreciate their time — voted to put a halt on restructuring until we had a thoughtful process, something I was planning to do,” Namin said.

Boyden, the board’s new vice chair, said in an emailed statement Friday to the Morning Sentinel that the board meeting from the previous night allowed officials to hear “eloquent and thoughtful words from our students, parents, teachers and community.”

“I, for one, was tremendously impressed with the composure and presentation skills of our LHS students,” Boyden wrote Friday. “The actions taken by the Board last night show our commitment to listening and partnering with the community.”

Shawn Knox, the new board chairman, echoed that sentiment as well in an emailed statement to the Sentinel, saying he was proud of the Lawrence students who came out to speak. “They informed us of valuable information that I think is important for us to understand,” Knox wrote.

“The board took action to ensure the voices were heard by our community and I think that last night showed its importance,” Knox added. “I’m hopeful that collectively we can move forward to make things the best they can be.”

 

PUBLIC OUTCRY

During the five-hour meeting Thursday night, the special education secretary spoke about her decision to resign because of the chaos that has ensued in the district, the student board member was nearly brought to tears after she spoke about being censored at board meetings and other members of the community gave emotional and heated testimony describing a lack of transparency and disorganization.

Earlier in the meeting, several teachers, students and community members spoke for more than two hours expressing their frustration.

“The recent changes that have transpired starting with the resignation of Lawrence High School Principal Mark Campbell as well as the restructuring highlight an egregious lack of communication,” said Sam Cord, a student. “The student body is not informed and the public received zero information on the plans to reconstruct.”

SAD 49 students hold signs up in the front row toward school board members and Superintendent Reza Namin during a well attended meeting with students, faculty and parents in Fairfield on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

In a statement read before the start of the public feedback, Namin said he has been met with struggles since immigrating to the U.S. from Iran years ago.

“I have also experienced many misrepresentations and pre-judgements,” Namin said. “All I have done was meeting directly to people about rumors that are not true.”

“After what happened the last few days, my son came to me and said he will not walk across the stage and shake your hand,” said Jesse Matarese, whose son is a senior at Lawrence High School, in speaking to Namin. “I told him that’s his decision, but that would break my heart because I won’t get to see my last kid cross the stage to get his high school diploma.”

“We want you to walk away,” Matarese said.

Namin said Friday that he did not believe the student protest on Wednesday outside his office was directed specifically at him. “They said their picketing was not toward me but toward the district, and I said to them that I totally respect that,” he said. “They said their intention was not at me. My door is always open.”

In two and a half hours of public testimony Thursday night, only one person said they support the changes in the district.

“Change is painful,” said Jim Parsons, who identified himself as a business owner in the area. “Do you think they like going from (former Gov. John Baldacci) to Gov. LePage and Gov. LePage to Gov. Mills? People need to step up and accept change. We hire people through these people up here to do a job.”

“Change is inevitable, but for change to be successful there needs to be a well-communicated plan,” said board member Danielle Boutin. “Otherwise it leads to mistrust and the situation we’re in now.”

In the interview Friday, Namin defended aspects of his communication, saying he has spent entire days speaking with students and staff at the district schools, and on Tuesday he met with the whole Lawrence student body and answered their questions. Namin said he conceded to students at that gathering that word of the principal’s resignation had not been communicated effectively.

“The fact is, the day before they picketed, I spent the entire day meeting with student body; I took the questions straight to them, and many students who stayed after,” Namin said. “I was not dodging questions.”

“I also apologized to students if they felt I had not communicated and asked them to help me with, how do you want to be communicated? And my intention was to be respectful,” he added. “I mentioned to them I would meet with them regularly and have superintendent advisory council.”

 

CHANGE AND TRANSPARENCY 

School board member Katie Flood-Gerow said Thursday night that when she voted for the restructuring in January she was promised changes wouldn’t be made until the end of the school year.

“This is April,” she said. “It’s not good. I cannot in good conscience go ahead with what we’re doing to our children.”

SAD 49 students cheer as student Rianne Gibson returns to her seat after she addressed the school board and Superintendent Reza Namin during a well attended meeting with students, faculty and parents in Fairfield on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

The district has not disclosed the amounts of the financial settlements with the three administrators the board authorized. Namin said he would do so at a later date because the agreements aren’t finalized.

But some residents said they had heard numbers such as $400,000 and $500,000 for the total settlements.

“If we can pay $400,000 in buy-outs, how come we can’t get ed tech support at the high school?” asked teacher Benjamin Kent.

The board also approved Thursday night putting on hold moving forward with further action on other changes proposed in the restructuring plan including the hiring of a Director of Student Support Services and Special Education; and the elimination of assistant principal jobs to be replaced by “deans of students.”

Kugelmeyer said the intention of the motions was to “allow us to have time to reconsider what was attempting to be done in restructuring and as a board make the right move forward.”

“We just spent a butt-load of money and now we need some time to understand all the implications and proceed with transparency,” she said.

A final motion approved by the board Thursday stated that the superintendent “cannot take any further actions on restructuring until the restructuring can be substantively reviewed by the board and stakeholders to see if the board will proceed with the restructuring.”

“This was a big piece of why people came out tonight for this,” said Flood-Gerow. “I think we cannot overstate the feeling of the community that we halt restructuring until we have proper community involvement, teacher involvement and board involvement.”

Diana Nutting, an elementary school teacher in SAD 49, criticized a lack of transparency and expressed concern over the longevity of the Reading Recovery program.

“Transparency has been a thing we’re concerned about,” Nutting said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.”

 

Morning Sentinel Managing Editor Scott Monroe contributed to this report. 

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