The University of Southern Maine is asking the co-director of an educational leadership program that collaborates with area public schools to “step back immediately from any public-facing role” in her position in response to concerns raised at a recent Portland Board of Public Education meeting.

Katie Hawes, former superintendent in the Kennebunk school district, took over as co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership Sept. 1. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At the meeting last week, board member Adam Burk called on the district to stop working with the Southern Maine Partnership, where Katie Hawes is a co-director, until a task force can examine the district’s relationship with the program and its qualifications.

Hawes was superintendent in Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 when a former teacher there filed a complaint alleging race-based discrimination and retaliation at Kennebunk High School. The teacher, Rosa Slack, now teaches at Portland High School and RSU 21 settled the complaint last summer for $50,000.

Hawes resigned as superintendent in June, around the time she accepted an assistant professor position in the educational leadership program at USM.

An independent investigation completed this fall found school officials in RSU 21 did not take appropriate steps to respond to Slack’s concerns.

She was harassed in an incident in 2016 in which a student brought a Confederate flag into her classroom, then was retaliated against in an employee evaluation after reporting the incident.

“What this means concretely is that one of the closest partners in our district’s strategic plan to meet our goals including to create systemic equity is built of the same people who ignored racial harassment and retaliated against the black teacher who refused to suffer such racism silently,” Burk said at the meeting on Jan. 21.

No action was taken at the meeting after Burk read a two-page statement in which he talked about his concerns around Hawes, the university’s educational leadership program and the district’s use of the Southern Maine Partnership.

Schools Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said the concerns are worth exploring, but he was unclear on whether the school board or district administrators have say over participation in the partnership.

The university, meanwhile, has asked Hawes to “step back immediately from any public-facing role” with the partnership while it reviews the concerns, said Jeannine Uzzi, the provost and vice president for academic affairs. She said that includes aspects of the role such as hosting or conducting training sessions, that would put Hawes in the public.

“President (Glenn) Cummings and Superintendent (Xavier) Botana are in productive conversations about these issues,” Uzzi said in an email Tuesday. “It is critically important to USM that all members of Maine’s K-12 schools feel welcome to attend USM events and professional development opportunities.

“We acknowledge that people of color experience racism and discrimination every day. If USM and SMP are not perceived as places where all can learn, USM will engage more deeply in the work toward full equity and inclusion.”

Botana did not respond to a reporter’s emails or phone messages seeking an interview.

Hawes took over as co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership Sept. 1.

“I am discouraged and saddened by the public comments made about me during the Portland Public School Board meeting,” Hawes said in an email Tuesday. “The speaker did not reach out to me to hear my perspective and provided inaccurate, slanderous information in a public forum.

“This whole situation has been incredibly difficult for me. The public accusations and newspaper articles do not reflect my work as a district administrator or my personal beliefs about educational leadership.”

She also said in reflecting on the March 2016 incident in which Slack was harassed in her classroom, there were points where she would have made different decisions.

“I am sorry that any teacher, or student, did not feel safe in our high school,” Hawes said. “I am sorry that I relied upon information from my former administrators without listening more closely to teachers and students, especially those of color.

“I have learned a tremendous amount through this experience and it has shaped my current personal and professional growth and interest.”

Slack did not respond to an email or a request for comment made through attorney David Webbert, whose firm has represented her in the past.

The Southern Maine Partnership works with school districts to provide forums, host speakers and put on other events for educators. It currently works with 26 different school districts in southern and western Maine.

Districts pay $500 annually to belong to the partnership and in exchange get five free seats at events and discounts at conferences.

Hawes said the program mostly caters to school administrators, not teachers, and its primary purpose is to bring leaders together around common issues such as equity and innovative teaching.

In July, USM launched an investigation into its hiring process after members of the university community raised concerns about whether the issues in Kennebunk were explored by the university when Hawes was being considered for the job.

The investigation found the hiring was done properly, though changes to the process were made as a result, including requiring applicants for permanent faculty positions to submit diversity statements.

Uzzi also said Tuesday that during the fall, educational leadership faculty at the university revised the curriculum “in response to legitimate public concerns about how their program incorporates diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“I continue to feel (Hawes’) hiring is a signal they’re not going to be a competent partner in the things we’re trying to achieve through the Portland Promise,” Burk said in an interview. “It’s a clear signal the educational leadership program is not really a safe place for you or you are not going to be in a welcoming place if you’re a black or brown teacher.”

Another school board member, Abusana Micky Bondo, said she needed more information on the partnership before forming an opinion. Board member Tim Atkinson said Monday he also was not ready to comment on it.

Other board members did not respond to phone messages seeking interviews.

“Is it a reason not to partner with the Southern Maine Partnership? I think it’s a reason to question whether they have the same values as us when it comes to equity leadership training,” Rodriguez said.

He said the board is still discussing whether the program is something they have oversight over or whether that falls to district administrators, and he wasn’t sure if it will come up for board action.

“This is something that’s an opportunity for the board and district to reaffirm our commitment to equity and to be involved in work that really promotes an educational environment that aligns with the Portland Promise goals,” Rodriguez said.

“If this is an issue that results in a stronger partnership with USM or something that allows us to better equip teachers with educational leadership resources, that’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing Mr. Burk brought these concerns up.”

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