Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold, seen during a Zoom school board meeting Sept. 3, 2020. Zoom screenshot

HALLOWELL — Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold said in email to staff Feb. 3 that 85% of the district’s coronavirus cases were because of teachers and staff, a claim that quickly sparked controversy and led the teachers union to say it had “lost patience” with her leadership. 

She followed that up the morning of Feb. 4 with another message to district employees apologizing to anyone whose feelings were hurt by her communication from the day before. Hours later, after a motion to postpone the decision failed, the RSU 2 board of directors approved a contract extension for Arnold to keep her in the post for another two-plus years.

Documents related to the contract extension were initially withheld by the district and provided to the Kennebec Journal this week following a public records request by the newspaper.

Not part of the initial agenda, the contract approval was added to the school board slate of business on Feb. 4. During that meeting, school board member Dawn Gallagher proposed tabling the contract discussion to another date to allow the group to hear feedback from the Kennebec-Intra District School Education Association, the district’s teachers union.

While Gallagher and fellow board members Leanne Burnham and Jon Lambert voted to postpone the discussion, according to minutes from the Feb. 4 meeting, Chris Asch, Jonathan Hamann, Russ Hughes, Kathyrn Marseglia, Mark Pearson and Donna Seppy voted against the delay. While the minutes indicate the motion to table was defeated by a 3-5 vote, a count of the directors who took part show that it was defeated 3-6.

Jeff Pierce, Linda Leet and Jay Brown were absent.

“I motioned to table the discussion because of who was involved, not because of an issue with the contract,” Gallagher said, adding that she would have liked to hear the union’s comments on the matter.

In the only public statements the union has made about Arnold — KIDSEA President Keith Morang has not responded to numerous requests for comment — the union said it had “lost patience” with the district’s leader.

“The Association, and staff, has lost patience with the manner in which Superintendent Arnold communicates to those trying so hard to provide a quality education in the most trying of times to the students in RSU2,” Morang said in the statement in response to Arnold’s Feb. 3 email. “It is highly irresponsible for a Superintendent to send out a communication to almost 400 staff suggesting one can determine where, or where not, staff contracted this terrible virus.”

Discussion of Arnold’s contract took place in executive session, and was approved by an 8-1 vote once they returned to regular session. The lone dissenting vote came from Burnham, the board’s vice chairperson. She has declined to respond to numerous requests from the Kennebec Journal about why she voted against approving the contract.

Hamann, board chairperson, would not say why he voted in favor of Arnold’s contract.

“The discussion related to the superintendent’s evaluation is confidential and therefore took place in executive session,” he said, declining to say why he voted to approve it.

Gallagher said she had no issue with the contract, and Hughes declined to comment.

Arnold’s contract, which was renewed through June 30, 2023, gives her a salary of $134,000, to be paid at a per diem rate of $515.38. Any change in her pay would require school board action; no decrease is allowed except in the event of a districtwide salary reduction. The contract also allows for 15 sick and 25 vacation days annually, in addition to 5 personal days. The district will pay 100% of Arnold’s health insurance and 75% for immediate family members who are not eligible for their own employer-covered insurance.

Arnold also serves as superintendent of Monhegan Island School. According to that school’s budget, she is receiving a salary of $19,950.

Despite being a public document once it was approved by the board of directors, Arnold’s contract was not immediately provided upon first request of the Kennebec Journal. Secretary Sue Corbett said she “cannot share anything from an employee’s personnel file” even though the contract became public upon board action.

Arnold did not provide the document until the newspaper indicated its request was being made under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

The initial refusal was the second time in a month the district did not provide a public document to the Kennebec Journal in a timely manner. After asking for video and audio recordings of the Feb. 4 meeting at which Arnold’s contract was approved, to which Hamann responded that those are not recorded, the newspaper attempted to obtain the minutes taken that night.

Corbett denied releasing a draft of the minutes, noting that they hadn’t been approved by the board, but drafts are considered public documents. The minutes were eventually uploaded to the RSU 2 website after being approved at the March 4 business meeting.

The Kennebec Journal also has requested other records from the district under the Freedom of Access Act, including data upon which Arnold based her claim that district staff are responsible for 85% RSU 2’s coronavirus cases. A Feb. 10 request asked for the dates of positive cases, as well as whether they were a student or a staff member, and Arnold responded the newspaper could check the district website to find that information.

“Please note that you can find all public communications about COVID cases in RSU 2 on our website,” Arnold responded Feb. 16. “No other public records exist regarding your request.” 

Upon checking the website after Arnold’s response, 25 COVID-19 cases were reported there and did not always specify whether it was a positive case or a contract tracing situation. And, in the minutes for the Feb. 4 meeting, Arnold reported to the school board there had been 38 positive COVID-19 cases in the district.

In addition to the conflict in information shared on the district website and with the school board, Arnold’s claims also do not match statewide data.

Kelli Deveaux, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education, said teachers and staff account for 25% of cases in schools statewide. “Our statewide data do not reflect teachers compromising the majority of cases attributed to schools,” Deveaux said.

According to the Maine DOE’s data, there have been 930 coronavirus cases among students and 377 among staff members statewide.

According to its website, RSU 2 has approximately 430 district employees; there are approximately 1,089 students in its seven schools according to the Maine Department of Education’s 2021 data.

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