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6/19/2013 2:00:00 PM
RSU 40 In Flux
By Shlomit Auciello

Saying that speaking negatively about the district could be considered insubordination, Regional School Unit/Maine School Administrative District 40 teachers and administrators were careful in answering questions about continuing departures of central office and school administrators.

Of seven district employees asked to comment for this story, only Medomak Middle School teacher Madelon Kelly agreed to be quoted offering criticism. Others offered limited advice to the board of directors that is now seeking to fill the district's top spot.

Superintendent Susan Pratt has resigned to take a similar role in Franklin County where she has a farm and family. She will serve as superintendent and high school principal at Rangeley Lakes Regional School in RSU 78.

At its June 6 meeting the RSU/MSAD 40 Board of Directors approved the appointment of Christina Wotton to be principal at the Union Elementary and Prescott Memorial schools, replacing outgoing Principal Richard Blackman.

Wotton currently serves as assistant principal at the Friendship Village and Warren Community schools.

During that same meeting, the board received a letter from Medomak Middle School Principal Benjamin Vail, announcing his retirement. Vail will become parks and recreation director for the town of St. George.

Early in the week of June 17, comments circulated throughout the district that Warren Community School and Friendship Village School Principal Ann Kirkpatrick would be leaving her position to take up the superintendency of another district.

While she did not confirm, Miller School Principal Julia Levensaler said she would be adding the Friendship post to her responsibilities, as of July 1.

"I don't know how it came about, Levensaler said. "You'd have to ask the personnel committee."

Pratt called comments regarding Kirkpatrick's possible resignation and talk of another administrator transferring to Camden "interesting information."

"As of today, I have only Richard Blackman's and Ben Vail's resignation," she wrote in a June 18 email message. "We hired Christina Wotton, assistant principal at WCS and FVS to be the Principal of UES [Union Elementary School]. So we have the assistant principal position open at WCS. "

I do not have any other resignations," Pratt wrote. "I expect one but until I get it, I can not confirm either way. I also have not heard anything about an administrator going to Camden."

A teacher speaks out
Math and science teacher Kelly is in her 12th year at RSU/MSAD 40. She has been teaching for 33 years.

Saying she was speaking from her own perspective, Kelly said she has "seen a definite decline in expectations of students," since coming to the district. She said students are promoted after failing classes and entering high school without the skills to succeed.

"I see an increasing number of kids who don't value education," Kelly said. "They're not getting the family background to value education. It surprises me that a culture can change as much as I've seen it change in 11 years."

Kelly said it is unrealistic to think 100 percent of students can reach a particular level of accomplishment by a specific time and questioned expectations of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and core curriculum standards.

"This year it has served to lower expectations for kids," she said. Kelly said the mass customized learning model adopted by the district this year came from Hall-Dale High School, "basically a failing school. We're banding together with the schools that are already achieving less."

"A superintendent should be an educator first," she said. "Principals should be educators first."

Kelly, who coached this year's MMS Math Counts and state champion Science Olympiad teams, said the current board and administration have not shown strong support for academic achievement.

She said quality schools ask students to be self-critical in evaluating their need to improve and RSU/MSAD 40 needs to ask the same questions of itself before signing on to the curriculum flavor of the week.

"I worry that we're barreling down a path without looking at what's at the end," she said. She said the constant changes are discouraging to teachers.

Kelly said the board should try to find a superintendent who will spend time in the district's classrooms, communicating with students and teachers.

"Set an example of education being a priority by going and reading to kids, going to plays and concerts," she said. "Be involved in what the kids are achieving, other than athletics."

She said it would help if the superintendent lived in the district.

Medomak Valley High School Principal Harold Wilson said the key to being a good leader is the ability and willingness to delegate responsibility.

"There's not enough time in the day to make all the decisions," he said. Wilson said it is important to recognize one's own weaknesses and to utilize the strengths of others.

He said there are good reasons for the board to consider an in-house hire for superintendent.

"There's something to be said about a superintendent who stays for a while and works with the board and works with the district," Wilson said. "We've got to keep focused on what's best for the kids."

"We're in a turbulent time," he said. "There's a bit of a sea change. We need someone able to work with all levels of people in our district." Wilson said a superintendent should be genuine and inspire confidence in the district.

Wilson said Director of Student Services Karen Etheridge represents district faculty and administration in the superintendent search committee.

"We need someone who's familiar with the initiatives that we are already involved in," Levensaler said. She said the new superintendent should support mass customized learning and district literacy initiatives. "We need the best candidate whether [from] in or out of the district."

For her part, Pratt said she has experienced "a general sense of dislike for education by some members of the community. I don't know if it's related to the funding model, but there are people who think badly of the system [RSU/MSAD 40]. I don't think it's a bad system."

She said the new superintendent should honor the small school structure. "It's valuable to the communities and a priority for the towns."

"The other thing I would say is to keep up the great work that's happening around the district moving forward," she said.

Pratt said she would handle the strategic planning process differently, if she were in a position to do it again. Pratt came under fire in early 2012 after Warren resident Hugh Magbie called the board's attention to the apparent similarities between a draft strategic plan she posted on the district's website and RSU 21's plan, finalized in 2012.

"That whole situation was a misunderstanding for some folks and it was unfortunate because it waylaid some of the good work that was happening," she said. Pratt said it would be up to the new superintendent to get the process back on track, depending on how the board wished to proceed.

She said administrators should continue to "operate as a team, as they have been, and as learners, as they have been. Stay informed. That's the critical piece. Education is changing."

"We need to have a school district that keeps its eyes on the prize of being a top-notch school district," Kelly said.

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