January 2

Augusta school board seeks change in city charter

Officials say superintendent residency requirement hurts search for a qualified candidate.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The school board will seek a change in the city’s charter to allow it to hire a superintendent who does not live in Augusta.

School board members say the superintendent residency requirement in the Augusta charter has prevented them from hiring a qualified person on a long-term basis.

After the failure of a legislative fix last year, the fate of the residency requirement will likely be up to Augusta voters.

The Augusta Board of Education will vote Wednesday on a resolution asking the City Council to put the charter amendment to a referendum.

The Augusta City Charter requires the school superintendent to live in Augusta within six months of being hired and to remain in the city throughout his or her term of employment.

Ward 2 school board member Deborah Towle, chairwoman of the board’s personnel committee, said the board received just a handful of applications when it last searched for a superintendent in late 2012.

“What we got were no viable candidates,” Towle said. “We had heard that people in the area were interested, but when they found out about the residency requirement, they didn’t even apply. It’s kind of an antiquated provision.”

When former Superintendent Cornelia Brown left to lead the Maine School Management Association a year ago, the school board elevated Cony High School Principal James Anastasio to interim superintendent. Anastasio has expressed interest in being hired long-term, but he lives in Gardiner.

Augusta’s superintendent search was put on hold while the school board sought a change in the charter. Anastasio received a two-year contract in July, though his official title remains interim superintendent.

Following the vote, Augusta resident Mike Hein told the Kennebec Journal he believed the school board vote violated the charter.

“They’re giving the finger to every resident of Augusta,” Hein said in July. “This school board is drunk on power. I think what they’ve done is an abuse of power. It’s offensive.”

Hein couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

The school board hoped for the passage last year of L.D. 6, a bill that would have allowed school boards to override residency requirements. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford — also that city’s mayor and school board chairman — and cosponsored by Augusta’s Sen. Roger Katz, Rep. Matt Pouliot and Rep. Corey Wilson, all Republicans.

L.D. 6 passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

“State government should not lightly put itself above the decisions of local voters when it comes to their municipal charters,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “This bill would override the decisions of Maine voters who have intentionally added these requirements in their charters. That is not something I can support.”

LePage said he was especially concerned about the bill’s implications for Biddeford, where voters rejected an attempt to remove the residency requirement in 2012 in a referendum similar to the one proposed in Augusta.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray, who lived in Saco, purchased a Biddeford condo in the fall to comply with the requirement, according to the Portland Press Herald.

If the Augusta school board approves the resolution Wednesday to seek the charter amendment, it will go to the City Council, probably in February.

City Manager Bill Bridgeo said the council will decide, with advice of legal counsel, whether the requested amendment is significant enough that it must go to the charter commission or minor enough that it can go straight to a public referendum.

Bridgeo said he expects that it can go directly to voters and that the City Council will support the school board’s request for a referendum.

The amendment could go on the ballot in June, but it’s more likely that it will be held until November.

State law requires charter amendments to be approved with voter turnout of at least 30 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election, which would be 2,292 for Augusta. Turnout for the June election was 555 in 2013 and 1,558 in 2012.

If voters approve the change in November, a new superintendent probably would not start until summer 2015. Towle said school board members have not discussed how or when to conduct a new search if the residency requirement is removed.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645smcmillan@centralmaine.comTwitter: @s_e_mcmillan
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