November 27, 2012

Augusta school board seeks end to new superintendent residency requirement

Candidate pool stifled by demand that new schools boss live in the city, board claims

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A requirement that the superintendent of Augusta schools must live within city limits is under review now that school officials say it was a top reason the quest for a new superintendent has come up empty.

click image to enlarge

Cornelia Brown

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

"We only had a handful of applicants, and none of them had the attributes and qualities we were looking for," Susan Campbell, chairwoman of the Board of Education, said Tuesday. "We received a lot of feedback that more people would have applied were it not for the residency requirement. It can be challenging, in this housing market, for people to pick up their families and move."

Unable to attract someone with the ability and desired qualifications to lead the district when Superintendent Cornelia Brown leaves Dec. 31, school officials plan to hire an interim superintendent to run the school system for the rest of the school year and likely well into next year.

Board members meet tonight, in a closed-door session to interview potential new interim superintendents, and could select one of them as soon as next week, Campbell said.

Meantime, officials are considering asking voters to do away with a city charter requirement that the school superintendent live in the city, a requirement they say has hindered efforts to attract a new superintendent.

Campbell anticipates the Board of Education will consider voting later this month to work with the City Council on a referendum question for next November's ballot, asking city residents if they want the requirement removed.

Augusta is one of three Maine municipalities that require school superintendents to live within the borders, according to Campbell.

Whoever is selected as the interim superintendent may be asked to stay on until after the residency requirement is voted on. That could mean a long-term superintendent may not be in place in time for the start of next school year.

City Manager William Bridgeo, who is also subject to a residency requirement, said such requirements are common for city and town officials, but rare for school leaders.

"As someone who has relocated his family more than once for career purposes, I know it can be a very disruptive thing for your family," Bridgeo said. "I can see where that would pose some difficulty in a superintendent search. The thinking (behind the residency requirement) is legitimate rationale: you want your school superintendent to be invested in your community, and I'm sure that is why it was put in the charter."

But Bridgeo said it's worthwhile for the community to ask whether it's a priority is to insist on residency or "get the absolute best candidate, who is certified as a superintendent, to step in at a time when there are a lot of challenges facing the district."

Business Manager Karla Miller also recently announced she is resigning soon to take another job, and Campbell said the board would act quickly to fill that post. She said she anticipates filling both that position, and the recently created position of assistant superintendent, by the time Brown leaves the district at the end of the year.

Brown is in her 14th year as Augusta superintendent. She announced her resignation in July and will become executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

Both Bridgeo and Campbell said the lack of qualified applicants doesn't mean Augusta is an undesirable place to live.

"I love living in Augusta, and so does my family," Bridgeo said. "I think it would be a mistake to read anything more into this than the idea that school superintendents, as a matter of professional tradition, are typically not required to establish residency. I don't believe the board can offer more than a three-year contract. In that case, you could be asking somebody who may live within 10 or 15 miles of Augusta to put their kids in a new school, to get a new house and (once their three-year contract is up) perhaps not have their contract renewed. That's very foreign to the profession."

Campbell said it's worth waiting to make sure Augusta finds a good fit.

"We want to make this search as broad as possible, because it is so important to have the right person take over, not just anyone," she said.

Augusta's police and fire chiefs are also required -- though by city ordinance, not the charter -- to live in Augusta. Last year city councilors voted to waive that residency requirement for Police Chief Robert Gregoire, who lives in Whitefield.

Keith Edwards -- 621-5647
kedwards@mainetoday.com

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