2018-03-09 / Front Page

Drama unfolds at RSU 21 board meeting

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The audience that confronted the RSU 21 Board of Directors for its March 5 meeting was, in the words of board chairman MaryBeth Luce, the “largest” in recent memory.

“In my four years on the board, at least,” she said.

However, the message they brought has reportedly fallen on deaf years.

One by one, for as long as the school board would allow — Luce cut off public comment after 15 minutes, then, with a vote of her peers, allowed it to go on for 15 more — students and parents involved in the winter musical at Kennebunk High School stood to protest the dismissal of theater manager Michael Herman. In his first year as part-time manager of the auditorium, built as part of the district’s $56.5 million renovation project to three schools, and opened this fall, Herman also worked stipended jobs as drama club advisor and director of the musical.

He offered his written resignation Jan. 31 when it came to light that he had used his school email address to join up for KBK Moms, a closed Facebook group. No administrator of the group could be reached for comment Tuesday morning, but its rules require that members be residents of RSU 21, with at least one school-age child.

Lacking the latter, and reportedly denied admission to the group of his own account, Herman admitted to joining under false pretenses by creating a fake Facebook profile. Herman later told local media that doing so was as act of “weakness and desperation” he felt forced into when KBK Moms allegedly became a hotbed of complaints about his management style — attacks he likened to a “witch hunt” meant to drive him from the job.

“It was a very, very dumb way to handle this,” he said. “I am in no way defending my actions. I made a mistake and I’m very sorry for it.”

Herman later rescinded his resignation, but Superintendent Katie Hawes did no accept it. His actions violated two school policies, she said. The staff/student conduct policy bars RSU employees from any communications with students for non-school-related purposes. It also prohibits employees from using a forum for communicating with parents and others who make use of school property “to solicit, proselytize, advocate or communicate the views of an individual or non-school school sponsored organization.” That Herman used his RSU email address to create a fake account violated the district’s internet usage policy.

Asked Tuesday morning if she might reconsider allowing Herman to return to his post in light of the public support demonstrated at Monday’s school board meeting, Hawes said, “No.”

“Personnel issues are confidential by nature,” Hawes added, when pressed for additional comment. “So, there is a lot of information that we have not made public. But we have taken the action we have based on all of that information.”

Hawes also noted that, despite the sizable protest Monday, she “had heard” already from most of those who spoke, either in person or by email.

Hawes, who is a member of KBK Moms, declined to comment on the group or the comment of complaints allegedly made there about Herman. She was unaware of his subterfuge until alerted to the fake account by a parent, she said.

“I think that this community is very actively involved in our schools,” Hawes said. “They are very vigilant about what is happening in the schools. They expect a very high level of communication and transparency from us and they are very clear to share their views with us as to what they think should be happening in our schools.”

“This is a group that has a lot of power in our community and that power has not been used for good,” said Olivia Aiken, a senior at Kennebunk High School.

“As children we are taught to ‘not say anything unless you have something nice to say,’ and ‘that social media gives us the power to say things to people that we would never say to their face.’ However, the adults that have taught us these have shown that they cannot follow their own advice,” said another senior, Evie Roop. “Social media has become a place where it’s OK to talk behind people’s backs and if you’re misinformed it’s also OK for you to voice your opinions, especially the loud ones. There is certainly irony at work when teens say that parents are acting immaturely.”

Hawes acknowledged that individual members of KBK Moms contact her frequently, but declined to ascribe aby particularly lobbying power to the group as a whole.

Many of those who spoke Monday said those who speak out on KBK Moms use its lack of transparency, as a closed group, to speak in ways not deemed helpful to the mission of the RSU.

But the school district itself was taken to task.

Senior Ana Dinino said, “We’re seeing very powerful, persuasive parents” at work, but added that in its actions following Herman’s (allegedly forced) resignation, the RSU has left the students feeling like outcasts.

“We feel like we are being ignored, like the students are being condescended to,” she said.

“In the past two weeks, I have been astounded by the lack of compassion I have seen in our town for students and the theater program,” Root said.

All who spoke Monday praised Herman and his wife, Rachel Yoder, who took over direction of the KHS musical after his departure. Herman and Yoder also were heads of MaineStage Shakespeare, and have reportedly resigned those positions as well.

One parent asked that “an independent board be created to oversee the theater facility.” Hawes said Tuesday that the theater manager position has not been advertised. KHS will weather the semester as is, while she and the district’s leadership team will determine the best course of action.

Hawes acknowledged that filling the drama post has been tough since the 2014 retirement of long time club advisor Val Reid. After a series of single season directors and shows with less than 20 people in the audience, it appeared the program was back on track, with Root reporting she had “never seen the students in the theater program so happy,” than they were wirth Herman and Yoder at the helm.

The goal said Hawes, will be to find someone who can achieve that kind of success over the long haul. Or, it could be several someones, she said, noting that while the drama club advisor must be a school employee, that position and the roles of theater manager and show director are all technically separate.

“We fully support the theater program at the high school,” Hawes said. “We’ve just completed a brand new renovation. We have just installed state of the art sound and lighting systems. We are invested in continuing the trajectory of the program, it’s just not going to be with Mr. Herman.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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