Scarborough schools shaken by an administrative cage fight

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SCARBOROUGH — The turmoil erupted in February, when the well-liked high school principal suddenly resigned, then claimed he had been coerced by the superintendent and decided to fight for his job.

Students, parents and teachers rose up in protest, organizing a campaign to keep the principal, remove three school board members and force the relatively new superintendent to resign instead.

The clash drew national attention in March, when Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, responding to complaints that some students felt pressured to sign recall petitions, tried to halt a voter registration drive at the high school.

This month, the townwide battle turned ugly as police investigated a threatening and defamatory letter sent to Kukenberger’s husband, five board members and the town manager that suggested someone had listened to conversations in the couple’s home.

The turbulence rocking this affluent coastal town has baffled locals and outsiders from the start, in part because neither the superintendent nor Principal David Creech will talk openly about the fateful meeting that prompted his resignation.

It’s also a head-scratcher because Scarborough, a Portland suburb of about 20,000 residents, has one of the best school districts in Maine, with 2,900 students, a history of champion sports teams and a high school that’s ranked No. 6 in the state by U.S. News & World Report.

The ruckus radiated far outside the state when news of Kukenberger’s interference in student voter registration ran in papers and on websites across the country under the headline “Superintendent calls for end to drive that aims to oust her.”

Residents say they’re justifiably concerned.

“Scarborough made the national news over this,” said Rodger Kueck, a father of sixth- and ninth-graders who opposes the recall. “My sister is a teacher in Long Island, New York. She’s like, ‘Wow, this is really over the top.’ It definitely doesn’t paint Scarborough in a positive light.”

Interviews with students, parents, teachers and others on either side of the dispute, as well as documents, reveal that the controversy grew from smoldering concerns about two relatively routine policy issues: a change in school start times and a new proficiency-based grading system. The situation exploded when the looming loss of Creech united and mobilized people with divergent gripes about district leadership.

Now, even as the two policy matters have been resolved, the town faces a bitter recall election in May and something of a cage match between the superintendent and the principal. Only one of them can survive. Whether the district can emerge from the fight without suffering lasting damage is a grave concern for many.

THE YOUNG SUPERINTENDENT

At the center of the storm is Kukenberger, 37, an earnest first-time superintendent and former elementary school teacher and principal who describes herself as highly self-motivated, not afraid of a challenge and eager to embrace the latest educational research and trends. Critics say she’s inexperienced, uncompromising and disregarding of experienced staff members.

Less than two years on the job, she’s married, has a 4-year-old daughter and successfully defended her doctoral thesis at Boston College in March, shortly after this crisis began.

Kukenberger said she took the superintendent’s job because she liked Scarborough, its schools and its forward-thinking school board – and she still does. After becoming a lightning rod for a wide variety of complaints in recent weeks, she accepts any blame or kudos for where the district stands today.

“As superintendent, I feel that I’m responsible for all of the good and the bad that comes with a decision or anything that’s being implemented,” she said in a recent interview.

Kukenberger retains the public support of some community members and the school board, which issued a statement calling her an “impressive educational leader” and a “tireless advocate for the students,” among other superlatives.

“The more I see (Kukenberger) and how she handles herself, the more I am impressed,” said Kueck, a leader of the Truth on Recall group. “I wish there was more communication (from district officials), but there are laws and rules they have to follow (on personnel matters).”

Kukenberger, who previously worked in Massachusetts and New Jersey, also is well regarded by her peers in the Cumberland County Superintendents’ Association, said South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin.

“I have worked closely with Superintendent Kukenberger since she began in Scarborough,” Kunin said in a written statement. “She is a thoughtful, skilled and knowledgeable educator who is ready to collaborate with all stakeholders in the best interests of students. She has been a tireless advocate for the Scarborough schools and a strong partner regionally.”

THE WELL-LIKED PRINCIPAL

Also in the spotlight is Creech, 55, who has been Scarborough High’s principal since 2013. He lives in Kennebunk with his wife and two teenage daughters, and he was a finalist last year for the principal’s position at Falmouth High School, ranked No. 2 in Maine by U.S. News.

Though publicly silent since February, Creech has indicated through his wife’s Facebook posts, his lawyer’s statements and other supporters that Kukenberger forced him to resign because he wasn’t “a good fit” for the district. He declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, even to discuss school policies.

Despite keeping a low profile in recent weeks, he has drawn vocal support from a contingent of community members, including parents and students, who welcomed him back following his resignation debacle with cheers and high-fives.

Senior class officers described Creech as hands on, relatable and genuinely interested in their lives. They blamed Kukenberger for failing to compromise on the disputed policy changes and on Creech’s reinstatement.

“We’re worried about keeping what works and Mr. Creech works for this school,” said Ben Hughes, senior class vice president. “He cares about you as an individual, not just as a piece of the school system, and I believe that goes for the faculty as well.”

One of Creech’s strongest supporters is Thor Nilsen, a Scarborough resident and recall leader who had a long career as a teacher and athletic director. He worked with Creech in Kennebunk and Scarborough before fully retiring in 2016.

“You saw how students have supported (Creech),” Nilsen said. “He’s kid-centered. He has brought that school forward. I have nothing to say about the superintendent. I just want the principal to (remain).”

THE POLICY DISAGREEMENTS

Two policy disputes were simmering just before Creech submitted his resignation letter on Feb. 16.

Kukenberger was moving the district toward a proficiency-based education model, designed to meet the state’s requirement to issue proficiency-based diplomas reflecting a mastery of certain knowledge and skills.

Many high school teachers said they felt excluded from the planning process and ignored when they flagged the limitations of the 1-4 grading scale for high school students hoping to get into top colleges. They said it lacked the nuance of the traditional 1-100 grading scale that recognizes slight differences at each performance level.

Last June, lead teachers pitched a hybrid grading system that would combine the two scales and asked Creech to represent their concerns. On Feb. 6, when their concerns about the 1-4 grading scale remained unanswered, the lead teachers sent a letter to Kukenberger, again pushing a hybrid grading system.

At the same time, some people were fighting new school start times that were approved by the board last spring and set to take effect in August. Like other districts in the area, the school board had responded to research suggesting high school students with later start times have improved mental health and reduced rates of automobile accidents, truancy, absenteeism and substance use.

While the new schedule would have allowed high school students to sleep later, it would have required younger students to start earlier and disrupted traditional morning and afternoon schedules.

Parents, teachers and students were divided over the benefits of the pending changes. The teachers’ union came out against the new schedule at a volatile school board meeting the night of Feb. 15.

The timing of Creech’s resignation – submitted the day after the meeting – led some to assume it was because he opposed the new start times. Creech declined to discuss his thoughts or actions on either policy, so any connection to his dismissal remains unclear.

THE FATEFUL MEETING

Only two people know exactly what happened when Creech and Kukenberger met at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, but it has turned out to be a watershed moment in both of their careers.

While neither has spoken publicly about what was said, it’s widely understood that Kukenberger told Creech that, unless he resigned first, she planned to recommend to the school board that his contract not be renewed in June.

William Michaud, Creech’s lawyer, said Kukenberger told Creech to submit a resignation letter by the following Monday or face nonrenewal. He also said the message came out of the blue and likely was because the principal backed his staff on proficiency-based grading and new start times.

“I guess he probably brought some messages to the top that maybe they didn’t want to hear,” said Michaud, who was Scarborough’s superintendent from 2001 to 2006.

Kukenberger has refused to explain fully why she decided to get rid of Creech, and she and the board have refused to accept or even discuss his decision to stay.

She disputed that her meeting with Creech came “out of the blue” or that she hadn’t previously discussed issues she had with his work.

“There are many reasons why that conversation occurred,” she said. “It’s my job to determine what the organization needs to move forward.”

State law required that Creech be notified by March 1 if his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Many principals in his position might have gone quietly, perhaps taking the opportunity to find another job and resign rather than be fired.

Creech chose another route. Astonished and upset, Michaud said, Creech submitted a resignation letter the next day, effective June 30. Though school vacation had begun, news of his decision spread through town like a marsh fire. That Saturday, Creech’s wife posted a statement on Facebook blaming Kukenberger for his pending departure.

“Please understand that this is NOT his choice and he was forced to resign by the SI (superintendent),” she wrote. “He loves the staff, students and parents of SHS and does not want to leave. He is heartbroken and wants everyone to know how much he appreciates the support.”

THE COMMUNITY BACKLASH

Scarborough is notorious for its bitter school budget battles, despite having a median household income of $83,306, compared to $50,826 for Maine and $55,322 for the nation. After Creech’s resignation, community outrage hit a new high.

Before the weekend was out, his supporters had launched a #WeStandWithCreech social media campaign, started an online petition to reject his resignation and planned a public protest to be held at Town Hall when students returned from vacation.

In March, the district’s teachers voted 185-91 that they had “no confidence” in the school board or Kukenberger; about one-third of eligible union members didn’t participate. The vote at the high school was 75-1 against the district’s leadership.

Nilsen and other Creech supporters formed the Road to Renewal group and gathered 2,622 signatures needed to force a recall election targeting School Board Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea.

Kukenberger carries on with a smile, despite the intense criticism. She said she’s always been able to “compartmentalize” and she’s confident that she’s doing what’s best for students. She also recalls the voice of her late father telling her, “If nobody’s talking about you, you’re not having any impact.”

But she admits that some people have crossed the line. The anonymous letter that police are investigating was “threatening, demeaning, misogynistic and defamatory,” the school board said. The full contents haven’t been revealed, but in part it advised the Kukenbergers to move away because “it’s not ever going to get better here.”

“You can not like my leadership style. You can not like my decisions. You can give me feedback and I promise you I’ll take it all in as I work to continuously improve,” Kukenberger said. “But when it gets personal, that doesn’t feel good, particularly when it’s fabricated.”

THE UNCERTAIN OUTCOME

With a contract that runs through June 2019, Kukenberger said she hopes to be in Scarborough for the long haul and didn’t become superintendent to “collect new friends.”

“I just think that we can always be better,” she said. “I’m empathetic to the way people are feeling in the midst of the change. I’d like to say we’re almost done or that there’s a finish line somewhere, but I just don’t believe that to be true, and I get that that can be exhausting for some people.”

Since the recall effort began, the school board has revised the new school start times to address most complaints and the superintendent has agreed to a hybrid grading system at the high school. While it looks like the board and the superintendent finally caved under pressure, Beeley, the board chairwoman, said their goal all along was to do what’s best for students.

Creech, meanwhile, is still expected to leave at the end of the school year, Beeley said.

But the fight between supporters of the principal and supporters of the superintendent is far from over. It will continue through the recall election, at least, and both sides worry that the turmoil will have lasting impacts. The Town Council is expected to vote Wednesday to schedule the recall election on May 8.

If school board members are removed, there’s no guarantee that new members will bring the change sought by recall supporters. Moreover, the recall effort has energized townspeople who rail against school officials for other reasons, including school budget increases. That concerns school supporters like Kueck as the school budget heads for a town vote in June.

“I don’t think the recall is going to solve the problems we have,” Kueck said. “With the potential loss of three board members, the principal leaving and the goal of getting the superintendent fired, we could lose five important people. It’s hugely disruptive and it’s going to make it more difficult to get a school budget passed.”

t a special meeting of the board of education last month, Scarborough Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, center, listens to arguments about changing school start times, one of the policy issues linked to a conflict between the superintendent and high school Principal David Creech. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)

Scarborough High School Principal David Creech gets cheers and high-fives during a spirited rally in February as students, faculty and parents turned out to support the embattled administrator as he fights for his job. “He’s kid-centered,” one of his most ardent advocates says. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)

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