The Scarborough school superintendent took steps Thursday to halt a student voter registration drive at Scarborough High School that was meant to drum up support for recall petitions aimed at ousting three school board members.
Superintendent Julie Kukenberger announced her effort in an email to the school community after about 30 seniors walked from the high school to the town hall next door to register to vote and sign the petitions.
Her action came amid controversy over the resignation last month of Scarborough High School Principal David Creech and the high school faculty’s 83-1 no-confidence vote last week against Kukenberger.
Kukenberger said she asked Creech to suspend the registration drive during school hours because some parents had complained.
“I have received several complaints from parents that their children are feeling pressured, and have concerns that politics are being brought into the classroom, and that as a result, the culture and climate at the high school are not conducive to teaching and learning for all of our students,” Kukenberger said.
Halting the registration drive would allow “time to review the process in order to balance the concerns that are being expressed to me by parents with the importance that this type of civic opportunity holds for our students.”
Kukenberger noted that the district periodically collaborates with the town clerk to register students who are 18 and interested in registering to vote. Other local districts held voter registration drives in connection with recent school shooting protests.
However, Kukenberger said, Scarborough school officials weren’t involved in this week’s drive and neither parents nor the town clerk were notified that it was happening.
A meeting has been scheduled Friday with high school administrators to develop a plan “that allows us to move this activity forward in a positive manner for all of our students,” she said.
BOARD MEMBERS TARGETED
Monday is the deadline to turn in signatures for the school board recall petitions. A group of residents has formed a political action committee, “Road to Renewal,” that is trying to force a recall vote on school board Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea.
David Cleary, one of the group’s organizers, said many parents are upset about the superintendent’s intervention in the high school registration drive and some are questioning whether her action was legal.
“This could be considered voter suppression,” Cleary said. “That’s my feeling.”
For each targeted school board member, petitioners must collect at least 2,622 valid signatures of registered town voters, which is 25 percent of the local turnout in the last gubernatorial election. By Thursday afternoon, the group had gathered about 2,150 signatures for each candidate.
If the petitions are successful, a recall election to remove the board members from office would take place in May, said Town Clerk Tody Justice. However, the group has said that its real goal is to oust Kukenberger and make sure Creech stays beyond his June 30 resignation date.
Creech submitted his letter of resignation about a month ago without saying why he stepped down, though his wife and his lawyer say he was forced by Kukenberger. He tried to rescind the resignation following an outpouring of community support, but Kukenberger has declined to accept it.
Creech is a former assistant principal at Kennebunk High School who became principal of Scarborough High in 2013. Last year, he was a finalist for the principal’s position at Falmouth High School.
So far, the school board has refused to meet with Creech and has backed Kukenberger, who became superintendent nearly two years ago. The controversy has led the board to reconsider controversial new school start times set to take effect in the fall that would have allowed high school students to start later but would have forced younger students to start earlier.
STUDENTS ACCOMPLISH GOAL
Ben Hughes, vice president of the senior class, is one of the students who registered to vote and signed the recall petitions Thursday afternoon. He said the registration effort was organized by class officers, who circulated fliers and made announcements in school.
“We felt this whole thing is about the students and it was important to show support for Principal Creech and get our message out there,” Hughes said.
Hughes said no students told him they had a problem with the registration drive and he was unaware of any seniors feeling pressured to participate.
He said he understood Kukenberger’s concern about the drive happening in school and her desire to meet with high school administrators to ensure that students aren’t pressured to take a side in a divisive town issue. He felt “indifferent,” he said, about her move to halt the drive, largely because the senior class accomplished its goal Thursday.
“It doesn’t really affect us. We’re done today,” Hughes said. “I think (Kukenberger) just wants to find out what’s going on.”
Scarborough High School senior Luke Grover signs a petition after registering to vote Thursday during a drive to recall three school board members. A group of town residents claims to have gathered about 2,150 of the required 2,622 signatures for each board member needed for the recall to move ahead. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)