LEWISTON — The head of the teachers’ union is shocked and upset that Superintendent Bill Webster plans to take a three-month Bahamas vacation in the middle of the coming school year, saying the leave is both too long and poorly timed.

“Given the amount and number of changes and new initiatives that Maine schools face all across the state, this is a critical, critical time to have really consistent and strong leadership in a school district,” said Samantha Garnett Sias, a Lewiston high school math teacher and head of the Lewiston Education Association.

Webster will be gone from Oct. 24 through Jan. 24, 2017, to sail to the Bahamas with his wife. He plans to use earned-but-unused vacation days and other time off.

Webster, 66, has been Lewiston superintendent for six years. He gets 35 vacation days a year and has accrued 85 days off.

“At the end of the day, this is time that I’m owed as superintendent,” Webster said. “If I didn’t ultimately take it, it would have to be paid to me when I left, which would be more of a financial obligation to the district.”

He said October through January felt like the best time of the year to take an extended vacation. He believes that period is better than summer, which has the demands and responsibilities of summer school, staff training, building renovations policy development and planning for the new school year.

“I’m not saying any time is perfect,” Webster said. “But the new school year has started; those wrinkles that happen that first month should be over. Historically that has been a slower time for issues to reach my desk. And it is also before any budget becomes public work, which allows me to be very much involved in (it) when I get back.

“We worked weekends and other things this year to complete the last of our labor negotiations,” he said. “There are no labor contracts that are up for negotiations next year. So I feel I’ve got the best position in terms of timing for workload.”   

The School Committee on Monday night voted unanimously to pay Assistant Superintendent Tom Jarvis an extra $5,000 to take over the superintendent’s duties while Webster is gone.

Sias said she had no idea the superintendent planned to take a three-month vacation — despite monthly meetings between the superintendent and the teachers’ union — until the issue of Jarvis’ stipend came up Monday night and someone at the meeting sent her a message about it.

“I was shocked,” she said.

As news spread Tuesday, Sias said teachers began calling her.

“I think teachers are feeling insulted,” she said. “I think that teachers are feeling like their students deserve the leadership that’s needed right now. I think the timing isn’t ideal. I think the length of the time away isn’t ideal. I think that teachers are extremely sensitive to how persistently the superintendent was pressing for the school budget to be passed this year and as a result of that passing, it seems just a couple of months later, he turns around and now there’s this expense additionally to support a three-month vacation.”

Lewiston is one of the largest school systems in the state and it has a high percentage of poor families, immigrant families and children who are learning English.

Sias also took issue with Lewiston High School Principal Shawn Chabot and Lewiston Middle School Principal Jake Langlais doing one-year superintendent internships this school year, working with Webster and taking on some of his duties as superintendent while running their own schools.

Sias said both the middle and high schools face significant changes as the school system transitions to proficiency-based diplomas, a state mandate.

“It seems like they (Chabot and Langlais) have max capacity already, so to have them doing something else — two of them at once particularly — just gives us hesitation on the part of our students, and our parents as well, that are being affected by these changes,” Sias said.

School Committee Chairwoman Linda Scott said Tuesday that she and other committee members felt the internship by Chabot and Langlais will only help the school system.

“I think what we’re doing is looking toward the future for when Bill does eventually retire, when Mr. Jarvis eventually retires,” Scott said. “To think that we are building . . .  administrators that are going to be capable of fulfilling that role when the time comes, if they want to, I think is being very thoughtful of the future of the city. That’s why we made that decision.”

Webster echoed her comment. 

“I can’t think of a better educational experience for them and developmental experience for them that is going to put Lewiston in a much stronger position — when I do finally leave Lewiston — to find the next superintendent of Lewiston within Lewiston itself,” Webster said. 

Scott said she understands Sias’ concerns about leadership in Webster’s absence, but she and other committee members believe the situation will work.

“I have full faith in the ability in all of our administrators in this district, that as things are shifted around that we have the administrators that can fulfill those duties,” Scott said.

The School Committee unanimously approved Webster’s three-month vacation earlier this year. Scott said members had a “lengthy discussion” about it at the time.

“We all felt very confident that this was an appropriate time and that there was going to be sufficient coverage,” Scott said.

She said that meeting was sparsely attended, however, so the issue was raised again Monday night during the approval of Jarvis’ stipend “so that there was transparency.”

She reiterated that the committee was in full agreement about Webster’s vacation and Jarvis as fill-in. 

She said the committee will revisit the issue, including where Jarvis’ $5,000 stipend will come from, at its next meeting on Aug. 22. 

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