LEWISTON — Questions about an outside educational service led to a heated discussion at the School Committee meeting Monday night about the superintendent’s duties.

The Tree Street Youth Center’s Next STEP High has been an alternative education pilot program for the past three years in partnership with Lewiston High School.

Despite Superintendent Todd Finn’s concerns about some facets of the program, the committee voted 8-1 to maintain the exact same memorandum of understanding signed by former Superintendent Bill Webster a year ago.

“I wanted to ensure accountability,” Finn said Tuesday. “That is well within my rights as a superintendent and that was taken away from me last night. Frankly, I was shocked because I have worked so well with the School Committee.”

He said he wanted to make sure the teachers were on track to be certified (not all of them are) because the program serves the most at-risk students. He also wanted to make sure the program had closer oversight from a Lewiston Public Schools administrator and that funding was available.

“My concern is that Next STEP High never appeared in the budget,” Finn said Tuesday.

He said the district’s $90,000 toward the project “raised eyebrows because that’s quite a bit of money and it’s not clear exactly where in the budget to find the money.”

Finn told the committee Monday night that he is a big fan of the program, but he wanted to write his own memorandum of understanding.

“My job is to evaluate the program and report back to the School Committee,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a good program, but we need to make sure it is staffed appropriately, evaluated appropriately and funded appropriately. That is completely within my purview as listed in state statute. That is my duty.”

He cited Title 20-A MRSA 1055 of Maine Revised Statutes, which outlines the superintendent’s powers and duties. These include implementing an evaluation system for all employees.

School Committee Chairwoman Monique Roy said Tuesday that framing the vote as overruling the superintendent’s request for accountability was a misunderstanding of the issue.

“The School Committee was making sure the program would be funded and hold the integrity of the structure as designed,” Roy wrote in an email interview.

Because the program was not in the budget, the committee felt it needed a formal vote to keep the program going, she said.

“The fundamental point of the discussion and vote was to make sure this amazing and successful program that was designed with community, student, teacher and parent voices is able to operate under the structure for which it was designed, as a pathway for students at Lewiston High School.”

She said Finn “could still work through any issues he feels are appropriate.”

Tree Street Youth Center Director Julia Sleeper said Tuesday that Next STEP High began three years ago as a way to support “a co-creative vision for how to improve outcomes of high school youth in Lewiston.”

The program is staffed by three Lewiston High School teachers, an education technician and a Tree Street staffer, according to previous reports.

It can serve up to 25 students at a time and has been housed in the former Longley Elementary School in the inner city. STEP stands for Success Team Engagement Progress, a name chosen by students in a leadership class.

Students in the program include those who are homeless, involved in juvenile corrections or experiencing trauma. In helping to design the program, they said they wanted a curriculum that seemed relevant and an understanding of what they are going through.

Among Finn’s concerns is that the program is in a separate building from the high school and ought to have more administrative oversight. He had proposed appointing a supervisor separate from LHS staff.

“It’s not common for an administrator to pop in,” he said. “I wanted to see more of that, especially because these are young teachers.”

Committee member Ron Potvin, who voted against the motion to keep Webster’s memorandum intact, argued Monday night that the discussion was inappropriate.

During an overview of the 2020-21 budget in advance of a vote to approve the warrants, member Tanya Whitlow made a motion to suspend the rules and add a vote on the Tree Street program to the agenda.

She said she lacked clarity on the program and wanted to make sure it was funded.

“I find it inappropriate that this motion would come up now,” Potvin said. “We’re crossing a line. Once we OK the program, the ‘hows’ belong to the superintendent. The details lie solely with the superintendent. That is in statute. I think we’re overreaching.”

Others, including Kiernan Majerus-Collins, said the motion made sense.

“I believe there are some overarching issues that are the purview of the School Committee,” he said.

The motion directed Finn to ensure that the Next STEP program remains solely under the jurisdiction of Lewiston High School, reports directly to LHS and is accountable to and through LHS, and is entirely part of LHS.

Finn said he signed the memorandum Tuesday.


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