Regional School Unit 9 board meetings have taken place virtually over Zoom with recent participant numbers exceeding 180 as more staff and parents take a vested interest in the board’s decisions. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Mt. Blue senior Alejandro Snell joined the Regional School Unit 9 board of directors as a student representative last November. He thought it would be a unique way to serve the Mt. Blue community that had been so welcoming since his transfer from middle school in Strong.

“I have a relatively strong connection to the student body,” Snell said. “I know a lot of people, and a lot of people know me. So even though I am not technically a part of a ton of cliques, I feel that I have a decent understanding of what the ideas of the student body are … as much as one single person can understand 800 people.” 

Snell joined the board at a particularly tumultuous time as members were hashing out a budget for the 2020-21 school year, teacher contracts were expiring, and the unforeseeable coronavirus pandemic would cause school to switch to emergency remote learning in the spring.

Despite the challenging moment to join the board, Snell said he got no preparation beyond bimonthly agendas and a few handshakes from board members.

As a student representative, Snell was barred from executive sessions but he could voice his opinion and ask questions during public meetings and cast a non-counting vote.

“Our vote would not have any power, but it would show an opinion,” he said.

Snell expressed considerable intimidation to voice his opinion at board meetings, partly due to his age and inexperience and lack of preparation, and partly due to the board’s seemingly more vested interest of tackling issues solely with a financial lens.

I remember being, I’d say, upset with how it seemed as though they were putting more focus on the financial effects of things than the effects on students,” Snell said. “So if they were talking about the budget and planning on cutting something, they seemed to be talking more about the cost of keeping that program alive than how it was affecting the students.”

Snell referenced the Success and Innovation Center program as an example of the board’s mindset. The program was a three-year, grant-funded maker space and mentoring space developed by former Mt. Blue teacher Dan Ryder. It was a space that provided students with the resources to troubleshoot their circumstances whether they were academic, social, vocational, professional or emotional.

During budget deliberations, the board was discussing whether the district should provide funding to continue the program.

According to Snell, the Success and Innovation Center had a reputation among students as a program that successfully prevented kids from dropping out. Snell personally knows four students who sought help from the program when they were on the verge of dropping out and ended up remaining enrolled and working even harder.

Snell wanted to speak up and advocate for the program, but felt too intimidated.

“I remember wanting to say something of how this should not even be a question of whether this should stay,” he said about the center. 

Snell added that other than random moments during meetings when a member would ask for his thoughts, no board member ever reached out to him for a student perspective.

“It felt more like our position on the board was, it will seem more like the students are contributing to their own education if there are people on the board that are students,” Snell said. “But that doesn’t mean their input is really there, it’s just they’re sort of figureheads.”

The Success and Innovation Center’s co-founder Ryder who resigned from RSU 9 in August, revealed a similar sentiment of the board’s lack of interest from outside input. During the most recent, Nov. 24 board meeting, Ryder described his experience of trying to address the board while still working for RSU 9.

“I started in August of 2019 requesting time to address the board, again, to receive directions to be given metrics for which my success and the success of the program would be measured,” Ryder said during public comment at the Nov. 24 board meeting. “It took four times with district leadership to be granted a sole, 10-minute presentation because each time, my time was bumped for another pressing board policy.”

Ryder said that in the spring of 2020, he, along with parents and students, received an email that the Success and Innovation Center would be cut from the budget because the program failed to meet the board’s expectations. The lack of direct communication prevented Ryder from addressing the board’s specific concerns and criticisms, he said.

“Policies and protocols remain more important than the peoples whose practice they govern and the students who feel their effects,” Ryder said.

Snell said that students do feel the effects of the board’s operations, and he added that students are currently experiencing an anxious atmosphere in virtual and in-person classrooms as teachers work without a contract.

“Conditions here are far from optimal and moral is the lowest it has been in this district for as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for 20 years,”  Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum said, in a phone interview on Oct. 30.

RSU 9 teacher contract negotiations, which began last January, were disrupted during the start of the pandemic, and resumed over the late spring and summer. Teachers have been working without a contract since Aug. 31.

During negotiations, the Mt. Blue EA has released a public statement with regard to what it considers to be an anti-collaborative and misleading negotiation process. A major point of conflict by the Education Association was that the board was basing salary proposals off of last year’s staffing.

The board’s chairwoman, Angela LeClair, responded to the association’s statement by confirming that the proposed salary increases were based off of last year’s staffing. However, she brought out yet a different point of negotiation disputes.

“The annual wage increase of 4.25% reported in the board’s statement was the actual increase to the wage scale for those employed during the 2019-20 school year,” LeClair wrote in an email. “The parties’ disagreement relates to how retirees should factor into the costing. The business office is in the process of providing updated employee information to the association with the hope that the parties can agree on the cost of the financial proposals.”

The back and forth negotiations that mostly take place in the board’s executive sessions, and the surfacing disputes made public is adding to an already overwhelming time to be a teacher, and students notice.

“Everyone is just on edge all of the time,” Snell said, adding that the vote of no confidence in Superintendent Tina Meserve has also contributed to this building tension.

Meanwhile, a community petition is circulating throughout RSU 9 towns providing residents with the opportunity to also cast a vote of no confidence in Meserve. Many parents have been actively involved in the petition, carrying the ensuing district drama into students’ homes.

The petition has collected about 400 signatures so far, according to RSU 9 parent Elizabeth Tracy.

The board is exploring conflict resolution methods as a means to resolve issues expressed by staff toward Meserve. The board has presented one conflict resolution proposal so far by Craig Freshley of Good Group Decisions with an estimated cost of $5,040.

However, Hodum has already stated that the Education Association is not interested in pursuing this method. LeClair expressed her disappointment in the association’s lack of willingness to participate, but said if the board approves a conflict resolution proposal, they will move forward.

“We know that not all members of the staff are part of the association and so while the association may choose not to participate, that doesn’t mean that everyone would choose not to participate,” LeClair said in a phone interview.

Hodum noted at the Nov. 10 board meeting that of the 368 staff votes returned, 202 were from members and 166 were from nonmembers, and votes came from a variety of positions throughout the district.  

Snell resigned as a student representative last spring and has not been a Zoom participant at these more recent board meetings.

“I had to resign because I was overwhelmed because of a lot of dissatisfaction with what the board was doing,” Snell said, adding that he is still aware of and affected by the board’s decisions both as a student and as a son of a Mt. Blue High School teacher.

Before Snell left the board, he read members a letter about his concerns relating to reopening schools during the pandemic. Snell lives in a high-risk household and was hoping the board would seek more input from students before approving a back to school plan.

Snell received what he referred to as cookie cutter responses to his concerns.

“I will say, it’s really hard for students to speak up about this sort of thing as often times it feels like our voices are being ignored, especially when it comes to issues this big,” Snell said in reference to COVID-19. “And we’re not often seen as an integral piece of the community, and more like the thing that the authority figures are trying to protect while also protecting from themselves.”

Going forward, Snell expressed the same desire that RSU 9 parents, staff and the Mt. Blue Education Association have been asking of the board, to listen to more voices.

“In really general terms, I’d like to see more concern being taken toward student and teacher concerns, more interest taken into them, particularly if multiple people make the same concern,” Snell said. “I would like the teachers to be given more respect as how the teachers are treated directly affects how the students are treated and how the students are educated.”

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