PARIS — The School Administrative District 17 Board of Directors will go through the regular process of finding a new principal for Agnes Gray Elementary School with a hiring committee, they decided Monday after rejecting Superintendent Dr. Monica Henson’s suggestion of immediately hiring the interim principal, Cathy Bickford, permanently.

After Monday’s special meeting ended public comments on the controversy about a sixth-grader who was restrained at Agnes Gray, discussion about the school’s atmosphere and administration continued.

At the board’s request, Henson detailed a number of issues that she said required corrective action at the elementary school, including previous Principal Beth Clarke’s performance, lax safety enforcement, unsecured records, unaddressed bullying, and no codes of parent and student conduct, among other things. Henson told the board that Patrick Hartnett, the district’s previous assistant superintendent, had advised her that Clark was the weakest of the district’s nine principals.

When contacted for comment, Hartnett replied with an email statement:

“That information was confidential and to be used in determining who would be supervised by whom in terms of district admin. I prefer not to discuss any specific principal, but the statement attributed to me requires additional context and is not accurate as a stand-alone statement.”

Hartnett added that he would contact Henson to clarify and correct her characterization of his remarks.

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Henson related the problems within the school as reason for her recommendation to appoint Bickford as permanent principal, waiving the normal procedure of posting and interviewing for the job.

Some board members objected to focusing discussion for the school’s future on its former administrator. Others felt strongly that normal procedures, which include involvement of other stakeholders, should be followed in the hire of a new principal, even as they agreed that Bickford is likely the best candidate for the job.

Director Stacia Cordwell of Oxford asked Henson if Agnes Gray staff have expressed concerns about their school, when throughout and beyond the Oxford Hills community she had always heard wonderful things about the school, which Henson acknowledged.

“There are magical things happening at the school,” Henson said. “The outdoor education and experiential learning is truly a state model. They got a quarter million dollar grant. There are amazing things that happen in the school.”

Director Judy Green of Waterford said there was no need to rush to make an interim administrator permanent.

“And when you say ‘they’ have this outdoor grant, remember who wrote it,” Green told Henson. “It was Beth Clarke.”

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When it came time to vote, directors rejected Henson’s recommendation to appoint a permanent principal for Agnes Gray, with 15 opposed and four in favor, deciding that the regular process of going through a hiring committee should be maintained.

After the meeting, in an interview with WMTW, Agnes Gray teacher Rebekah Arntsen challenged Henson’s remarks about there being no code of conduct.

“There is a code of a conduct and there is proof of that,” Arntsen said. “We had to send them home to be signed by parents. Four or five people in our community have sent in copies of them, yet we’re still having the same conversations.”

Reached for comment after the meeting, a former colleague had this to say about Clarke:

“Beth is a strong leader who managed to rally the school’s staff after a succession of previous principals. She focused her discipline routines around restorative practice and adverse childhood experiences (ACE)s. Some may have perceived her to be too student centric. Her premise was that redirecting and re-engaging students in learning should be a priority, which was sometimes seen as being soft.”

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