CUMBERLAND, Maine — The past 14 months and counting have been filled with unchartered and unprecedented territory, and with it have come a number of challenging decisions. One of those ongoing conversations involves how school districts are approaching the return to classrooms—an issue that has sparked some controversy in one Maine community.
On April 6, the school board for MSAD 51, which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth, voted 9 to 0 to continue a hybrid learning model for the remainder of the year, rather than return to in-person classroom settings full-time. Some students who are struggling will be able to come to classrooms four days a week. Superintendent Jeff Porter says the decision was based largely on health and safety concerns, telling NEWS CENTER Maine the district faces "unique" challenges, like overcrowding, continued COVID-19 cases, and staffing issues.
"Every district's different. Every district's unique," Porter said about the complexity of these discussions. "We all have different conditions that we're working off of in different buildings and (with) different school populations."
Even so, an organized group of parents in the area is asking questions, expressing frustration with what they feel is a lack of transparency.
"We can't say, 'Yep, we're just going to stay hybrid' and settle," Kim Stewart, a mother to eighth and ninth graders, said. "We need to really keep working on a plan."
Stewart says she works for a neighboring school district where staff members have set goals throughout the year for a return to classrooms. That high school is still hybrid, but the elementary and middle schools are now in-person four days a week. She says her initial disagreement with the MSAD 51 board began in November when the superintendent decided schools would remain hybrid, unless there were extenuating circumstances—which ended up being availability of the COVID-19 vaccine to teachers, resulting in the need for April's vote.
Matt Orlando is another member of Fresh Start 51. He says he and his wife decided to have their son start kindergarten last fall, under the pretenses that he would be back full-time before the end of the year. Orlando says the way the school year has gone has been disappointing. Even though he voted for some of the current board members originally, he is supporting this petition to recall.
"I think we should all have a chance to really vote and express our opinion after having a year that really shed light on a lot of shortcomings that I think we have from the planning perspective," Orlando said.
One point these parents want to make is that this movement isn't meant to be personal.
"This is not about anything other than we want our kids back to school, and we want a plan," Laurie Bachelder, mother to first and fourth graders, expressed.
Fresh Start 51 also isn't affiliated with the "Fire Porter" signs around town. Those were put up by another individual, beginning with unrelated conflicts last summer.
Other parents don't believe a recall is necessary or warranted.
"All of us just need to take a step back and make sure that we are really considering how the school board has approached these decisions, what data they used," Kim Vine, mother to a seventh grader, said. Vine says everyone has been frustrated by events during the pandemic, but she doesn't think the school board has been negligent or nefarious or withheld information.
"There's no one who's saying, 'Oh, great, let's keep our kids home longer,'" Vine explained. "It's just a matter, I guess, of understanding where people are coming from."
"The school board and the superintendent (have) dealt with a lot, and I think they've really risen to the occasion in an unprecedented year," Elizabeth Bachelder, mother to a kindergartener and second grader, also noted. She says she thinks a recall would hurt the community in terms of faith in local government and morale.
This petition would recall four Cumberland members of the school board: Peter Bingham, Tyler McGinley, Jennifer Stewart, and Mike Williams. The two others from Cumberland are already up for reelection. North Yarmouth members would not be included, since that process is not in the town's charter. For this petition to be approved for special election on June 8, it would have to be signed by 20 percent of Cumberland voters—or about 1,505 voters—by Thursday, May 6. One of the petition's organizers, Nick Begin, says he is not sure what the tally is at now.
Porter says he is confident that most people in the community "are okay" with where the district is at in its decisions. He says the two goals from the beginning have been health and safety and quality of education, even if it's happening remotely. Before the April 6 vote, the district had set up a committee of 27 people including school board members, school staff, parents, and students, which advised a return to classrooms five days a week come fall.
Porter says a draft of the fall's reopening plan is expected to come out on May 10. There will be a public session for the plan on May 24 during the board meeting, and a board vote is expected to take place of June 7. You can view livestreams of past school board meetings here.