February 11, 2013

Bill would loosen residency requirements for school superintendents

Legislators hear no opposition at public hearing Monday

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Augusta School Board member Deborah Towle told state lawmakers Monday that continuing to require superintendents to live in the city "doesn't make practical sense."

"School boards should make their hiring decisions based on the merits of the candidates, not their home addresses," she said during a public hearing before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

The committee is considering L.D. 6, sponsored by Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, which would not allow municipalities to require superintendents to live in their school districts. The measure -- cosponsored by Augusta Republicans Sen. Roger Katz, Rep. Matt Pouliot and Rep. Corey Wilson -- drew several supporters and no opposition at Monday's public hearing in the Burton M. Cross Building.

Towle and other Augusta officials began the search for a new superintendent last year, after Cornelia Brown announced she would leave the position in December. Towle, who served on the school board's personnel committee, said the school system received only seven responses to their call for a new superintendent.

"I can tell you there were qualified superintendents interested in the job, but the residency requirement was a deal-breaker," she said.

Six municipalities in Maine -- Augusta, Waterville, Lewiston, Brewer, Biddeford and Presque Isle -- require their superintendents to live in their respective cities. In Augusta, school and city officials have talked about asking voters to change the city charter to repeal the superintendent residency requirement, but they fear it could be a years-long process, said City Manager William Bridgeo.

He said passing a state law would be the "most expedient solution for Augusta."

Bridgeo said Augusta has hired Cony High School Principal James Anastasio as an interim superintendent, and may want to offer him the job permanently.

But he lives in Gardiner. It's a difficult issue to explain to voters, he said.

"I think it's an issue of emotion for them," he said. "In this instance, I think it's very difficult to convey the complexity and set aside the emotion."

Casavant said that's what happened in Biddeford, where voters rejected a proposal in November to drop the residency requirement from the charter. He said a ballot with 13 questions proved confusing to voters.

"I think a lot of people may not have understood everything," he said. "The vote hurt the city of Biddeford."

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, asked why the Legislature should pass a law that will trump decisions by local residents. Others said voters often say they want the superintendent to pay property taxes to the city that pays their salaries, and that superintendents should live close by in case of an emergency.

Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association, said technology such as email and cellphones makes it unnecessary to require superintendents to live close to the office.

Casavant said superintendents enact state policy, which makes it an issue of state interest.

The bill, which will be considered at 10 a.m. Wednesday during a committee work session, may be amended to allow only local school boards to impose a residency requirement if they find it necessary. The Maine School Management Association offered the "friendly amendment" as a compromise for those who fear loss of local control.

"This leaves local control of the schools with the elected school board, where is should be," said Sandra MacArthur, deputy executive director of the management association.

Susan Campbell, immediate past president of the Maine School Boards Association and chairwoman of the Augusta School Board, said superintendents' jobs are more complex than ever. At the same time, there are fewer applicants to fill the 94 full-time and 33 part-time positions statewide, she said.

"The residency rule feels archaic and is certainly impractical in this day and age, when both wife and husband are likely to be working professionals," she said. "Shouldn't we leave it up to families to determine where to live in order to make their commutes workable?"

Susan Cover -- 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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