January 16

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL : Antiquated residency requirement impedes choice for superintendent

Don Roberts

If you are the dominant candidate for the job after qualifications and credentials have been completely reviewed from all who have applied, should your competitive dominance in the contest or your domicile be the deciding factor?

The Augusta Board of Education, an elected body, has run into a city charter roadblock in its selection process of the next superintendent of schools. One section, inserted into the city charter decades ago, mandates that the superintendent be a resident of Augusta, if not at the time of selection, then within six months of being on the job.

The school board recently opened the superintendent selection process and found that the number of those applying was extremely limited because of the residency requirement.

(Editor’s note: The city of Waterville also has a residency requirement for school superintendent.)

Former Cony High School principal Jim Anastasio currently serves as interim superintendent. He wishes to be considered the permanent replacement for Connie Brown, who moved on to a bigger job at the state level. Anastasio lives in Gardiner, where he has owned a home for many years while serving in executive positions at various schools, including Cony.

This situation mirrors a case in the twin communities of Biddeford and Saco. Biddeford’s choice for superintendent lived one mile away in Saco.This case spawned legislation to remove residency requirement as a mandated part of school superintendent choice by school boards throughout the state.

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, stating that the issue was strictly local. It was an illogical explanation since leaving the decision to the school board would be exactly that — a local decision.

I agree that it is a local issue, so let’s base the analysis of Augusta’s case on current circumstances, past experience and common sense. I believe the question should be framed in the context of any other business or management decision. When searching for the best-qualified candidate for any position, those making the choice must use the best information available. In Augusta’s case, the man that many think is the best permanent choice for superintendent already holds the position. Anastasio’s performance, first as principal and now as interim superintendent, if judged exemplary, should put him in first place for permanent selection. Where he lives should be irrelevant, especially since his domicile is so near.

If the Augusta Charter Commission, on which I served as vice chairman twice, were to be convened (it won’t be for another five years), I believe that it would grant dispensation in view of the real situation presented today. Former mayor and charter commission chairman, state Sen. Roger Katz, agrees.

In the early 1990s, I served as chairman of the City Council’s selection committee for the economic development director. After extensive interviews and background checks, committee members unanimously concluded that our choice, Jean Belaire, should be hired, despite the fact that he and his wife lived in Camden. They had a beautiful home on the coast that his wife was unwilling to give up. Belaire was more than willing to perform the hour-long commute, and to stay overnight in Augusta when necessary. We wanted Belaire for the job, and, despite some public discourse about how the choice should be restricted to require residency, the committee hired him.

The City Council made the right business decision for Augusta. Fortunately, we were able to make it because the charter contained no residency restriction for this job. Belaire was an excellent economic development director.

In view of the Augusta Board of Education’s current situation, common sense and sound business practice calls for removal of the charter residency requirement.

Sometime in the future, if a leading candidate for superintendent lives in Augusta or circumstances would allow them to move to the city, then that candidate should be given preference. Augusta voters would want it that way.

Meanwhile, the antiquated residency requirement stands in the way of making the best decision for Augusta now and should be amended in referendum.

Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.
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