Director's job performance remark prompts written warning from board chair
Belfast — The chairman of the Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors issued a warning letter to a Belfast director asking him to stop making "defamatory" public comments about district employees — specifically, the job performance of Superintendent Brian Carpenter — in a letter dated Dec. 4.
RSU 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley sent the letter to Belfast Director Alan Wood after Wood's comments indicating the ongoing school consolidation discussions are being stalled in part due to a lack of leadership on Carpenter's part appeared in a story in The Republican Journal. The story detailed what occurred at a Belfast Withdrawal Committee meeting Nov. 26, at which time Wood also expressed frustration with what he described as the board's seeming unwillingness to move forward more quickly with the consolidation process.
“We're taking too long,” Wood said of the consolidation discussions at the withdrawal meeting. “They're just drawing it out so much.”
Bagley issued Wood the following letter after seeing his comments in the newspaper:
"The purpose of this letter is to once again request that you cease with your public comments that continue to be printed in the local media. Specifically, your recent comment about the performance of an RSU 20 administrator is unethical and also defamatory, to the point that it could bring a lawsuit against the RSU 20 Board of Directors as well as you personally. Lawsuits of this magnitude would most likely result in an extremely large monetary settlement amount, which could exceed the RSU 20 insurance coverage, and therefor, be an unnecessary cost to further burden taxpayers of RSU 20," stated the letter. "This is my first officially-written request and warning to you, as an elected school board member representing the City of Belfast, to immediately discontinue this type of action and conduct. Again, I request that any and all action by you of a similar nature to cease and desist immediately for the betterment of RSU 20, as well as for your own personal liability."
After receiving the letter, Wood provided a copy of it to The Republican Journal, stating the letter made him feel "intimidated" and raised concerns that he could be subject to a lawsuit for expressing his opinion.
In an email to The Republican Journal dated Monday, Dec. 9, Wood stated he feels Bagley "wants the board to stop putting anything in the newspaper and for the board to not say anything critical about the district or the superintendent."
"I don't remember ever saying anything concerning the superintendent except I felt the board was delaying talking about consolidation and needed to be leaders on this matter as well as the superintendent," stated Wood. "The district needs to be open to the public and go into the towns before we make decisions on closing or the increases in taxation. I also feel we should form an independent committee, such as the withdrawal committee is doing for feedback."
Wood also stated he disagrees with the board's current policy that dictates public comments made at meetings must relate to an item listed on the meeting agenda.
"We need to allow the public to speak and at every meeting. We need to act together as a board. This letter reflects trying to curtail discussion," stated Wood.
Wood further stated he apologized in writing to Bagley and Carpenter prior to receiving the cease and desist letter and had offered to meet with them to explain that when he made the comment about district leadership he was not singling out the superintendent.
He also expressed his worry that members of the public may be restricted from speaking their minds on possible school closures at the Tuesday, Dec. 10, board meeting at Belfast Area High School.
"I was suggesting the board needs to be leaders on this increase in taxation and closing down schools and for six weeks we have not been able to talk of the subject and I feel the public may be restricted tomorrow night as many of the public will be there," stated Wood.
In a telephone interview with Bagley Monday, Dec. 9, Bagley said Wood was the only board member to receive the cease and desist letter and confirmed that it was written in direct response to Wood's Nov. 26 comments about Carpenter's job performance.
"It was a comment about an employee's job performance; any comment made in public like that sets the district up for a possible lawsuit," said Bagley, adding that such actions are "unacceptable" for an actively serving board member.
Bagley said he wanted to put his request in writing because he said he has previously spoken to Wood about making similar types of comments in the past, and this time he wanted to create a written record of that request showing that neither he nor the remainder of the board condoned Wood's behavior.
Bagley also stated his letter is no indication that the district is facing a lawsuit as a result of Wood's comments, but the warning needed to be written so it would be on the record in the event the district or the board is held liable in the future.
Bagley said when the board conducts an employee review or must address a complaint about an employee, those talks occur in a closed-door portion of a school board meeting known as executive session. That way the board can speak specifically about a person's job performance without those comments getting out into the public realm.
Bagley offered the example of a director making a comment about a bus driver's performance. If that person leaves the RSU and applies for another job with a new district, Bagley said, a Google search on the part of the would-be employer could produce those comments as presented in an archived news story that appears online.
"Those things are always done privately, in executive session," said Bagley.
While members of the public are free to express their opinions about the state of the district and its employees, Bagley said board members are held to a higher standard because of their status as elected officials. That point was hit home during a board training session that directors recently underwent.
"You are a board member 24-7," said Bagley.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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