NORTHEAST HARBOR — Combined classes for Mount Desert Elementary School’s youngest pupils continues to be a hot topic, with the school board scheduling a special meeting on the issue at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21.
Chairman Peter Aylen said Thursday that discussion and probable action on whether the first and second grades will continue to be combined next year is the only item on the agenda. The board will meet in executive session in the half-hour before that meeting to discuss extension of the principal’s contract.
Aylen said the school board reached a decision last year on combining the first and second grades, following lengthy consideration. The decision, made in a 3-1 vote, created the combined classes for a three-year period, with the effectiveness of the program to be evaluated over the three years. This school year is the first year of the program.
“The board came to a conclusion valid at the time, and one that I think is still valid,” Aylen said.
Aylen is the only remaining board member who voted in favor of the combined classes last year. Member Charles Bucklin cast the single vote in opposition to the program last year; Jason Lovejoy was not present for the vote. The other two board members did not run for reelection this year, and their positions are now filled by Lisa Heyward and Steven Juskewitch.
It is Juskewitch who has led the move to have last year’s decision reopened. At a board meeting last month, he said he had been contacted by several parents of kindergartners who said they wanted the choice of placing their children in a single-age classroom. Lovejoy and Bucklin supported Juskewitch’s motion, made at the April 16 meeting, to reconsider the issue.
About 80 parents, teachers and community members turned out for that meeting, holding a sometimes emotional discussion for over three hours. Many urged the board to honor its vote last year; others said the board should vote again on the matter.
On Wednesday evening, even though the issue was not on the school board’s agenda, about 60 people showed up at the meeting ready to discuss the matter. The public comment period turned into another 2-3 hours of debate on the same topic, according to Principal Henry Ashmore.
Both he and Superintendent Howard Colter said the majority of people attending this week’s meeting indicated support for continuing the combined classes for the next two years.
While noting the issue is controversial, Aylen said controversy can strengthen a community. “I’m very positive about what’s happening at Mount Desert Elementary. Community interest is very high,” he said.
Juskewitch said Thursday he is “clearly on the hot seat” on this “very sensitive issue.” He said there is a “vocal group … who are putting whatever spin on this to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.” He said he thinks the majority of people want the choice of a single-grade classroom for their children. He confirmed that at least one person on Wednesday had wondered aloud about the procedure for recalling a school board member.
Also on Thursday, Aylen confirmed that Juskewitch had shocked most of those present at Wednesday’s meeting, including the superintendent and other board members, by publicly naming the two teachers of the combined first and second grade classes and the principal as people he wanted to schedule for an executive session with the board. Aylen said he had no clue why Juskewitch made the suggestion and confirmed that no other board members supported the motion.
“I was surprised, but then again I’m surprised at every meeting,” Aylen said. The board chairman said the elementary school staff and faculty are “superlative … of the highest quality,” and said the board has no interest in or reason for the executive session.
Colter, contacted Thursday, said he had never witnessed such a request at a school board meeting and had been “shocked” by Juskewitch choosing to name teachers for an executive session. He said he witnessed teachers and parents visibly distressed by Juskewitch’s suggestion.
Juskewitch explained Thursday that his suggestion for an executive session had nothing to do with the teachers’ job performance. He said he only wanted to learn whether rumors he had heard that the teachers might resign are true. If so, he said, that could be “another factor” for the board to use in making a decision about combined classes for next year.
Neither of the teachers mentioned by Juskewitch have resigned, and “there is no hint of that,” said Principal Ashmore.
Juskewitch said he also had been surprised at the meeting when a parent said she holds him responsible for upsetting her first grade child by calling into question the future of the combined classes. He noted that school board members cannot be held responsible for what parents say to their children.