November 18, 2019

Classroom `pods’ decision fuels new Calais recall drive> Three school committee members targeted

CALAIS — The Calais School Committee’s decision to place two portable classrooms on the grounds of the closed middle school prompted the start of a recall effort Tuesday.

Opponents of the board’s decision went to the City Building on Tuesday afternoon to request recall petitions for board members Regina Taylor, Tracy DeWitt and Gary Carter.

Taylor and DeWitt have held office for just four months after ousting the previous incumbents in a recall election. Carter, who was elected in November 1998, apparently made the list because he has aligned himself with Taylor and DeWitt.

Calais parent Kathy Smith said in her written request that she was requesting a recall petition form because she believes the three board members “do not have the children of our community as a primary concern in his or her decision-making process.”

The parents worry that the site the board chose for the portable classrooms — on the North Street side of the old middle school — is too crowded and a safety hazard.

Contacted Tuesday evening, Smith said she had the support of 20 other parents. She said it was clear to her group that the school committee was not interested in the comment of parents. “If they had come back with any other site but the middle school, I am sure, even if we didn’t agree with them, that this whole thing would have gone away,” she said.

City Clerk Theresa Porter said there is no time limit on when the petitions must be returned to the city clerk. But she said 409 signatures, or 15 percent of the number of voters in the last regular city election, would be needed.

If Smith returns the appropriate number of signatures for each of the school committee members and the signatures are valid, Porter will submit the petition to the City Council. The council has up to 45 days to schedule an election. If Smith is successful in her recall drive, an election could be held as soon as December.

It has been a fractious four months in the city.

Earlier this year, Taylor, DeWitt and Maria Tickle forced a recall and ousted incumbents Leah McLean, Dan Lacasse and Peter Leon. The three former school committee members were accused of acting inappropriately when they agreed to a lease with a local contractor to build a new middle school.

Taylor and DeWitt said Tuesday night they had not yet seen any official notice of the latest recall effort, so they would not comment.

The 50-year-old Calais Middle School has been closed because of health and safety problems. So developer Jake Chambers had offered to build a middle school on land he owns next to the Calais Elementary School. But the project was not eligible for state funds.

After the three women, who campaigned on a platform of openness, were elected, they sidestepped the Chambers project and entered into an agreement with an Oxford leasing company to rent two state-supported portable classrooms –called pods. The pods probably will be eligible for some state reimbursement.

Meanwhile, voters Nov. 2 ousted one of the three new members — Tickle — who lost by a nearly 2-1 vote to newcomer Nancy Gillis.

Where to put the pods also has become a contentious issue.

The school committee had created a facilities and maintenance committee to look for a suitable location. One of the criticisms parents expressed during a meeting Monday night was that over the past few weeks there have been no public hearings at which middle school parents could have a say in the decision.

After much discussion, the facilities committee recommended placing the pods at the middle school.

On Friday night, the school committee held a meeting and invited public comment. Most of the parents present wanted the pods placed on land next to the elementary school that Chambers has offered to rent to the city. Chambers originally said the rent would be $1,000 a month, but he later cut the price.

On a motion by Carter, the board Friday voted to table the issue. Carter said he needed more time to listen to his constituents’ concerns.

On Monday night, the board again opened the issue to public discussion, and again parents urged the board to place the pods anywhere but at the middle school. They voiced concern that physical education classes would have to be held up the hill at the recreation center and that any renovation of the old middle school building would create an unsafe environment for pupils attending classes in the pods.

Carter did not attend Monday night’s meeting nor did he offer any written information on what his constituents may have told him over the weekend.

After the discussion Monday night, Taylor and DeWitt voted to place the pods on the grounds of the middle school. Gillis voted against it. Gillis explained that when she had campaigned, she had promised to oppose any effort to place the pods at the middle school.

She said it was clear that the 839 people who had voted for her agreed.

After the Monday night vote, more than half of the 100 people present walked out of the meeting.

Taylor said she voted for the middle school location because any extra budget funding should go toward equipment, textbooks and maintenance on existing buildings rather than rent.

She also said she had spoken with Calais police Sgt. David Randall, who told her he patrolled the elementary school area twice a day, five days a week. “There’s no way we could convince him it would be safe adding another 120 [middle school] students to this area,” she said.

Taylor said Randall also told her that there had been a drug problem at the old middle school within the past few days. “They had an arrest and confiscation the last few days within a thousand feet of the present middle school, and he thought we were asking for trouble if we moved students up this close to the elementary school,” she said.

It was unclear Tuesday why drugs were being sold in front of the now empty middle school or the identity of the alleged seller.

Taylor said she believes the middle school gymnasium soon would be open as a result of a campaign to raise private funds to renovate the facility.

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