KENNEBUNK — The retirement of Kennebunk High School Principal Sue Cressey has come into question by residents who feel she was forced into retiring early.
Cressey submitted her intent to retire on Aug. 16, which was approved by the RSU 21 Board of Directors on Aug. 20, to take effect at the end of the 2018-19 school year. Cressey has been at KHS for 32 years, the last eight as principal.
At a meeting Monday of the RSU 21 Board of Directors, Kennebunk resident and former board member Norm Archer spoke during public comment saying, “It’s been brought to my attention that Principal Cressey is being forced into early retirement and, to my knowledge, having reviewed previous meeting minutes, it appears that this has not been fully examined by this board but rather been executed exclusively by Dr. (Katie) Hawes.”
Archer’s statement was widely circulated on social media following Monday night’s meeting, catching the attention of many residents and parents.
Archer said his main concern is that the school board has forgotten its role.
Addressing board Chair Emily Kahn, Archer said “You, and your 11 colleagues collectively, manage the superintendent. You 12. The superintendent does not set the agenda. The superintendent does not run this board,” he said. “So I’m asking you, very simply, have you had the opportunity, as a board in Executive Session, to hear from Principal Cressey on this matter and, if not, why not?”
The board does not answer public comment or questions during a board meeting, so Archer's question was not directly answered.
Superintendent Katie Hawes said Wednesday that Cressey has not told her she wanted to rescind her intent to retire. She said Cressey was in her final year of a three year contract, and as superintendent it is her job to either recommend or not recommend renewal of her contract. She said Cressey’s intent letter came before that process began.
“I did not get to that point in the process,” Hawes said. “None of these things are ever easy. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there and it’s difficult when dealing with personnel matters.”
Kahn said in an email Wednesday that under Maine law a principal must receive notice of contract renewal or non-renewal by March 1 and the principal has a right to request a hearing before the school board on the decision to non-renew a contract.
“In such an instance, full due process is afforded to the principal, and this right cannot be surrendered unless the principal voluntarily decides to forego it. In this case, Mrs. Cressey was in her final year of employment and chose to submit her intent to resign prior to the board considering her contract renewal status,” Kahn said in her email statement.
Cressey declined to comment for this story. A handful of her long-time friends and former colleagues attended the Dec. 3 meeting of the RSU 21 Board of Directors and questioned the board about her retirement.
Dick Farnsworth, who worked with Cressey at KHS for 30 years, told the board “when you have the best already, why are we searching for another.”
Farnsworth said in an interview that he believes Cressey felt pressured to submit her intent to retire.
“I am concerned because I know her very well and she still loves what she does. As a citizen and former educator I have nothing but admiration for Mrs. Cressey. Let’s stay with the best,” Farnsworth said. “Her dedication and her passion is obvious to everyone. She loves what she does. I’m asking the board to explore the possibility of reconsidering her earlier announcement.”
Kennebunk resident and former KHS teacher Tom Murphy addressed the board saying it needs to spend more time reviewing the issues going on and meet its responsibility. “My concern as a shareholder in this community is we just watched the mess up in Scarborough. And every history teacher will tell you, you study history and look at the mistakes so you don’t repeat them,” Murphy said.
He’s referring to former Kennebunk assistant principal David Creech, who left the district in 2013 to become principal at Scarborough High School. In February, Creech resigned as principal at Scarborough High, and later said the district’s superintendent, Julie Kukenberger, had forced him to quit or be fired. Creech tried unsuccessfully to rescind his resignation and his supporters, angered by the way he was treated, voted in May to recall three school board members.
“When you make a mistake and then put your feet in cement, it can come back and bite you,” Murphy said.
Cressey’s retirement announcement came shortly after a tumultuous time for the school district when former teacher Jill Lamontagne was acquitted by a jury in York County Superior Court on 14 charges of sexual misconduct with a student. During Lamontagne's trial, texting and social media contact between teachers and students came into question. Lamontagne, along with other KHS teachers testified that they frequently texted students, which goes against district policy.
Hawes issued a statement following the trial saying “Although Ms. Lamontagne was acquitted of the criminal charges, I think it is important to acknowledge that the evidence that was presented during the trial demonstrated a troubling failure by one of our teachers to comply with the standards we expect of all of our employees. For example, RSU 21 prohibits our employees from communicating with students by text and social media platforms.”
When asked if the case played a role in Cressey's resignation, Hawes said “I can tell you that it would be rare that there would be one incident to recommend non-renewal. More often it is patterns of similar issues. Personnel issues are very private.”
An executive session was scheduled for the board for the evening of Thursday, Dec. 20. Hawes confirmed district lawyers will consult with the board on their legal obligations regarding this issue.
After Archer’s statement was circulated on social media, numerous community members sent emails to the board urging transparency and due process for Cressey.
At the Aug. 20 board meeting board member Rachel Phipps said she had questions surrounding Cressey’s resignation, and asked if the board could invite the principal to speak to them in executive session.
Kennebunk board member Matt Fadiman said it would be up to the superintendent to invite Cressey to speak to the board.
Two parents who saw Cressey’s retirement listed on the Aug. 20 agenda spoke at the meeting asking the board to give parents more information about it, and said they hoped they could talk her into staying on.
At the Dec. 3 board meeting, resident Ted Baker urged the board to “look at the written directives that Mrs. Cressey received from the superintendent. Look at the directives and look at the assistance she has received in trying to deal with these issues.”
Hawes said the district is moving forward with the search for Cressey’s replacement, and is working with staff at KHS through the process.