Request for leave raises hard questions



BAR HARBOR — No one doubts that Kelley Sanborn’s job as director of special services for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System is extremely stressful and that she could really use a break.

But the school system board isn’t sure how to make that work in a way that is both fair and fiscally responsible.

By a vote of 10-4, the board last week turned down her request to take a yearlong sabbatical, starting next July, and to be paid $58,000 for the time she is away. The amount she requested is half of her current salary and health insurance costs and includes $2,000 for professional development and $1,000 for travel.

Following the vote, board members encouraged Sanborn to come back to them with an alternate proposal.

Sanborn is in her 15th year as director of special services, which include special education, social work, psychological counseling and occupational therapy services for students in the district’s nine schools.

“The relentless nature of what this work entails is the reason I would like to be proactive and take a break before I need a medical leave,” she told the board.

Sanborn said she would use the time away “to research and study some of the big questions we have in front of us, namely standards-based education.”

She said raising the standards is “a very good and noble thing to do,” but it will bring big challenges, and not just for students with disabilities.

“It is going to take us out of the comfort zone of what traditional education is,” she said, explaining that a sabbatical would allow her to look at “alternatives and multiple pathways” for students to meet the higher standards.

School board chairman Skip Strong seemed to speak for most board members when he said, “I get stressed (just) thinking about Kelley’s job, and I understand the need to take a break. But I’m having a hard time figuring out how we’re going to put this into our budget. I am in favor of Kelley being able to take some time off, but as a (non-paid) leave of absence.”

School system Superintendent Howard Colter said Sanborn does “a very admirable job” and “deserves and needs a break.” But he said he could not support her request for a paid sabbatical.

Colter said it could complicate the current negotiations between a panel of school board members and the teachers’ union over a new contract for MDIRSS teachers. He and board members have said previously that they want to curb the rise in teacher benefit costs.

“We are being very, very conservative in the negotiations, and (a paid sabbatical for Sanborn) could easily confuse and upset all the teachers at the table who are hearing one thing from us and seeing another,” Colter told the board. “In terms of credibility with your employees, it is important to realize that, while they may understand and agree with the idea that we need to invest in our people … this could really complicate matters with negotiations.”

Ingrid Kachmar, a member of the board’s teacher contract negotiating panel, agreed.

“If we approve this (sabbatical), we’re sending a different message than the message we are strongly sending in negotiations,” she said.

Colter pointed out that while teachers’ contracts include a provision allowing them to request sabbaticals, there is no such policy for principals or other MDIRSS administrators. He expressed concern that making an exception for Sanborn would set a troublesome precedent.

Some board members said they also worried about who would fill Sanborn’s position if she were out for a year.

“We have to have the quality of service we have now,” Eric Henry said. “We cannot let this system backslide in any way, shape or form. That’s really critical.”

He encouraged Sanborn to submit another proposal that addresses the board’s concerns, saying, “I believe the leave, the recharging of batteries is going to be a good thing for her, and it’s going to be a good thing for the (school) system.”

Sanborn asked the board to provide “some parameters to work within for a follow-up proposal.”

She said late last week that because the board did not give her that guidance, she isn’t sure how to proceed.

Board member Carolina Pryor said at last week’s meeting that it is her understanding that 25-percent to 33-percent of students benefit from the school system’s special services. Although Sanborn does not personally provide most of those services, she is ultimately responsible for them and often deals with the most difficult cases involving students with severe mental or physical disabilities.

“I don’t think any of us would argue that this is a really intense, pressure cooker situation,” Pryor said.

Colter seemed to suggest that for anyone in the position of director of special services, burnout at some point is inevitable.

“I think the job she has is one that no one should think of as being a career,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s good.”

 

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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