MIA trustee ouster sought

BAR HARBOR — The declaration of a vacant seat on the Mount Desert Island High School Board of Trustees, which is responsible for the school’s buildings and grounds, is being disputed by the person who has held the seat for the past two years.

Michael Sawyer, one of Southwest Harbor’s three representatives on the 12-member board, was absent from the board’s meetings in February, March and April.

On May 8, Marc Gousse, superintendent of the MDI Regional School System, sent Sawyer a letter regarding the absences.

“We value your attendance and input at these meetings …,” Gousse wrote.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to talk with Sawyer about the missed meetings and hoped he would be able to attend the May 25 meeting.

Gousse said he received no reply, and Sawyer was not present at the May 25 meeting.

On May 30, Gousse sent Sawyer a letter in which he said, “I am writing to inform you that your recent absences … have created a vacancy as defined by [a state statute]. According to this statute, when three unexcused absences from regular board meetings occur, the board may declare that a vacancy exists.”

Gousse wrote that unless Sawyer informed him to the contrary in writing prior to June 9, “I will consider you have resigned your position on the MDI High School Board of Trustees.”

Contacted by the Islander last week, Sawyer said, “[Gousse] can assume anything he wants, but I was voted to that position. The board can take any action they like, but I don’t believe they have the power to remove me.”

He said Gousse referred in his letter to unexcused absences “like I was one of their students.”

“But if I can’t make the meetings, I can’t make the meetings. I don’t need their approval one way or the other.”

Sawyer said that prior to February, he had attended most of the trustees’ meetings.

“But every once in a while, something comes up, and I just can’t make them.”

Asked why he had not responded to either of Gousse’s letters, Sawyer said,

“I’m a lobsterman. I haven’t got the time. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Gousse said Tuesday he was perplexed by Sawyer’s comments.

“I’m not looking for confrontation; I’m looking for participation,” he said. “I’ve reached out to him in every way I know how. He refuses to communicate with me. He refuses to come to the table.

“If the citizens [of Southwest Harbor] elected him to serve, then I think he has a responsibility to do so,” Gousse added. “Otherwise, we need to move on. We’ve got important work to do.”

The statute that Gousse cited regarding the declaration of a vacancy refers specifically to the boards of directors of “school administrative districts” in Maine. The Maine Department of Education defines a school administrative district (SAD) as “a combination of two or more municipalities that pool their educational resources to educate all students” and is governed by a single school committee.

Neither the MDI Regional School System nor the high school is an SAD. Gousse said he has asked the school system’s attorney to check on the applicability of the statute he cited.

“If I’m wrong about the statute, I’ll get the right one,” he said. “But regardless of which statute is referenced, we’re moving forward.”

On Monday, Gousse sent an email to Southwest Harbor Town Manager Don Lagrange notifying him that one of the town’s seats on the High School Trustees Board is vacant and recommending that former trustee Eric Henry be appointed to fill the vacancy.

The Southwest Harbor selectmen met Tuesday night but took no action on Gousse’s request. According to Lagrange’s draft minutes of the meeting, “There was concern from the selectmen regarding the haste by which the board received this request and decided to table it until the next meeting to allow the town manager some time to communicate with Mike Sawyer.”

The statute that Gousse has cited authorizes the board to declare a vacancy. The High School Trustees Board has not met since May 25, which was prior to the deadline Gousse gave Sawyer to respond, so they have not voted to declare a vacancy. But Gousse said trustees Chairman Sandy McFarland “has known every single step I’ve taken before I’ve taken it, and he’s completely supportive.”

McFarland said of Sawyer, “We told him what he needed to do to continue to come and participate, but he didn’t do that.”

In 2015, Sawyer ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Southwest Harbor School Committee. But he received 15 write-in votes for a three-year term on the high school trustees, and he agreed to serve. Each of the four MDI towns has three seats on the trustees board.

Sawyer said the towns are not being well served by any of the 11 other trustees. He criticized them for spending what he feels is too much money on capital improvements, such as this summer’s replacement of leaking walls and windows in the high school’s academic wing and the concurrent reconstruction of the area around the gym entrance, which is part of a parking lot repaving project.

“I don’t believe those people on the board have any accountability to the taxpayer whatsoever,” Sawyer said.

But he said the other trustees would always be able to outvote him, so it doesn’t really matter whether he is there or not.

“The only reason they want me there is to make sure they always have a quorum,” he said.

Whenever one of a town’s three seats on the trustees board becomes vacant, that town’s board of selectmen or town council has the authority to appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the next annual town meeting election.

The high school trustees and the high school board are separate bodies. The school board, which establishes policies and adopts the annual operating budget, is made up of members of the school committees of the four MDI towns.

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]

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