Lawmakers propose new standards for recalling local school board members

Apr. 21—Maine lawmakers are considering new standards for recalling local school board members as an ongoing battle over the role of public schools puts them at the center of contentious political and social issues.

The Legislature's Committee on State and Local Government heard testimony on three bills regarding recalls in a public hearing Friday. Two would make it easier to recall school board members for any reason while a third would make it more difficult by limiting the grounds for school board member recalls and increasing the minimum number of voters required to initiate a recall and the number who must cast ballots.

The bills come as a culture war rages in Maine and around the nation over what, if anything, to teach students about race, gender and sexual orientation, and about how to support transgender or gender-questioning students. The emotional issues have brought school boards and their members into the spotlight and have led to recall elections, book bans and lawsuits in Maine and around the country.

School board recall campaigns in Maine have been few, but hotly disputed.

A recall election targeting two school board members failed last year in the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Arundel school district — critics cited spending and other issues in initiating the effort. Two school board members were recalled in the Oxford Hills school district earlier this year after backlash against a policy supporting students' gender expressions at school.

Members of other communities said in testimony Friday that they have been frustrated by bureaucratic roadblocks preventing recall elections to oust school board members who, they argue, acted unethically and should be held accountable.

As it stands, Maine law says municipal officials, including school board members, can only be recalled if they are convicted of a crime against the municipality during their term. In addition, at least 10 percent of a municipality's residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election must sign a petition to hold a recall election. It was not clear Friday if the recent recall elections held in Kennebunk and Oxford Hills were challenged based on the state's legal standard, but similar recall efforts have stalled based on interpretations of the state law.

A proposal by Rep. Barbara Bagshaw, R-Windham, would allow a municipality to hold a recall election for school board members for any reason. A similar bill proposed by Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, would allow a municipality to recall any elected official for any reason.

Rep. Dan Sayre, D-Kennebunk, has sponsored a competing bill that would only allow recall votes for failure to perform legally required duties, misconduct while in office, misuse of public property or funds, or for negatively impacting the school board or the rights of the public. Sayre's bill would also increase the percentage of voters needed to sign petitions initiating a recall from 10 percent to 25 percent.

The sponsors of the bills presented Friday said there are problems with the current law that need to be fixed.

Reps. Bagshaw and Andrews said prohibiting a recall unless an official has committed a crime against their municipality is too high a barrier and does not allow constituents to hold elected representatives accountable.

Residents should be able to choose whom they want to represent them at all times and hold officials accountable if they don't uphold campaign promises, break their word or do not act in the best interest of their communities, Andrews said.

Bagshaw, who both sponsored her own bill and co-sponsored Andrews', said lowering the barrier so school board members can be recalled for any reason "would bring greater transparency and good government because (school board) members would be less likely to take actions averse to the wishes of their constituents if they know their constituents have options."

Supporters of the proposals by Bagshaw and Andrews, including a representative from the Christian Civic League of Maine, the director of Parents Rights in Education Maine and individual residents, said making the recall process easier would give parents who feel powerless a voice and through that build trust between community members and school boards.

But opponents, including the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association, MaineTransNet, the Maine Education Association and the Maine Municipal Association, said making the pathway to recall easier would cause chaos and that the time for voters to choose their officials is during regularly scheduled elections. School board members wouldn't be able to effectively do their jobs if they worried with every vote that they could be recalled.

"Votes on staff decisions, school closure decisions, votes to protect rights of students under the Maine Human Rights Act, votes to change school start time. Each could be contentious," said Steven Bailey, speaking against the two bills on behalf of the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association.

Opponents also said lowering the recall bar could lead to school board members being targeted for personal reasons, such as sexual orientation.

Sayre said school board members should be subject to potential recall if they commit a crime or serious misconduct, as current state law allows, but not be under such a cloud every time they make a policy decision.

Current state law also lacks clarity over how an individual town's recall effort would work in a multi-community school board. Sponsors of all three bills noted they would like clarification on that.

Sayre's bill also calls for at least 25 percent of voters from the previous gubernatorial election to sign a petition to hold a recall, up from the current 10 percent; and for 30 percent of that number to cast ballots for the vote to be valid. Theoretically, as the law stands, if only one person votes in a recall election the result could be valid.