Apr. 16—Cumberland town officials are trying to quell increasing community discord amid a school board recall effort and a battle of political lawn signs being fueled by social media campaigns focused on resuming full-time in-school instruction and firing the superintendent.
The ongoing dispute over the decision to not return to five days in the classroom this school year has grown rancorous in SAD 51, where some parents who are unhappy with a hybrid of in-school and remote learning want to remove board members and Superintendent Jeff Porter.
Fresh Start 51, a group of Cumberland parents, is gathering signatures to put four school board members on the June 8 municipal ballot for recall votes. The ballot already has five candidates, including one incumbent, vying for two open seats on the board.
There is no official recall effort in neighboring North Yarmouth, which also sends students to SAD 51 schools and has three representatives on the nine-member board. But residents of both communities are clashing on social media and elsewhere. When a "Fire Porter" sign was placed in the public right of way in front of Prince Memorial Library, librarians added a message to the public library's sign in movable letters saying, "This is our sign. That is not."
Responding to the rising tensions, the Cumberland Town Council issued a statement Thursday calling on residents to engage in "civil discourse" according to "social contracts" that assume people will treat others with respect, listen with empathy and "aim to learn, not win."
"There is so much out of our control these days and, after the year we have all had, it is understandable that stress levels are high and have been high for an extended amount of time," the council wrote.
"Our intention is not to stifle civil discourse, so we ask our citizens to pause and consider how dissenting views are being expressed," the email continued. "One thing each of us surely controls is how we choose to lead in our community and set an example for the next generation."
The discord was apparent this week on a public Facebook group for Cumberland and North Yarmouth residents, where Christy Diffin posted an upbeat comment asking, "Anyone know where I can get my hands on those fancy 'Fire Porter' signs?"
Diffin, of Cumberland Center, later noted that she had received many private messages, apparently from people who weren't amused. "I'm sorry that our community is riddled with fear over having an opinion, especially if that opinion means fighting for their kids to be back in school," she wrote.
Byron Kern, of North Yarmouth, responded, "Accusing others who think differently than you do of being 'riddled with fear' of you having an opinion is a perfect example of the problem with the discourse in this community lately."
The SAD 51 school board voted unanimously April 6 to continue the district's hybrid learning model through June, while providing additional classroom time for some students who are struggling with remote learning. The board's action was supported by 59 percent of parents, 95 percent of staff members and 70 percent of students who responded to a survey on the issue.
"There's a huge amount of misinformation on social media about what we're really doing," Porter said Thursday. "There are many school districts that are staying in hybrid for the rest of the school year. Most (survey respondents) didn't want to return to five days this late in the school year."
Recall petitions were filed April 7 at the Cumberland Town Clerk's Office seeking to remove Peter Bingham, Tyler McGinley, Jennifer Stewart and Mike Williams. The petitioners have until May 7 to gather 1,505 signatures of registered voters for each board member. That number is 20 percent of the town's registered voters, Town Clerk Tammy O'Donnell said. If the recall succeeds in removing any board members, the town council will appoint people to fill vacated seats until the next municipal election in June 2022.
Ron Greco, who filed for the recall petitions along with Nick Begin, explained Fresh Start 51's intentions at a recent town council meeting.
Greco said they want to "bring this community back together and give the voters the opportunity to vote to keep or reject any of the school board members that are already there. We are not asking for any particular board member to stay or go. That is for the voters to decide and we want to give them that choice."
Already on Cumberland's June ballot are five candidates running for two open seats on the board: Hannah Barry, Adam Dougherty, incumbent Ann Maksymowicz, Jason Record and Vijayarani Suresh. Board member Margo Harrington isn't seeking re-election.
Fresh Start 51's website says its recall effort isn't affiliated with Back to 5, a private Facebook group that's pushing for a return to full-time classroom instruction. However, Begin, one of the recall petition sponsors, is an administrator of the Back to 5 Facebook group and his name is on Back to 5 campaign signs.
And while some parents also have expressed dissatisfaction with Porter's performance lately, the "Fire Porter" signs were posted by Shawn McBreairty, who has sparred with the board and the superintendent before.
McBreairty has been a vocal critic of local school officials since last summer, when the district sent a letter to the community that commented on the death of George Floyd and outlined its work with a firm it hired in 2019 to conduct anti-racism training. McBreairty didn't respond to a call for comment.
The Back to 5 and "Fire Porter" signs are the only campaign signs related to the school issue that have necessary town permits, O'Donnell said. Recent concerns about competing lawn signs proliferating without a permit or otherwise violating various regulations forced the town to post a reminder of campaign sign rules and etiquette, she said.