Kennebunk voters say ‘no’ to recall by 3-1 margin

Kennebunk voters March 29 overwhelmingly chose to reject a move to recall RSU 21 School Board Director Tim Stentiford. There were 51 votes favoring recall and 1,716 against the measure. Tammy Wells photo

KENNEBUNK – Voters sent a clear message Tuesday, March 29 against the effort to recall Regional School Unit 21 director Timothy Stentiford.

The vote was 1,716 against recall, 516 votes in favor, and five blank ballots, according to figures released Kennebunk Town Clerk Merton Brown late Tuesday.

The no side prevailed by a margin of more than 3-to-1 of those who cast ballots. In all, 2,232 of Kennebunk’s 10,123 registered voters (22 percent) cast ballots, a good turnout as compared to other special elections, but dismal overall, said Brown, who pegged presidential election turnout at 89 percent, annual town meeting at 30 percent, and the gubernatorial election, about 70 percent.

“Our community has sent a clear message, and how we move forward is important,” said RSU 21 Board chair Art LeBlanc. “We will continue to focus on providing a safe, in-person learning environment addressing the specific needs of all students during the ongoing pandemic.”

“Mr. Stentiford is one member of the 12-person board of directors, with members elected from the towns of Arundel, Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport,” LeBlanc said. “The attempt to shorten the term of director Stentiford failed by more than a 3:1 margin. Though an individual board member was subjected to this election, the school board acts as one body as required by law.”

Stentiford’s three-year term expires June 30. Attempts to reach Stentiford were unsuccessful.

A group of people led by Kennebunk resident and former school board member Norman Archer formally launched the recall effort in the last quarter of 2021. It was aimed at recalling Stentiford and LeBlanc, but the petitioners fell one short of the signature requirement to place LeBlanc’s name on the recall ballot. The petition to recall Stentiford had just enough – 665 valid signatures of voters registered to vote in Kennebunk.

The vote on Tuesday showed fewer ballots (516) cast in favor of the recall  than the 665 the proponents secured to get the matter on the ballot.

“Ultimately, people vote with their feet,” said Archer. “If parents continue to pull their kids, if teachers continue to leave at a record clip, and if the numerous administrative hires extend well beyond the waning federal support, taxpayers will feel it for years to come. Only then will we know the total community impact of this RSU 21 board. Of this I am certain: We are all better off for this exercise in the democratic process. The voters are paying attention now.”

The affidavit that led to the issuance of recall petitions contained those themes, citing the proponents’ assertion that Stentiford’s “role in negotiating the most recent teacher’s contract and his personal contribution to the board’s escalated administrative spending has cause a loss of confidence in his ability to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office.”

The affidavit spelled out its own calculations of the departure of teaching staff, and said Stentiford was one of the leads in contract negotiations. It spoke of increased human resources spending in the district.

LeBlanc, in a Nov. 23 letter to the community on the school board’s behalf, said pre-pandemic data in Maine showed average yearly turnover for teachers ranges between 7 and 10 percent, “while RSU 21 experienced a 5.8 percent turnover during the 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an excellent retention rate in any environment.”

Archer, in a letter seeking support prior to launching the recall affidavit, contended Superintendent Terri Cooper was unfit for the job. “It’s time to take the only step we the voters have: remove the de facto board leaders from office and replace them with people who will do the one job they were elected to do: manage – and possibly replace – the superintendent,” he wrote.

In January, the school district filed a civil complaint against the town of Kennebunk, asserting it did not have the authority to conduct a recall of RSU directors. York County Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas ruled March 8 that it does.

“…. the court concludes that the Town of Kennebunk, under its Charter and consistent with both the principles of home rule and the provisions of (Maine statutes) Titles 20-A and 30-A, has the authority under its Charter to hold recall elections for RSU 21 Board Directors,” Douglas wrote in his 13-page decision.

The group Upstanders for RSU 21, who had rallied against the recall, released a statement following the vote.

“It is clear from the outcome of the vote that Kennebunk citizens value their democracy and will take action to protect their democratically elected community members from baseless accusations,” wrote member Christian Babcock. “The voters have seen through the deceit of the recall and made their voices heard at the ballot box. The Upstanders will continue to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the community and will challenge all forms of hate and exclusion, overt and subvert, observed in our great community. We hope that the community will decisively move on from this event and that citizens will put their future efforts into productive measures to make the town of Kennebunk a more inclusive and welcoming community.”

Rachel Phipps, of Upstanders for RSU 21 and a former RSU 21 director, said Stentiford prevailed because of how he conducts his work on the school board.

“Tim did it,” said Phipps. “He did it by being an incredible public servant. We helped. We prevailed. I look forward to turning our amazing energy and spirit to changing the recall process in the Kennebunk Charter, so this never happens again. And to work together on positive transformation.”

Kennebunk’s Charter states: “Any 25 qualified voters of the Town may file with the Town Clerk an affidavit containing the name of the official sought to be recalled and a statement of specific facts to support the grounds of recall,” and goes on to lay out the process. No further instruction on the facts is contained in the document.

LeBlanc spoke about the topic at a select board meeting earlier in March. “The town charter and RSU 21 policy need to be developed to establish a defined and fair recall process,” he said. ” As the RSU 21 board chair, I am willing to work with the select board to achieve that goal.”

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