Steven Connolly addresses the Maine School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors at the time of his hiring on April 14, 2022. Connolly was only in the position for seven months before announcing his resignation, and is now expanding on interactions with board members that he said contributed to his departure. (J.W. Oliver photo)
A local school board member and former school district superintendent are warning against ongoing “micromanagement” of the superintendent’s office by at least one board member, revealing new details about the superintendent’s departure in an attempt to curb the behavior that pushed him to resign.
In an exclusive interview, the district’s former top official blamed his decision to resign on interference and political agenda-pushing by two school board members, one of whom has since lost a reelection bid.
In turn, the two board members denied any wrongdoing and said their only aim was to ensure the district follows its policies consistently.
Steven Connolly, the former superintendent of schools for Maine School Administrative District 75, announced his resignation after just seven months in the role and formally resigned after a year. The district, which covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham, is currently being led by interim Superintendent Heidi O’Leary.
Connolly said two board members, one current and one former, regularly interfered with his ability to lead the district by assigning him unnecessary tasks and pressuring him to bend to their conservative political views.
“I would be contacted about really consistently distracting matters that had nothing to do with business of the school,” he said in a Monday, Sept. 18, phone interview. “They were items that really displayed a board member’s particular political stance, and my view is, let’s keep politics out of the schools.”
The board members, Brandy Robertson, of Bowdoin, and former member Eric Lusk, of Harpswell, denied any political motivation for their actions.
Tensions and accusations
Connolly declined to call out Robertson and Lusk by name, but both agreed to be interviewed and acknowledged their sometimes-tense interactions with Connolly, although they expressed skepticism that those interactions caused him to resign.
Connolly said a current board member, who Robertson acknowledges was her, sought to preempt the process of developing the district’s pending anti-discrimination policy for transgender students and he had to sway her “back to (her) intended role.”
“As the year went on, I found that a particular board member was given to saying things like that I was — I think the terms were ‘inept’ and other negative terms about my work in the district, which were very troublesome,” Connolly said.
Robertson said in an email exchange that she never opposed the policy for political reasons and simply raised valid concerns about the way the process was being handled. She emphatically denied calling Connolly inept.
“As soon as Mr. Connolly directed me to move this policy to the committee, I immediately put it on the agenda,” said Robertson, who was then-chair of the board’s Policy Committee. “At no time did I attempt to delay the policy. If I did, I would expect the Superintendent to address such behavior with the Chair or full Board.”
Connolly announced back in February that he planned to resign at the end of the 2022-23 academic year. At the time, he cited difficulty managing “the implicit divisions that exist based on political, personal, and ideological beliefs which, in my view, are stagnating the opportunity for systemic educational progress.”
Connolly has more than 40 years of experience working in Maine schools, many as a superintendent and principal in southern Maine. In his recent interview, Connolly said he hadn’t planned to speak out in more detail about his departure from MSAD 75. He did so in solidarity with school board member Michael Timberlake, of Topsham, who raised the issue of ongoing board member interference in the district’s administration at a recent school board meeting.
Over Robertson’s objections, Timberlake criticized board member “policy policing” and “micromanagement” of the superintendent’s office during a meeting of the MSAD 75 Board of Directors on Sept. 14.
He cited excerpts from an email to some board members from Connolly in late March complaining about numerous emailed requests from Robertson for him to “chase down minutia,” saying it “has not been sustainable for me.”
“I believe the level that you may be subconsciously viewing the Board member role in is at the micromanagement level,” Connolly wrote in the March 28 email, which Timberlake distributed to the public on Sept. 14. “We likely will disagree on that, but if I do not air my concern, then I have strong concerns going forward that my successor will be equally as apprehensive about the next ‘Brandy communication’ he or she will receive.”
Connolly added that he had not “experienced this level of management from any other MSAD 75 Board member,” or from any board member during his eight years as superintendent of MSAD 60 (Lebanon, Berwick and North Berwick). He expressed hope that bringing the matter to Robertson’s attention would curtail repeat occurrences.
“Unfortunately, this attempt to micromanage the superintendent and fellow board members has continued,” Timberlake told the board on Thursday. “I’d like to believe that this is all driven by good intentions. We all want to be perceived as willing to work hard for MSAD 75, that we follow the rules, and hold each other to high standards. Unfortunately, the unilateral approach being taken with policy enforcement and personal communications is creating a different perception with fellow board members and it’s damaging working relationships.”
Board members respond
Although Timberlake did not mention Robertson by name, she acknowledged during the meeting that Connolly’s complaint had been directed at her. Timberlake had redacted Robertson’s name from the hard copies of Connolly’s email he distributed, but the name was readable in a digital copy obtained by the Harpswell Anchor.
Robertson said her voting record and willingness to work for all students across the district demonstrate that she isn’t on the board to push a political agenda, adding that she merely strives to ensure the district is adhering to its policies.
“I urge (you) to find a time in which I brought politics to the table to push a political agenda. I am certain you will not find any instance to support this statement,” she said via email. “I believe my collaborative work to support students across the district contradicts Steve Connolly’s statement. I will continue to follow district policy and state law. I will also continue to support every student and their needs in MSAD 75.”
During his recent interview, Connolly said a former board member’s actions also contributed to his departure, and he recounted an incident in which the person, whom he would not name, confronted Connolly in his office about a book that had been assigned to seven high school freshmen as part of their individualized education plans.
The book, “If I Was Your Girl,” by Meredith Russo, is about a transgender teen. The former board member, who Lusk acknowledged was him, sought to have the book’s inclusion in reading lists voted on by the school board, Connolly said.
“The particular board member said that the school board had to have a say as to whether or not the book could be read by students at the high school,” he said.
In emailed comments, Lusk said he sought to have the book subjected to a vote because a parent complained about it, and district policy requires additional scrutiny for “controversial materials.”
“Parents are supposed to be notified if their child is to be given instructional materials that may be considered controversial,” Lusk said, adding, “If (Connolly) had been better at responding to phone calls or emails, I never would have shown up at his office.”
Common Sense Media, an online review site aimed at kids and parents, gave the book four out of five stars, rated it appropriate for kids 14 and up, and described it as a “poignant and believable coming-of-age love story (that) resonates with a powerful message of tolerance and acceptance.” The book was never subjected to a school board vote.
Connolly’s departure set up what became the district’s sixth executive leadership transition in five years. He contends that at least some of his predecessors chose not to pursue long-term leadership positions with the district because of board member interference.
“I applaud the efforts to help move things forward by Mr. Timberlake, as much as they cause discomfort for people,” the former superintendent said. “If you don’t address it, you can’t fix it.”
Lusk noted that none of Connolly’s recent predecessors have publicly cited having any issues with school board members. Most left because they had been serving in an interim capacity or on a short-term contract, he said.
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