This Monday, September 9th 2019, the RSU 21 School Board moved to confirm the hiring of interim superintendent Dr. Maryann Perry. The motion passed with unanimous consent, with both student representatives voting in favor. The decision comes in the wake of the resignation of former superintendent Dr. Kathryn Hawes, who has since taken on a teaching position at the University of Southern Maine. Perry, a former educator and administrator for Marblehead Public Schools in Massachusetts, was one of three finalists in the running to fill the vacant position.
In a letter published by Marblehead Schools on January 29, 2019, Perry stated that her career in education began over 35 years ago, in special education within a preschool setting. She uncovered her passion for administration after seeing the positive effects her work could have in the lives of children. Perry began at Marblehead, a district of approximately 3,000 according to the Massachusetts Department of Education, as an assistant superintendent in 2012. She was later promoted to the superintendent the following year, serving until her retirement in early 2019. Additionally, she recently earned her Doctorate from the University of New England.
Perry’s hiring was accompanied with high praise from RSU 21 board members. The Portland Press Herald quoted chairwoman Mary Beth Luce as saying, “she has worked throughout her career to support students, teachers, parents and communities to ensure all children have a solid foundation for success.” Luce went on to commend Perry’s understanding of the dynamic complexities and challenges of leadership in modern schools.
Some doubt has been cast on Perry’s leadership ability in the following days, however, as information surfaced regarding her time at Marblehead. Perry’s hiring at RSU 21 represents her re-entry into the workforce after having retired during a tumultuous period in the Marblehead district.
The Salem News reported in January that the controversy primarily surrounded the results of a school budget audit performed to investigate a deficit of $600,000 within the district’s special education fund for 2018. The audit revealed that the district’s administration, under her direction, knowingly held the bills until the end of the school year, only to go on to misdate them, and pay the debts out of the 2019 budget without necessary approval through a Town Meeting. These actions were found to be in violation of Massachusetts state law and an abridgment of state and district regulations. Moreover, the audit concluded that the violations were entirely intentional, and not the result of an accounting error. In doing this, the Marblehead school administrators responsible left town officials with a deficit of $731,000 in this year’s budget, the majority of which has since been paid off through redirection of town funds.
When this controversy became public, Marblehead, a part of the greater Salem area, was swiftly engulfed in a storm of controversy, as continuous Salem News coverage reveals. Marblehead residents were left frustrated following the absence of school board administration at subsequent meetings.
Chairwoman of the Board Meredith Tedford, who had recently announced she would not seek re-election for the coming term, came to the defense of her own absence and that of Superintendent Perry, citing a “trial-like atmosphere.” Tedford would additionally describe the School Committee meeting’s attendants as an “angry mob”.
Katherine Martin, a district parent was quoted as saying that she hoped that the forthcoming revelations would mark a new chapter for the district. She also stressed the importance of the moment as an opportunity to recognize the toxic culture that permeated throughout the district, stating “our [school] community has been led by fear and intimidation for the last six years.”
Perry’s term – set to expire in June of 2019 – ended abruptly following a closed session of Marblehead’s School Committee on February 7th of 2019. Following the meeting, the committee vice-chair announced that Perry’s retirement would be moved up, as the district had reached an agreement with the superintendent.
After announcing her appointment, the news of the controversy led to reversals from RSU 21 School Board members in a September 12th emergency meeting. Minutes from the session reveal that board member Rachel Phipps would propose a motion to launch an investigation into the hiring of Dr. Perry, seconded by Loreta McDonnel. The motion would ultimately fail, 3-9. While the session itself certainly suggests that board members may be re-examining the previous day’s decision, Chairwoman Luce appeared to remain optimistic, saying on Monday that “[Dr. Perry] leads through example and believes transparency and communication are the keys to a successful school district.”
Earlier this year, Perry defended her decision-making in her January 29 retirement letter, citing her success in retaining the high school’s NEASC accreditation, which had been at a ‘warning’ rating. Additionally, she noted her work from “large-scale curriculum overhauls to facilities master planning to smaller but equally important student programming.” She also wrote that she would be forever proud of the positive changes she made during her tenure, despite advice from peers that Marblehead was an “unpredictable and extremely challenging community for administrators.” In concluding she stated, “I am not a bully, criminal, or liar. I was truthful with the series of events and continue to stand by my word. As a friend said to me in an email ‘Public perception is rarely the reality of the situation.’”
Dr. Perry’s term will begin on September 30th, lasting through June 30th of 2020.