News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 12, 2023
Sedgwick school opens practices to parents
Teachers, students opposed plan

by Jack Beaudoin

At its January 9 meeting, the Sedgwick school board voted 3-0-2 to open up school basketball practices to the public, overriding the decisions of administrators as well as the wishes of staff and students who were present at the meeting.

The vote followed a prior vigorous debate in the community about parental oversight, student independence and growth, trust in staff, school security measures and—as board member Jennifer Larrabee observed—life in the post-COVID-19 world.

“I think, sometime during COVID, we lost the sense of what it means to be a family,” Larrabee said following the vote. “How do we get back to those strong stakeholder relations? We have to get back to a place where we all love and value each other.”

Jessica Valdez and chair Kelly Samperi joined Larrabee in voting for the measure. Elizabeth True and Anne Schroth abstained.

The issue, according to Sommer Anderson, a parent and former school board member who advocated for open practices, was about enabling parents to watch their elementary school children participate in school activities.

“It’s about preserving the right to attend extracurricular activities and observe our kids,” she said. “Boundaries would be established. It’s not like parents would be coaching from the sidelines.”

But faculty, staff and students at the meeting who opposed the plan were less optimistic about what might happen.

“As a player and captain of the Sedgwick Seahawks, I believe that if parents were allowed to come to practices it would be a distraction to the kids and our team,” one student wrote in a statement distributed to the board. “Practice isn’t where parents hang out with their kids, it’s a place where kids come to focus and learn the game of basketball. I think parents would make practice less productive by interrupting or backseat coaching.”

“I feel like parents should not be allowed at our basketball practices,” another agreed. “It can and will be a huge distraction to the players on the team.”

“I am afraid that parents would interfere with our practices,” a third wrote. “Parents could possibly yell to their children, stop plays, or try to overrule the coach.”

No-confidence in staff?

The players weren’t the only members in the audience of about 20 who opposed the measure.

According to teacher Barbara Bassler, the issue commenced when a staff member was asked if parents could attend practices. After the staff member said they couldn’t, Bassler said the “principal, the athletic director and the superintendent” all supported and confirmed that initial decision.

“If you, the school board, go against the decision of the administration, it shows the staff that you not only do not support the administration, but you also do not support the staff in their ability to make professional decisions based on the best interests of the students we are trying to teach,” Bassler continued.

Quoting the board’s own code of ethics, Bassler said a board member should “recognize that my responsibility is not to operate the schools but to see that they are well operated.” Since administrators supported the staff decision, Bassler concluded by saying, “I implore you to support their decision not to allow parents to attend practices.”

Principal Carla Magoon said the proposed policy change was unnecessary and uncalled for.

“My coach’s job is not to monitor the parents,” she said. “Now I’ll have to be here every night—unless there’s an away game—to monitor the parents. That’s a lot.”

She also said opposition to opening the practices was not an example of faculty and staff failing to trust parents. Instead, she argued, “it’s a matter of people not trusting us to be leaders in the school.”

In a follow-up email, Samperi said the board still supports teachers and staff. “A single disagreement doesn’t change that,” she wrote. “This issue is just multi-faceted and needed consideration from many different groups, all with strong feelings on the subject.”

She explained the board opted not to respond at the meeting because any response might seem argumentative and “that does not set a good model for children [present] to see as a relationship between staff/parents/the school board.”

Executive session and vote

Before the vote, Samperi called for a five-minute recess to review more written input the school board had received on the issue. Following that recess, Samperi then asked for consensus to rearrange the agenda, moving up an executive session—in which the board meets in private—from the end of the meeting to a place just before a vote on the proposed policy (see sidebar at right). Her colleagues unanimously agreed.

When the board came back after 45 minutes and reconvened in open session, Samperi announced, “We are going to make a motion to open the last 20 minutes of both basketball practices effective January 11.”

Additionally, she said that the board intended to pursue new policy-making that would draw on guidance from other organizations, such as the Maine School Management Assocation, on the issue.

“We have discussed this,” Samperi said just prior to calling for a vote on the motion, although it wasn’t clear when the discussion had taken place. “We’ve been discussing opening the basketball practices for the last 20 minutes.”

When the vote was called, Larrabee, Valdez and Samperi raised their hands in support, while True immediately abstained. Schroth hesitated for a moment, and then joined True in abstaining.

For her part, Larrabee commended the student athletes who had stayed through the meeting and who had advocated for their position. She also called for the creation of a stakeholder relationship committee to work through similar controversies in the future.