Principal Quits EHS
Witham Leaving to Take Superintendent’s Job In Western Maine
By Jennifer Osborn

ELLSWORTH—High School Principal Martha Witham has resigned after one year to take the job as superintendent of School Administrative District 13 in western Maine.

Witham said a July 2 letter addressed to the school committee and signed by almost 200 citizens criticizing her performance had "very little" to do with her decision.

"I just viewed the petition as part of the job," Witham said.

The letter listed expectations for the high school and included comments about the atmosphere at the school.

Two parents—Nancy Mayo and Nancy Hardison—with a group called Many Concerned Citizens helped write the letter. On Aug. 14, they addressed the School Committee asking for "positive change."

Mayo said they were concerned about the drop in tuition students from outlying towns, the lack of a substance abuse counselor and the presence of a police officer in the corridors.

"Currently, there is a lack of trust within the walls of EHS. Students don’t know where to go for help. They feel powerless," Mayo said at the Aug. 14 meeting.

Mayo suggested rewriting the school handbook to generate school spirit, give resources and avenues for grievances and provide for due process. She suggested a reward program for positive accomplishments.

Nancy Hardison suggested adopting a school code of ethics to which every student would be held.

"It’s been no secret the last few weeks there’s been controversy," said Jack Turcotte, Ellsworth superintendent of schools, on Monday. "I hope this has nothing to do with her decision to leave."

Turcotte said he had mixed feelings about Witham’s decision.

"In today’s world, it’s very hard to please all people," said Turcotte.

The timing of Witham’s announcement could have been better.

"It’s a huge issue for any superintendent of schools if you’re a week away from opening school."

Coping with that critical vacancy at EHS is going to be a formidable challenge, putting pressure on the staff and the superintendent, he said.

"On a happy note, I’m delighted for Martha," Turcotte said. "She’s talked to me many times about her interest in superintendency. I knew she was toying with the idea of being a superintendent," he said.

Turcotte said Witham’s vision was to strengthen the academic opportunities at Ellsworth High School. "It’s going to be a real loss to lose that momentum," Turcotte said. "I’m really disappointed that we’ll lose her expertise."

He said he understood there had been concerns about the mood at the school, but he stood by Witham.

"I understand the importance of school climate...but primarily the reason that school exists is for teaching kids," said Turcotte.

Before coming to Ellsworth, Witham was principal for three years in School Administrative District 11 in Gardner. This fall would have been her tenth year as principal.

Witham does not know when her last day will be.

"We’re trying to make the transition as smooth as possible," said Witham.

The SAD 13 School Committee began looking for a superintendent the beginning of August, according to Sharon Flannery, committee chairman. The district’s current superintendent will leave Sept. 21.

The Ellsworth School Committee will convene an emergency meeting tonight, Aug. 30, at 5 p.m. to discuss candidates for interim principal. Turcotte will nominate retired superintendent William Ziemer of Dedham.

Reaction in the community about Witham’s resignation was mixed.

If the city doesn’t have the right priorities, no one is going to succeed in the principal’s role, said Joe Niemczura, father of student Amy Niemczura. "It’s a difficult job," he said.

"We all need to make sure we invest in the schools," Niemczura said. The success or failure of a school is more the measure of the town than a principal, he said.

"The goal was not to have her resign but to have her change," said Mary Fleming, member of Many Concerned Citizens, the group that Nancy Mayo and Nancy Hardison represented at the Aug. 14 School Committee meeting.

"We are happy to hear of Ms. Witham’s resignation, but we presented other concerns that still need to be addressed," stated an Aug. 28 letter from Many Concerned Citizens to the Ellsworth School Committee. "How long do you plan to ’digest’ before responding to and acting on our presentation?

"We have no problem with hiring someone to do a job and maintain discipline but the manner in which discipline has been handed down, by her and under her direction, has not been equitable nor in keeping with accepted standards of discipline."

In a conversation with Nancy Mayo on Aug. 29, she said she could not comment on specific examples of discipline because she was not directly involved.

"It was the way in which she did things," said Mayo. "She antagonized so many people because of the manner in which she conducted the matters. Teenagers do need boundaries but she was often high-handed about it."

Witham is looking forward to her new position.

"I’m excited," Witham said. She said she has had a superintendent’s certificate for 10 years and was waiting for the right opportunity. Witham will commute to her new office from her camp in Carabasset Valley.

School Administrative District 13 is composed of Quimby Elementary School, Upper Kennebec Valley Junior-Senior High School, Caratunk School, and Moscow Elementary.

According to Witham, SAD 13 is small enough—approximately 400 students—for her to be involved with curriculum and children.

Witham earned about $65,000 as principal.



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