Paula Lee lives up here where we vacation in Andover, Maine. She owns a hairdressing salon in which she provides a full range of high-quality services that in large metropolitan areas would be provided by multiple different professionals ranging from hairstylists, barbers, and colorists to nail technicians.
I’ve come to know Paula as the chairperson of the Andover Withdrawal Committee and now the chair of its school board. The withdrawal referenced in that committee’s title has been of the town of Andover from School Administrative District 44 (SAD 44) headquartered in Bethel, Maine. Andover had been a member of SAD 44 for a half-century along with five other towns including Bethel.
Andover had a small representation on the SAD-44 school board while Bethel, the largest and wealthiest member town, elects a majority of that board. Beginning five years ago, SAD 44 announced its intention to shut down the Andover Elementary School. This school has educated Andover’s children through the fifth grade for as long as the town has been in existence.
In Maine, sad experience has taught that when an elementary school in a remotely located town shuts down, the town declines markedly. That’s understandable since what parents with young children would willingly move to a town where their children would be bused to school for an hour or more each way each day in all kinds of weather? And challenging weather is an everyday thing here for much of the school year.
So for Andover, its elementary school’s closing was a life-or-death matter. Multiple years of negotiation by Andover with SAD 44 led to no resolution. As negotiations continued without resolution, SAD 44 insisted upon ever-growing six-figure payments by Andover to it (over and above its payment of the state-set tuition rate for each Andover child educated by SAD 44) to keep the school open even for only a few additional years.
In the face of SAD 44’s intransigence, Andover citizens began a process of considering whether withdrawal from SAD 44 made sense. Withdrawal is an action permitted by Maine state law provided that at least two-thirds of the town’s residents vote in favor of withdrawal. The withdrawal process requires citizens who choose to spearhead it to become very knowledgeable in Maine’s complex and convoluted state education laws, a daunting prospect for anyone. While to some extent these citizens could reach out to expert advisers in education law and school administration, their limited resources constrained their ability to do so, requiring that people in many cases with only a high school education familiarize themselves with what others with professional degrees had spent an entire career mastering.
Of course, SAD 44 with its large financial base could afford to employ the best advisers to counter Andover’s efforts. Meanwhile, a small minority of very vocal Andover residents, including one selectman, voiced their strong reservations about withdrawal. (A second selectman was supportive while the third straddled the fence throughout the process.)
Into this daunting withdrawal-process arena stepped Paula Lee. With no kids or grandkids in school in Andover to benefit from her work and a full-time job running her business, Paula seemed an unlikely candidate for the task. But any who felt that to be the case underestimated three very important facts about Paula: her intelligence, her determination, and, most of all, her character.
As Paul Tough says in his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, one’s ultimate success in life depends more on qualities of character: perseverance (the “grit” of this title), resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, optimism, and integrity, than anything else.
Paula has shown her character many times over. Now, after a town vote that garnered 74% support for withdrawal earlier this year, the new Andover School Board under her chairmanship, with four equally able and determined fellow school-board members, has successfully assumed the helm. It is responsible for a million-dollar school budget to educate Andover’s 88 children, including those placed by Andover in adjoining districts, including SAD 44, for education in sixth grade and above (at Andover’s expense). That elected school board, aided by an excellent and experienced part-time school superintendent and full-time teaching-principal, have spent many months planning and now implementing both start-up and long-term operations.
And so in a town of 800 resourceful people who have to be very versatile and enterprising to make a living in an exceedingly beautiful yet remote area of a huge but poor state, a miracle of educational self-determination is happening under outstanding leadership.