News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 28, 2018
Whistleblower case against Castine child care center closed

Deborah Chapman

Deborah Chapman.

Photo courtesy of Deborah Chapman

by Anne Berleant

The case of a retaliation and whistleblower complaint filed against former Castine early childhood care center The Learning Tree is closed, after the Maine Human Rights Commission ruled in favor of the The Learning Tree on June 25.

Former teacher Deborah Chapman had filed the suit on April 27, 2016, alleging she was fired by The Learning Tree in March 2016 for reporting a violation to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, specifically not naming a director or chain of command. (The director hired at the center’s September opening quit mid-December.)

The Human Rights Commission considered only the whistleblower complaint, and held there was not sufficient evidence to support Chapman’s claim. Chapman stated she mailed a letter outlining the violation to The Learning Tree’s board of directors in January 2016, after sending similar emails to the board. Board President Nancy Sayre and member Diana Bernard denied receiving any such communication.

“As far as we are concerned, it’s a closed book. It was a closed book since the day she departed,” Bernard said prior to the MHRC hearing, which confirmed the findings of an earlier report by an MHRC investigator.

Chapman, who was employed by The Learning Tree from its opening in September 2015 until she was fired in March 2016, said she is glad to put her experience with Sayre and Bernard behind her. Before Chapman was fired, Sayre filed complaints of misconduct by Chapman with the DHHS in March 2015, and, after she was fired, appealed her unemployment claims.

DHHS cleared Chapman of any misconduct at The Learning Tree and the Maine Department of Labor twice upheld Chapman’s unemployment compensation claim. Letters from parents and interviews with board members, and former and current teachers at The Learning Tree concerning Chapman’s performance and the overall management were part of the DHHS investigation. Three of six board members quit in disagreement of Chapman’s firing, and a significant portion of its young clients were pulled.

“My take away is I feel exonerated because the Department of Labor and DHHS each did investigations and everyone cleared my name,” she said. “My reputation stands.”

Chapman, who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education, is currently employed at a Bucksport child care center.

The Learning Tree cited for violations
In the DHHS investigation into The Learning Tree, the center was found in violation of six regulations, in July 2016. The violations concerned staff not meeting certain requirements, such as exercising good judgment in the handling of children, using positive methods of child guidance, and being able to perform assigned tasks. None of the violations rose to the level requiring formal action, according to the DHHS report signed by Jonathan Leach, a DHHS quality and compliance officer, but only correction within the center. By November, the center had closed.

In the seven months Chapman was employed by The Learning Tree, the director hired at its start and two teachers apart from Chapman quit. Sayre took on the director role but never established a clear chain of command for the teachers on site, Chapman claimed.

When the Learning Tree closed, Sayre stating the board wanted to focus on fundraising the over $350,000 needed for a new Castine Early Learning Center. That fundraising is ongoing for a building on State Street, on town land leased to CELC for a nominal fee, with well over one-third raised. Bernard stated earlier this year that the board hoped to open the facility in late 2018.

A failed merging of child care groups
The Learning Tree was formed in July 2015 when two separate and competing child care groups merged. Castine Early Learning Center, a nonprofit 501(C)(3) formed in 2014 by Sayre, who holds a PhD in early education, was focused on a long-term, high quality solution to early childhood education in Castine. A group of parents, initially involved, splintered off soon after, to focus on a short-term solution, incorporating as Seaside Community Center.

The new Learning Tree board consisted of three members from each board, with Sayre as president. However, just as The Learning Tree had difficulty in retaining teachers—three teachers, including the director hired when the center opened, quit The Learning Tree in seven months—so did the board have similar difficulty.

“I was appointed to the board following the Castine Town meeting to mediate between the two existing groups, Nancy Sayre’s and the collective group of parents informally DBA Seacoast Community Center,” former board member Alaina Scheuchzer wrote in an April 4, 2018 email. “I know we met to discuss the contentious situation between Nancy and Deborah the week of March 7th. We were notified via email that Sunday (March 13) that Nancy had resigned as [the center’s] Director and was only acting as President of the Board because she did not agree with the determined course of actions from the previous meeting’s vote.”

At that previous meeting, a motion to terminate Chapman’s employment failed to pass: “On March 10th, while Chapman was on administrative leave, our board met to consider her termination, and the decision was split 3 to 3,” Bernard wrote in a letter to DHHS inspector in July 2016. “On March 18 Chapman was “immediately terminated,” Bernard continued, for an alleged incident with a fellow teacher’s child. The following day, board members Scheuchzer, Heather Trainor and Rhonda Varney quit and removed their children.

The Castine Early Learning Center board now consists of Sayre as President, her husband W.G. Sayre, Bernard, and one other member.