STEUBEN — Students and staff at the Ella Lewis School reunited last week for the start of the Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) academic year. They were greeted by newly named Principal Jessica Spaulding, who is starting her third year working with the school district.
Prior to taking on the role as principal at the Steuben elementary school, Spaulding was the Every Student Succeeds Act coordinator, overseeing federal grant and professional development opportunities for RSU 24. She remains in that position while also being principal.
“We’ve had an absolutely wonderful and smooth start to the school year,” Spaulding told The American.
A 22-year veteran in education, Spaulding was approved as principal by the RSU 24 Board of Directors in July. She took the helm from Jackson Green, who is now the principal at Sumner Memorial High School. Former Sumner principal Ty Thurlow resigned last May.
“I hemmed and hawed about it when the [Ella Lewis] position opened up,” Spaulding said. She added that the district received applicants, but none seemed to pan out.
“You know what, I will do it,” she recalled of her decision to apply for the job, noting how much she values the school and RSU 24.
She said there has been frequent turnover within the position and that she would “be committed to stay,” as principal.
“I value education and I absolutely love RSU 24,” Spaulding said.
Before moving to Ellsworth three years ago when her husband accepted a financial analyst position with Northern Light Health, Spaulding worked with school districts including the Windham Raymond School District.
The many roles held throughout her career range from being a teacher in grades 5 through 8 to literacy specialist.
Spaulding also spent time as an educator in Acton, a town with a population of about 2,500 in York County, a connection that drew her to the rural school in Washington County. Student enrollment at Ella Lewis is 95.
“I’m super familiar with the small-town schools, which is wonderful,” she said.
The start to the academic year for school districts of all sizes across the country, including RSU 24, has been marked by lengthy and sometimes heated debates over whether mask-wearing should be required due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant.
Within RSU 24, the decision to make mask-wearing optional was upheld by the Board of Directors Aug. 30, the eve of the first day of school.
Despite the divisive topic, Spaulding said the start to the school year has been a pleasant one, and that individual decisions to wear or not wear masks have been respected by students and staff.
“With our small little school in Steuben, there is such a culture of acceptance and kindness,” she said. “[Masks are] just like another piece of clothing.”
Overall, the mother of five said the transition to principal has been a smooth one.
One area that has been more difficult to navigate is an issue that Spaulding said is felt throughout the district: lack of staff housing.
The labor shortage observed statewide has been amplified by the area’s limited housing. Job openings remain unfilled when potential staff can’t find a place to live.
“We have a teacher at this point who is still looking for housing,” Spaulding said. The teacher has found temporary housing but is still in search of something permanent.
“It’s absolutely been an issue,” Spaulding said.
Additionally, some substitute teachers have wanted to accept positions within the district but haven’t been able to due to the lack of housing, she said.
Aside from a limited inventory of housing options, Spaulding noted that some new teachers at the bottom of the district’s pay scale may face challenges with affordability.
According to the RSU 24 collective bargaining agreement for the 2021-22 academic year, teachers with a bachelor’s degree at the bottom of the pay scale have an annual salary of $38,000. Those with a master’s degree at the bottom of the scale are paid $39,500.
Teachers at the top of the pay scale with a bachelor’s degree are paid $58,049 and $60,869 if they hold a master’s degree.
July data from the Maine Association of Realtors show that the price to purchase a new home statewide increased nearly 24 percent from July 2020 to July 2021. The median sales price for the homes sold was $315,000.