BELFAST – RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter had been on the job for just over two weeks when the school board asked him to come up with a master plan for the district. It was July 16. By the end of the month, he had pulled together a draft five-year strategy and timeline package titled "Building on Strength: Excellence For All Children." At its unveiling on Aug. 14, the work elicited a round of applause, according to a report of the meeting in The Republican Journal.
Carpenter knew the plan was a good one. It was why he had copied it.
“Building on Strength: Excellence For All Children” was originally the brainchild of Dr. James P. McIntyre Jr., a former chief operating officer of Boston public schools, who took a job as superintendent of Knox County Schools — the Tennessee district that includes Knoxville — in 2008. According to his biography on the county's website, McIntyre spent his first year leading the schools and the community through a process to produce a five-year plan for the district, which was having trouble meeting academic benchmarks.
“A lot of strategic plans are disregarded after they’re written, but I can testify that [ours] is the driving force of all the decisions we make,” said Jennifer Faddis, a Knox County Schools spokeswoman, who confirmed that the plan was spearheaded by McIntyre, and drew on ideas from a number of community organizations and residents.
“I think it’s very reflective and transparent,” she said.
Carpenter's version of “Building on Strength: Excellence For All Children,” borrows not only the title but also the five major headings that serve as the framework for the plan.
The similarities between the master plans become less clear from there, but crop up again in a separate timeline indicating which of the district's goals will be met in certain years. Here the RSU 20 document is a nearly exact replica of the timeline from the Knox County Schools, five-year plan. Neither the RSU 20 Master Plan nor the timeline include attribution to KCS, McIntyre or other sources.
Speaking later by phone, Faddis said she had spoken with the district’s chief of staff, Russ Oakes, who said the KCS Master Plan and timeline were not protected by copyright. As such, Faddis said, its use in RSU 20 is “not something we’d have an issue with.”
Asked generally about where the ideas for his plan came from, Carpenter first said the documents were based on “things I’ve read,” which, he said, included old board meeting minutes, district documents and memos.
When questioned about the similarity to the Tennessee plan, he acknowledged the possibility that it was an influence.
“I probably read the Knox County plan because it’s out there,” he said, noting that much of the terminology used in such plans is “boilerplate.”
Pressed on the fact that the documents were identical in many places (see photo gallery for comparisons), Carpenter said he used the Knox County, Tenn., plan as a model along with plans from other districts, including Barrington Public Schools in Rhode Island.
When KCS instituted its plan in 2009, the district had many of the same problems RSU 20 faces today, he said, but has since gone on to be recognized as an outstanding school district. With Gov. Paul LePage’s push for school improvements, Carpenter said, it made sense to look for what was working in other places.
“Why not use stuff from the people on top?” he said. “... If that conveys what I want to do, why do I have to put it in different words?”
In RSU 20, a student who presents another’s work as his or her own faces penalties ranging from a failing grade on the assignment to a week-long suspension from school.
The Belfast Area High School policy on plagiarism calls it “a very serious form of cheating.” Among the definitions included is this one: “Using either completely or partially a paper or report written by someone else and passing it in as if it were written entirely by yourself. This includes anything downloaded from the Internet.”
Carpenter acknowledged that what he did could be called plagiarism, but said writing his own document when an existing one, or amalgamation of several existing ones that matched the needs of RSU 20 fit the bill would amount to a waste of time.
“I’m not getting paid for my ideas,” he said. “I’m getting paid to lead.”
Carpenter served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves alongside his career as a teacher and principal, and was deployed several times, often in roles of strategic planning. At Fort Sill in Oklahoma, he said he oversaw daily operations of 190 people and handled legislative issues and briefings.
Later he was deployed to the Army Operations Center at the Pentagon where he said borrowing text from other documents as needed was common practice. Here he saw something in common with the response from Knox County Schools and his own ambivalence about authorship.
“If they don’t have a problem with that, they wouldn’t have put it out there,” he said. “I don’t feel I did anything wrong.”
Speaking on Thursday, RSU 20 Board Chairman Anthony Bagley said Carpenter did not indicate any outside sources influenced the five-year strategic plan when he unveiled it in August.
“And we didn’t ask,” he said, referring to the board of directors.
Bagley said he would expect to see many things in common among various education plans, but said he could not comment on the relationship to the Knox County Plan, which he had not seen.