Back to school: Interim Cape Elizabeth chief plans to stay the course

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The interim superintendent of schools will only be on the job for one year, but still hopes to have a positive impact.

Howard Colter, 70, was hired by the School Board at the end of May after a search for a new superintendent ended with both final candidates withdrawing. Colter started July 1 and will earn $125,000.

The first day of school is Sept.6 for all students except for kindergarteners, who start on Sept. 9.

Former Superintendent Meredith Nadeau, who had been with the School Department for five years, announced her resignation in January. She is now the chief of the Newmarket School District in New Hampshire. 

Steven Bailey, who heads the Central Lincoln County School System, withdrew from consideration first and was followed a week later by the remaining candidate. Craig King, superintendent of Regional School Unit 10 in Dixfield, withdrew after the board met privately and made no decision about offering him the job.

School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Scifres said in May that the board will resume its superintendent search this winter.

Colter, who was superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System for the past four years, and from 1992 to 2004, said he was looking for a change when he took Cape Elizabeth position.

“I wasn’t really ready to retire,” he said, “so I was on a list of people in Maine looking for interim jobs.”

Colter, who has also been superintendent of School Administrative Unit 39 in Amherst, New Hampshire, and the Oyster River Cooperative School District in Durham, New Hampshire, said he has always liked southern Maine and is excited about working in Cape Elizabeth. 

“The district has a very solid reputation, and that appealed to me,” he said.

Although his permanent residence is on Mount Desert Island, Colter is renting an apartment in Portland for the year while his wife remains on MDI.

Serving in an interim capacity is different from being a district’s superintendent, Colter said, in that he won’t be making big changes because it’s not his place.

“It wouldn’t be right for me to come in with a plan for the future, only to have someone new come in next year maybe with different priorities,” he said. “I want to appreciate what I see here and add to that, but not invent a new list of initiatives and priorities.”

Colter said he wants to “contribute to (the district’s) efforts” and help with policies and priorities already in place, particularly implementation of the proficiency-based diploma system. Although it only applies to high school students, Colter said it’s something that requires attention across the district so students can be prepared from a young age.

“It’s not the high school’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s the whole system’s.”

Another objective for Colter is to assist with the superintendent search. He said he won’t play a large part in the hiring process, but will use his connections to help find strong candidates.

“I will certainly put out the word,” he said. “I’ll be able to speak with confidence that this is a very special district.”

The most important part of his interim role, Colter said, will be to keep the district running smoothly while the School Board searches for a permanent leader.

“It’s ideally a year where the district can reset and continue their search,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges Colter said he foresees for the year will be building the budget. Becoming familiar with past budgets and determining what is needed for only one year will be difficult, but he said he doesn’t plan to do it alone.

“As a team we’ll do our best to come up with a solid budget, but it’ll be tough to just have one bite at the apple, so to speak,” he said.

As for things he’s looking forward to, Colter said he’s “excited about being in the schools and meeting the teachers and students.”

“I like the size of the district, and with a school district of this size it’s possible to know each child on a personal level,” he said. “For me it’s important to know each child as an individual.”

Colter said he wants to learn the traditions of the district and understand what students and teachers value, but knows a year isn’t a lot of time to do so.

“It takes time to know all the those things and build those relationships,” he said. “It’ll be hard to do that in a year.”

He said just getting a taste of the district will be nice, though.

“There’s an abundance of things to be proud of here and getting to experience that will be a treat,” he said.

In addition, Colter said he hopes people get to know him, too. He said his biggest hope is to be helpful and leave a lasting impression.

“I feel honored to have been asked to come down and serve as interim here,” he said. “I hope at the end of the year people will feel that I’ve contributed in a positive way. That’s the goal here.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Howard Colter is Cape Elizabeth’s interim superintendent of schools. He was formerly the superintendent on Mount Desert Island.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.