Back to school: Portland's new superintendent promises to engage community

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PORTLAND — One month into his job, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana praised the city for its diversity and said he sees plenty of opportunities for the coming school year.

“I think Portland is a community where it’s realistic to think people will say ‘I want to live here because of the diversity and because of the quality of schools,'” Botana said. “Everything we do has to be directed at making that a reality.”

Botana, who was hired in May after the School Board conducted a national search, said while his first month in Portland has been busy, he has enjoyed meeting people who partner with the district, as well as gaining insight into school operations.

“I’m extremely impressed with the commitment of all the different organizatio0ns that work with us,” Botana said Friday afternoon. “They’re very committed to our kids, the schools, and making it a better community.”

Botana, who was the associate superintendent of the Michigan City (Indiana) Area Schools, said one area of work this year will be creating a new comprehensive plan for the district. While it’s too early to set goals for the document, Botana said it was a project he and the School Board agreed should be taken up right away.

He said he expects to have a draft of goals and strategies later in the year, and then engage the community to see if the goals make sense.

Botana also cited the continuing discussions about four aging elementary schools as a primary issue.

“That’s been a really good process so far,” Botana said of the proposed $70.6 million initiative that would provide renovations to Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools. “So far we’re doing everything we can to provide answers for the joint (City Council and School Board) committee. “

Botana, who toured two of the schools last week and will tour the other schools later this month, praised the principals and teachers of the schools for creating flexible learning spaces, and the operations staff for upgrading and repairing “glaring problems” where they exist.

“We’re not talking about leaking ceilings or boarded up windows,” he said. “We’re talking about cramped boxes.”

Botana replaced Jeanne Crocker, who became interim superintendent in July 2015, when former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk resigned to take a job in Kentucky.

But Crocker is not going far; in fact, she’s not going anywhere. She will serve as the associate superintendent of school management, which was her role before being named interim superintendent.

“I am the link between the district and each of our schools,” Crocker said, adding she will provide support to Botana as well as the district’s principals.

She said maintaining a connection to the schools is vital, especially because four schools will have new principals this year: Sheila Jepson was named interim principal at Portland High School, Caitlin LeClair will be the new principal at King Middle School, Ben Donaldson is the new principal at Lyman Moore Middle School, and Kevin Stilphen is the new director of the Portland Arts and Technology High School.

“We have changes in other positions; it seemed more than reasonable to have someone here … with some institutional memory and experience with district leadership,” Crocker said.

The School Department also hired a new executive director of budget and finance, Alicia Gardiner, whose appointment was approved by the School Board Aug. 2. Gardiner has been chief financial officer for the city of Westbrook since 2013 and will begin working in Portland in November. She replaces Ellen Sanborn, who left to become the head of finance for the Metro transit system.

Botana has also appointed Sharon Pray, previously the department’s director of student support services, as interim chief academic officer for the upcoming school year. The position was previously held by Becky Foley, who was recently appointed superintendent of Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport.

Botana also appointed Deborah Mullis interim director of student support services.

He said the central office team is “first class,” and he feels the department will start the year in a good place.

“It’s just been inspiring to see how committed everyone is in improving outcomes for students,” Botana said.

The 2016-2017 school year begins on Wednesday, Aug. 31, for students in first grade through high school. Students in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten will start on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Xavier Botana, superintendent of Portland Public Schools, outside the central office on Cumberland Avenue.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.