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Incoming school chief holds community forums

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Incoming school chief holds community forums

PORTLAND — The incoming superintendent of schools will begin holding community forums this week to introduce himself and probe the community about its vision for Portland's public school system.

James Morse, who will become Portland's superintendent in July, has already met with parents and community members on Peak's and Cliff Island. Tuesday's meeting at Lyman Moore Middle School will be the first of four mainland meetings. 

Morse said each forum will begin with a brief introduction and discussion about his vision for Portland schools, which includes renewing attention on curbing the district's dropout rate and preparing all students for their post secondary lives, whether its college, the military service or the workforce.

Audience members will be encouraged to write questions on index cards, so that those who fear public speaking can still be heard. Then, Morse said, he hopes the audience will share their vision for what Portland schools should become.

"A little bit of me and a lot of the community, that's the balance I'm trying to achieve," Morse said of the forums.

Morse, who graduated from Portland High School in 1973, is currently the superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 47, located in the Belgrade Lakes region. He's held the post for 12 years. He was presented with the Superintendent Leadership Award in 2008 by the Department of Education.

Morse, 54, was hired in February for the Portland post following a national search to lead the state's largest and most diverse school district.

Morse also helped found – and became the first superintendent of – the Limestone's Maine School of Science and Mathematics, the state's only charter magnet school.

School Committee member Sarah Thompson, who lead the search panel, said she hopes all residents will come out to meet Morse. 

Although only 20 percent of Portland residents have children in public schools, Thompson said all residents have a stake in the success of the school system because the school budget is a large component of city spending. This year's budget is about $91 million.

"They certainly need to have a comfort level as well, because they are supporting (the schools) with their taxes," she said. 

Morse will be facing a variety of challenges when he takes over for interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers on July 1. School programing and facilities needs will be competing for funding against a backdrop of shrinking revenues. 

Morse said his first initiative will be to have a citywide visioning exercise, which would include a representative sample of Portland residents, including elected officials, business leaders, students, parents and School Committee members. That group will craft a vision statement for Portland schools, which would then be put out to the community for comment and feedback. The result, Morse said, will be a shared vision for the school system.

"In the end, we'll know exactly what the city residents want for their school system," Morse said, "and the school committee and the superintendent will work diligently to make that vision real."

Community feedback will be vital for what promises to be difficult decisions about school facilities, which may involve closing buildings and redistricting students, and the need to upgrade technology in the schools. 

"The most important part of (planning) is knowing what the city wants for its schools, because you quite literally get what you pay for," Morse said. "If everybody wants the very best, we need to be planning for that in a way makes sense financially and educationally."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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