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Celebrations planned for exiting Portland school chief

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Celebrations planned for exiting Portland school chief

PORTLAND — Jeanne Whynot-Vickers hasn't had much time to look back since taking over as interim superintendent of the state's largest, most diverse school district in 2007 in the middle of a financial tsunami.

With next year's budget signed, sealed and delivered and a new superintendent poised to take over on July 1, Whynot-Vickers and others may be pardoned if they seem a little nostalgic.

On June 30, Whynot-Vickers will end a nearly 30-year career devoted to the city's public schools.

"I don't have a need for a lot of public attention," Whynot-Vickers said. "I like to stay beneath the radar."

Although she would rather have the occasion passed unnoticed, there will be two events held in Whynot-Vickers' honor. The School Committee has scheduled a free event on Thursday, May 28, at 6 p.m. at the Riverton Elementary School library, and teachers and staff have a $40-a-plate dinner celebration planned for Friday, June 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Italian Heritage Center.

"I'm embarrassed by it," Whynot-Vickers said.

She was born and raised in Portland, and graduated from Portland High School in 1969. Having grown up poor in Kennedy Park, Whynot-Vickers has a first-hand knowledge of difficulties faced by many Portland school children, some of whom must balance the demands of completing their educations while providing for their families. 

The oldest of five kids, Whynot-Vickers recalled being a 10-year-old making dinner and clothing for her siblings, while her 28-year-old mother worked as waitress. She also recalled taking her wagon down to the Milk Street Armory to stock up on government cheese and powdered milk. 

Through all of this, however, Whynot-Vickers continued to pursue her education, even as her cousins and friends who found jobs out of high school called her crazy. But Whynot-Vickers completed her education and, after teaching in Paris (where she met her husband), she returned to Portland as an elementary school teacher.

Over the course of her 28-year teaching career, Whynot-Vickers worked her way up through the system, from elementary school teacher to principal to interim superintendent. Throughout those years, the School Department gave Whynot-Vickers many opportunities for professional development. 

So when the financial crisis hit during the summer of 2007, forcing both the superintendent and finance director out of office, Whynot-Vickers said she felt as though she owed it to the district to step up to the plate. It was not a position that she – or anyone else – was eager to take, and understandably so.

"I think I was the only one they had to call," she said. "The reason I stepped up is because I was needed. I felt like I owed it to the system." 

"Besides, I'm good at math," she added.

In her two years as Portland's school chief Whynot-Vickers helped dig the district out of two holes: a $2 million budget deficit and a deeper pit of lost public trust and confidence.

Throughout that process, Whynot-Vickers said she understood that she would have to over-prove her budget. "If they needed 18 different charts to understand it, then that's what I would do," she said.  

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said it was Whynot-Vickers' commitment that eventually won over critics. "She has earned the admiration of elected officials, employees and community members with her competence, hard work ethic and straightforward, unflappable manner," Eglinton said.

But that's exactly the type of spotlight shunned by Whynot-Vickers, who is quick to credit teachers and fellow administrators for digging the district out of its financial hole.

"I wasn't the only one at the table," she said. "Everyone was rowing that boat with me."

Whynot-Vickers said she has not ruled out becoming the superintendent of a smaller school district, where she can concentrate on professional development, or maybe teaching a few college courses somewhere. She contemplated applying for the permanent superintendent position, but didn't want to put in another decade as school chief. 

Rather than stay in the Portland system – where she has built relationships and earned trust at all levels – Whynot-Vickers said the right thing to do is to step aside and let incoming Superintendent James Morse find his own way. 

"I thought it was important to leave Portland and give Jim a chance to lead," she said. "A new leader has the opportunity to view the district through a new lens. If I interpret for him, then I'm diluting that lens." 

Whynot-Vickers said she has one piece for advice for Morse. 

"Spend some time understanding the incredible mosaic that are Portland schools," she said. "It's test scores are a minuscule representation of the good that happens in our school system."

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

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