‘It’s been a gift’: Smith reflects on time as SAD 75 superintendent

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TOPSHAM — In Brad Smith’s office hangs a chart that marks the arduous 21-part, state-mandated capital school construction process that all school districts must rally through.

It wasn’t that long ago that School Administrative District 75 was at the far left end of that chart, with many hurdles left ahead on the road to building a new Mt. Ararat High School. But as Smith retires from the superintendent position June 30, he is proud of the work district employees and residents have put in has gradually pushed SAD 75 to the other side, with ground having recently been broken for the facility, due to open in 2020.

“It’s exciting,” Smith said in an interview at his office June 22. “I drive by the high school every day. And every day, there’s something more” to see.

Smith announced his retirement from the district – which serves Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham – in March. He will be succeeded on an interim basis by Assistant Superintendent Dan Chuhta.

Hired as SAD 75’s assistant superintendent in 2010, Smith became superintendent the following year. He has spent 44 years in education, first as a teacher and then an administrator in Washington state. He was later principal of the Narragansett and White Rock elementary schools in Gorham, where he also assisted the superintendent on special projects.

“I plan to retire and enjoy life full time,” said the Portland resident, who turns 66 next month. His wife Lynn, with whom he has three children, has wrapped up 25 years as an educational technician.

“We kind of right now are just embracing the idea of having a schedule that doesn’t have any appointments in it,” Smith said.

A lifetime of education

A love of math prompted Smith to pursue a career in education. As he progressed through the middle and high school levels, he found himself better able to relate to his teachers, and “I admired what they did,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’d like to do that.'”

Although he’d intended to be a high school math teacher, his work with younger students steered him toward the elementary level. “I ended up student teaching in fourth grade,” he remembered. “I taught everything; (physical education), social studies, science, English and mathematics.”

Having the same group of students all day forges strong bonds, he added.

“Every day, to see the growth, to play such a part in helping them become what they are capable of, that’s so rewarding,” Smith said. “I knew when I left teaching and went into administration that I would miss the kids.”

His time as an elementary school principal allowed him to maintain those connections – reading to the kids, being given a birthday cupcake, or proudly shown a baby tooth that fell out of a student’s mouth. And using discipline more as a means of imparting important life lessons, instead of simply punishment.

“I loved that,” Smith said.

District administration is more about dealing with adults, whether it’s faculty, parents, or members of the school board and community.

“I can’t directly deal with 2,500 kids, but I can influence the people that do work directly with them,” he noted. “It’s been very rewarding for me to see some of the good things that I think have happened in our district while I’ve had the chance to be here.”

Mentoring

Smith himself was influenced as a youth by Denny Yasuhara, his Logan Elementary School math teacher back in Washington. The Japanese-American’s parents were placed in interment camps during World War II, and he moved from the pharmacy trade into teaching at a time when a degree wasn’t required, Smith said.

“He loved his kids,” Smith recalled. “So he had the gymnasium open every Saturday, all day long. … He was the coach, he was the math teacher and the science teacher, and he was the first one to really talk to me about going to college, and putting that idea in all of our heads.”

Smith’s parents came from a generation that bore prejudice toward people of Japanese ancestry, but “this was the best example of a teacher I could ever have,” he said, “and it just challenged the bias that my parents had. He had a way of making every kid in his class feel like they were his favorite. We just loved his energy and his passion.”

“I’ve thought a lot about him, and hoped I was nearly as good as him,” Smith added of his mentor, who later served as president of the Japanese American Citizens League, and whose efforts led to a 1988 apology from the U.S. government for the internments.

Smith’s relationship with Yasuhara wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“He was also strict, and in those days, teachers paddled,” he noted. “And I was on the receiving end of that paddle more than once, but that’s the way things were done back then, and you knew it.”

“But he was fair, and he was consistent, and I could see that he cared about some of the kids who were less advantaged as well,” Smith said. “I grew in a pretty low-middle income socioeconomic area. But he seemed to have a special heart for those (people), so that’s probably a big part of why I am who I am.”

Mentoring students and enjoying their energy and creativity is “so rewarding,” Smith said. “I can’t imagine a more rewarding career. Next to being a parent, it’s the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life.”

“It’s been a gift,” he added. “It’s hard to believe 44 years have gone by.”

The next chapter

SAD 75 has begun advertising for a new assistant superintendent to replace Chuhta, whose term as interim superintendent runs a year starting on July 1, after which he could be hired in a permanent capacity. A search for a permanent superintendent could begin early next year.

Chuhta would be fortunate “to get as good an assistant as I did in him; he’s top-notch,” Smith said.

Just as Chuhta will hand over some of the work he’s been doing to his successor, so must Smith do with Chuhta. Leaving the district at a time when construction begins at the school is bittersweet, Smith acknowledged.

“You know, there’s that 21-step chart we were talking about,” he said, turning in his chair to point toward the wall. “I remember presenting that to the board in a workshop at the very beginning.”

Straw votes on elements of the project – the sixth and 12th steps – were held in January and December 2016. District voters approved the project at referendum, the 13th step, in March 2017. Construction is step 20, followed by a final project audit.

Remaining until the school was complete “was one of the biggest tugs to not retire, and stay two more years,” Smith said.

It’s been a significantly challenging year, between growing concerns over school safety, and power outages and snowstorms forcing repeated school cancellations, he noted. Still, those were “opportunities for me to do what I try to do best, which is care about people,” he said.

But he was philosophical when telling an old friend back in his home state about the year he’s had, noted Smith, who considers the experience “a great year.”

“He said, ‘then this is your time to go; go out when you’ve had that great year,'” Smith recalled.

Going, yes. But never totally gone. He plans to be at the new Mt. Ararat High School on opening day.

“My only wish is to be in the lobby when the staff come in for their first visit,” he said. “I want to hear the oohs and aahs, that first sight of the inside.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Brad Smith, superintendent of School Administrative District 75, poses outside his Topsham office June 22. He final day is June 30.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.