PORTLAND — After only a few days on the job, Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr. said he is wasting no time settling in and getting to work.
“To sit back and look at things isn’t my style,” Morse said. “You get to know me by working with me, so that’s why I’ve hit the ground running. I get to know the system and the system sets to know me.”
Morse, who took the reins of the state’s largest, most diverse school district on July 1, said he has tapped Lee Crocker, principal at Lyman Moore Middle School, to assemble a cross-district team of administrators to attend a dropout prevention seminar sponsored by the state Department of Education on July 27 in Orono.
Reducing Portland’s dropout rate is a goal for Morse, a Portland High School alumnus who dropped out for six months as a junior, but returned to graduate in 1973.
“The more kids we keep in school, the more opportunities we have for kids to be thinking about going to college,” Morse said. “I think that’s critical.”
On Monday, Morse traveled to Augusta to participate in a DOE policy-setting session with other superintendents. Last week, he met with Finance Director Herbert Hopkins about schools finances for the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
“”It looks like the budget will end up in the black,” Morse said. “That’s always a good thing especially after the last couple of years.”
Morse also held his first staff meeting, where attendees were fed doughnuts and given index cards to write down questions for him to answer. What followed was Morse fielding about 30 to 40 questions, ranging from the serious to silly.
“One of them asked if I could stop the rain,” Morse joked. “I’m looking at one (question) now that asks if my administration would be offering healthier snacks. That would probably be a good idea.”
There were also serious questions about educational and administrative issues. Morse said one question asked whether he would be examining the scope and roles of central office administrators and their support staff. On Monday, Morse reiterated that would be one of his primary tasks.
“I said, absolutely,” Morse said. “That’s part of what any new administrator would be doing.”
Specifically, Morse pointed out three positions in the school technology departments as an example. There are three leaders involved in the decision-making process, one dealing with facilities, one with curriculum and one with implementation. Morse said he would be looking at “whether that kind of fragmentation in decision-making makes sense or whether one administrator makes sense.”
More importantly, however, Morse said he is setting high expectations for staff, since he and by extension the entire district will be judged by the quality of information they are able to provide.
“If I’m going to be able to effectively communicate with the public, it is really embedded in the work they do on a regular basis so I have accurate information to share with community,” he said.
On Wednesday, July 8, Morse will preside over his first business meeting and workshop with his employers, the School Committee. There are several long-term items on the agenda, including a resolution to multi-year budgeting process that plans five years into the future. After the meeting, there will be a workshop about the district’s path forward, now that the facilities task force has completed its work and its finds accepted by the full School Committee.
Meanwhile, Morse said he is in the process of laying the ground work for a community-wide visioning session that will take place this fall. Morse would like to get a group of 80 diverse stakeholders together in room for three days until a consensus emerges about what people expect of their school district. That vision statement will help the district when faced with difficult budgetary decisions.
With everything on his plate, Morse said the district seems to be “running on all cylinders.”
“I’d say things are hopping,” he said.