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Falmouth joins towns hunting for new school chiefs

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Falmouth joins towns hunting for new school chiefs

FALMOUTH — With the public announcement last week that Superintendent of Schools Barbara Powers is retiring, Falmouth becomes the third school district in the area searching for a new school chief.

Powers notified the School Board Sept. 14 of her plan to retire, effective June 30, 2014. The board hopes to name her replacement no later than February, according to Chairman Andrew Kinley. This week, the School Board will circulate a survey asking what qualities the community believes are most important in a superintendent.

Falmouth joins the Yarmouth School Department and School Administrative District 51 in the search for new superintendents. In Yarmouth's case, the search has lasted nearly a year.

Kinley said he's not discouraged by Yarmouth's lengthy search, which began in December 2012.

"In their case, they had a very difficult time losing a superintendent in the middle of the year, whereas we have enough time to plan," Kinley said. "I'm optimistic that we'll get good candidates and we'll see the process through to a successful finish."

That doesn't mean, however, that Powers will be easy to replace, he said.

"She's very gracious in the way she deals with people. She's very kind. Yet she's also a very strong leader, so she's got that contrast," Kinley said. "Her personality, her presence in the position, will be the hardest thing to replace."

Powers, 62, has worked in the School Department for 16 years, including six as principal of Plummer-Motz School, five as assistant superintendent, and five in her current post. Previously, she served 18 years in Cape Elizabeth schools.

"It's a big move for me, for sure," Powers said Tuesday. "After 34 years in education, I'm looking for time to do all those things you can't do when you're working full time."

Powers, who still lives in Cape Elizabeth, said she plans to spend time with her grandchildren and perhaps teach courses in education leadership or serve as a part-time consultant.

Powers said she will miss many things about working in Falmouth. When a person works for so long at a single location, she said, relationships begin to feel like family.

"This is an exceptional educational community here. I'll miss my colleagues. There are terrific students in this community that I've had the privilege to watch – literally – grow up over the past 16 years," she said. "For many of them I was their principal for six years. I have now watched them in concerts and plays and on the athletic field and on field trips.

"A highlight for me has been shaking their hands at graduation and handing them a diploma after I've known them for so very long," she said.

Powers said her eventual replacement will face uncertain fiscal pressures, especially from the state.

"This shift away from state-provided support for education to property taxes has been scary," she said. "At this point, we're supposed to be funded at 55 percent of our essential services ... and it's down to 42 percent.

"That will be something I won't miss quite so much," she said.

Powers said she has witnessed a lot of changes over the course of 16 years, including a rapidly growing community. When she began, Falmouth High School had a graduating class of 65 students. This school year, there will be three times that many graduates.

The effort to move all the town's school facilities onto a single campus on Woodville Road is one of Powers' favorite accomplishments. She said she worked alongside 25 teachers to write educational specifications for the new elementary school building, which opened two years ago.

"It is a phenomenal learning facility," she said.

The single campus has also given the town a greater sense of community, she said, even as the population has grown. The location has also eased the educational process in some respects.

"It has allowed us to look at efficiencies in terms of shared staff between buildings. It has enhanced the ability of students to work with one another. We have high school students working regularly with elementary kids through a big buddy program," she said.

Kinley said Powers had the advantage of having worked within the system for so long, that she knew "they lay of the land" and had an intuitive sense for interpersonal relationships with staff and faculty when she shifted roles from assistant superintendent to superintendent five years ago.

That sort of transition probably won't happen this time around, because there is no one within the district who is a likely candidate, he added.

The survey being sent this week asks what qualities are most important in a superintendent. It is open to staff and faculty at the school, members of the community and people who work in Falmouth, Kinley said.

The board hopes to receive completed surveys by mid-November and will begin reviewing resumes in early December. If all goes well, the board will name Powers' successor in January or early February, he said.

Powers said she doesn't believe the superintendent searches in the other nearby communities will impede Falmouth's ability to attract strong candidates. The differences in districts will appeal to different applicants, she said.

"The timing certainly isn't ideal, but it is what it is, and we think Falmouth will draw really strong interest from candidates who would like to work in a one-campus setting with high community values and a great school board," she said.

Falmouth is also much larger than the other districts. There are about 2,100 students in Falmouth schools; Yarmouth schools have about 1,500 students, she said.

Both Powers and Kinley said that sharing a superintendent with the other communities is not an option, citing Falmouth voters' overwhelming defeat of a consolidation proposal in 2008.

David Ray, board chairman of Yarmouth School Department, agreed that the neighboring candidate searches will have little effect on each other. 

"School districts are all different," he said. "You want to get a superintendent that matches your culture and is comfortable with your size. I'm sure there's some overlap of us looking at the same people, but we may not be looking at all the same people."

Yarmouth is still in the preliminary phase of its latest candidate search. The original search began in February, after Judy Paolucci resigned her four-year post Dec. 21, 2012, for an administrative position in Leicester, Mass., and was scuttled after no ideal candidates were found.

"We'll keep looking until we find the right candidate for our schools. That's our approach to it," Ray said. "We'll find somebody. We're confident that we will. We may have to take more time. We'll see."

Yarmouth is following a similar time line to Falmouth's. The School Board hopes to announce a new superintendent in January, Ray said.

Meanwhile, SAD 51, which includes the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth, hopes to name a replacement for outgoing Robert Hasson by March or early April.

Hasson, who has served as superintendent for 20 years, will leave the job Nov. 1 to become deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association. Sally Loughlin, the district director of curriculum, assessment, instruction and professional development (and former assistant superintendent of Topsham-based SAD 75), will serve as interim superintendent through June 30, 2014.

During Powers' tenure, Falmouth Schools received national attention for its academic programs, including Blue Ribbon School of Excellence awards for both the elementary and middle school. Falmouth High School was named to Newsweek and U.S. News and World Reports' list of Top High Schools in the U.S.

In 2011, Forbes Magazine named Falmouth the “Top City to Live and Learn in America.”

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.