Portland High School students protest removal of principal

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PORTLAND — More than 30 students turned out at last week’s School Board meeting to express opposition to the superintendent’s reassignment of the Portland High School principal.

The School Department announced March 11 that PHS Principal Michael Johnson would become the principal at the Portland Arts and Technology High School next year.

It later became clear that Johnson was reassigned to PATHS by Superintendent James C. Morse Sr.

High school students organized for the March 22 meeting by creating a Facebook page, Fight Back for PHS. The page is no longer online, but had about 200 members prior to last week’s meeting.

One by one at the meeting, students and parents took to the microphone over the course of about 30 minutes to speak about Johnson’s importance to the school and to ask the board to have Morse reconsider.

Student Carl Szanton said the reassignment was “a terrible mistake.”

“I feel like it’s going to hurt Portland High School,” Szanton said. “It’s sad for us to see he’s leaving against his will.”

The district is not commenting on reasons for the move. But students and parents said they have been told it was because the school’s drop-out rate is not declining.

Parent Bill Weber last week presented the board with drop-out rates for similar high schools, include Bangor, Westbrook and Lewiston. Weber claimed Portland has a lower drop-out rate than those schools.

“I don’t think they’re valid reasons, and I really think it’s going to hurt the school,” he said.

Many speakers commented on the family-like atmosphere at Portland High, saying that Johnson was the reason many students choose to come to school.

Student Mikhalia Fogel, who helped organize the Facebook page, said Johnson has formed meaningful connections with a diverse range of students, from top achievers to teen mothers to immigrants.

“He cares about every single (student),” Fogel said. “He knows them all by name and story.”

Johnson, who has been principal at PHS for 10 years, said this week that students approached him before the meeting to see if he objected to them speaking on his behalf.

Johnson said he felt uncomfortable with the student activism, but advised them they had First Amendment rights to free speech.

“However, I told them two things: Whatever you do, you’ve got to be respectful, and it better not disrupt the educational environment,” he said Tuesday. “And it was my observation they did exactly that.”

The reassignment continues the shifting landscape of school principals under Morse, who became the school chief nearly two years ago.

Last year, Ken Kunin resigned from Deering High School and Carol Dayn stepped down at East End Community School. Riverton Elementary School Principal Nancy Kopack has said she will resign at the end of the current school year.

Parents questioned a lack of outreach by the district and the way they were informed about Johnson’s reassignment.

“It’s my opinion the decision was made and communicated with the specific plan and goal in mind to diffuse reaction by a lack of directness and candor that borders on the disingenuous,” parent William Fogel said.

Morse said this week that community outreach is not a part of personnel decisions.

“I can guarantee you that everything I did on my side was profession, respectful and courteous,” Morse said.

Morse complimented Johnson’s leadership skills and ability to connect with students, saying he wasn’t surprised by the students’ show of support last week.

School Board member Sarah Thompson, who leads the board’s personnel subcommittee, on Tuesday defended Morse’s decision and said there are no plans to challenge the Johnson move.

Johnson will take over on July 1 for current PATHS Principal Dana Allen, who is retiring. The job will also increase from part time to full time.

Thompson said the shift is a “great opportunity” for Johnson and PATHS, which serves 590 students from 23 school districts.

“I would be excited for him to go to PATHS,” Thompson said. “I think that’s going to grow for us, especially where we’re talking to Westbrook about combining duplicate programs. I think it’s a great thing. I think he can really make a stamp on it.”

Johnson said it will be “very difficult” to leave the students and staff at Portland High, but he understands the superintendent is doing what he believes is the best decision for the school district as a whole.

“Portland High School kids and families will get my complete devotion until June 30,” Johnson said. “On July 1, I will become 100 percent focused on the dreams of PATHS kids.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @randybillings.