Portland School Board introduces superintendent finalist to public

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PORTLAND — One of three finalists for the school superintendent position soon to be vacated by James C. Morse Sr. spoke to members of the public in an open forum Tuesday evening.

Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, deputy superintendent of the Paterson, N.J., school system, was introduced by School Board member Sarah Thompson to a gathering of about 40 people at Casco Bay High School.

Vanden Wyngaard was on a three-day trip to Portland for school visits and interviews with the board; a stakeholder group composed of parents, education union presidents, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, and others; and top school department administrators.

One other finalist was in Portland this week for a similar schedule of interviews and meetings. A third candidate will come for interviews next week. Both declined to participate in public forums, citing confidentiality reasons.

Vanden Wyngaard has held the second highest position in three school systems over the last six years, in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Racine, Wisc., prior to taking her position in Paterson. She holds a doctorate from Kent State University in Ohio.

On Tuesday she emphasized her experience with diverse student populations, and said that Portland’s rapidly diversifying schools are one of the attractions of the job.

“Portland has a diverse community, which is important to me, and you respect diversity in all it’s nuances,” she said. Also important, she said, is the city’s open and tolerant churches.

Vanden Wyngaard said that her professional motivation is rooted in student achievement, and particularly in closing the divide between white and minority students.

“My only job on this planet is to close the achievement gap,” she said.

During her tenure in Eden Prairie, she said, schools there narrowed the difference in graduation rates from 25 percent to 17 percent. In Paterson, high school graduation rates rose 17 percent in the two years since she took over the department’s day-to-day programming and accountability operations, she said.

“I believe Portland can close the gap, so you meet my career aspirations. I believe there’s potential here that I haven’t seen in other places,” Vanden Wyngaard said when asked by a parent why she had elected to apply for the top spot in Portland.

She continued to say that she wants to build a home after moving frequently in recent years, in part for her daughter’s sake. Vanden Wyngaard said she hopes to settle in a city, and a school system “where (my daughter) can be brilliant, and I can do really good hard work and be valued for it. So it fits in all those ways.”

Vanden Wyngaard said that if she is selected to become Portland’s next superintendent, she would ensure that teachers have the framework to assess students regularly, to use technology effectively in the classroom, and to get help and access to professional development resources when needed.

She said she has already identified a weak area in the school system: “Right now it appears as if math is flat.” As superintendent, she would work to identify the reasons for stagnation in that area and keep scores from backsliding, she said.

Vanden Wyngaard and the two other finalists were selected from a pool of 159 applicants. The School Board hired a private consulting firm to assist with the search.

The board is expected to choose Morse’s successor within the next month or so. Morse, who is retiring from the Portland School Department, will become superintendent of the Oyster River School District in New Hampshire. His last day in Portland is June 15.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, a finalist for Portland Superintendent of Schools, spoke to members of the public Tuesday evening at Casco Bay High School. She is now deputy superintendent in Paterson, N.J.

Portland Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. will retire in June.

Morse leaves bolstered School Department with work to do

PORTLAND — Three years after he inherited a plagued school system, retiring Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. gives his efforts to strengthen the district’s administration and balance its finances a solid B.

“I think I’ve done a really good job for the city of Portland,” he said, “but I can also say that the work is not done. My tenure has been about laying the blueprint for the future. I give myself an A for that.”

When Morse was hired in 2009, he said, he thought the district was looking for a way to recover from the financial chaos that caused the district to fall $2 million short in 2007.

What he quickly realized, he said, was that the entire system needed realignment. Each school’s principal had been acting independently, with little communication with the central office, resulting in different curriculum and textbook choices across the same grade levels at different schools. Buildings were slowly falling apart. The leadership was still in shock from the fallout of 2007.

“The structural pieces were so broken that it really required a jump-start of the system,” Morse said: New personnel, a more integrated central office, and a change in workplace culture.

Morse began shifting administrators around the system; some were removed entirely.

“I looked like a banshee,” he said. “From one perspective I was firing everybody and their mother. From another perspective, I was realigning the system.”

His successor, he said, will have plenty of work to do: the elementary schools still need urgent attention, growth of the pre-kindergarten program is “moving slower than molasses on a cold day,” and the district’s comprehensive plan framework needs to be finalized.

But the supporting administration will be ready to go, he said, and the district again has the the faith and trust of the public.

“What I’m hoping is that (the new)  superintendent would come into an operation that is forward thinking,” he said.

Morse will take the experience with him. Tired from the rebuilding process and questioning whether he was the right person to lead the revamped school district – Morse said that change agents rarely stick around to perform routine maintenance in situations like this – he had planned to retire. Changes in his personal life led him to change his mind, and search for a new job.

Immediately following his retirement, Morse will become superintendent of the Oyster River School District, which has 2,100 students from Durham, Lee and Madbury, N.H.

— Andrew Cullen