PORTLAND — For 10 years, through the administrations of three school superintendents and an era of shrinking budgets and a rapidly diversifying student population, Susan Ward has cheerfully occupied a key desk in the School Department’s Central Office.
A steadying force regarded around the district as the “go-to” person for information on nearly any school-related issue, the veteran executive assistant to the superintendent will retire on June 15.
Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. will step down the same day, leaving the School Department helm to a new tandem who will have to forge their own path to success.
So far, neither position has been filled: a public search for a new superintendent has whittled down a field of nearly 160 applicants to a few finalists, and Ward’s job has been advertised, with the application period closing May 11.
Morse said he hopes to fill the executive assistant role in time to get the new person in before Ward’s last day.
But, he said, “I think it’s going to be an enormous challenge” to replace her. Ward, with a “larger-than-life personality,” he said, encompasses too many intangibles for a published job description to cover.
Ward is Morse’s personal editor, he said, reading and recommending changes to his frequent written dispatches and documents. She also serves as the filter through which all information to his desk passes.
“She’s the key to the kingdom,” he said. “She knows where all the reports are,” all the policies and guidelines – often on cue.
“When I’m stumped about who go to in my work life, she’s the first person I go to,” said Shoshana Hoose, the school district’s communications coordinator.
Ward even serves as the office’s unofficial legal consultant, having completed in 2007 a summer “boot camp” on school law mostly attended by superintendents and special educators. The district’s attorney, Harry Pringle, suggested she take the course, and Ward was told she was the first executive assistant to participate.
Ward’s enthusiasm for that course – “people think, ‘Oh my god, law is so dry.’ It was fun,” she said – demonstrates one of the traits that has made her so much more than a secretary.
Ward has also taken courses at Bangor Theological Seminary, and at the University of Southern Maine. Five days after her retirement begins, she said, she and her partner will leave Portland and drive to their new home in Dayton, Ohio. She has already looked into the lifelong learning program at the University of Dayton, and plans to take classes there.
“I am always learning. Always,” Ward, 60, said this week. “Being a lifelong learner is part of who I am.”
After a decade as Portland’s executive assistant to the superintendent, and a dozen years before that working in the capacity in Yarmouth, Ward still approaches her job with zeal. Over the phone, her smile is nearly audible.
“I loved the job, loved the challenges,” she said, though the indefatigable cheer may also serve as a coping method: Ward is the person who receives phone calls from angry parents trying to reach the superintendent.
Though she often redirects those calls to the school-specific administrators whose job it is to resolve their problems, Ward must act as a buffer, listening respectfully, she said, while making no promises other than that someone will look into the matter.
And she does call school principals to make sure that they follow up, she said.
The other challenges the School Department has faced during her tenure – including shrinking central office employment and a move to the PATHS building on Allen Avenue, learning how to work with parents and students who increasingly come from diverse cultural backgrounds, and understanding the working relationships between the school staff, School Board, and City Council – have often been rewarding, she said.
She was originally interested in the position precisely because of the challenges it would present, Ward said. She will miss them, and the job itself.
“It’s bittersweet,” Ward said.
She intends to check in with the School Department from time to time after her move, and maybe even watch the online video feeds of important school-related meetings, she said (as she planned to do Monday night when the City Council voted on the school budget).
But life is short, Ward said. She is excited to meet new people, to take new classes and establish a garden at her new home in Ohio, and may even start keeping bees.
After a career of being “three steps ahead” of the superintendent, she said, “I’m ready for new adventure, whatever that brings.”
Susan Ward, executive assistant to Portland Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr., and two others before him, will retire on June 15. Ward has been an asset to the schools and will be difficult to replace, Morse said.