PORTLAND — A former Portland High School dropout who returned to school and is now superintendent of School Administrative District 47 in Oakland is expected to be confirmed Wednesday night as the city’s next superintendent of schools.
James C. Morse Sr. has held the SAD 47 post for 12 years. He was hailed as an exceptional leader by state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, who presented him with a Superintendent Leadership Award in 2008.
Morse will take over for Jeanne Whynot-Vickers on July 1. Whynot-Vickers has been the city’s interim superintendent since a $2 million deficit in 2007 forced the resignation of former school chief Mary Jo O’Connor.
“Dr. Morse brings a tremendous breadth of experience in education, strong administrative skills a commitment to success and the drive to keep our district moving forward in tough economic times,” School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said in a press release Tuesday.
In a telephone interview, Morse said he may face a steep learning curve in Portland because of issues surrounding the diversity of the district. About 26 percent of the district’s 6,900 students are English language learners, speaking 52 different native languages.
“I’ve had a chance to sit with (Director of Multicultural Affairs) Grace Valenzuela,” Morse said. “She’s going to be my teacher.”
Morse, 54, was raised on Adams and Oxford streets in the Bayside neighborhood. He graduated from Portland High School in 1973.
He said he dropped out of PHS for about six months during his junior year, because of family problems and a disinterest in school. However, a guidance counselor called him that spring and convinced him to return to school, sparking a renewed interest in education and a desire to help disadvantaged youth.
“It’s made working with disadvantaged youth a personal mission,” Morse said. “Part of inspiring kids is getting them to look beyond their current situation and towards the future.”
Morse earned bachelor’s and master degrees in education from the University of Maine at Orono and a doctorate in leadership from the University of Sarasota in Florida. Morse worked his way through several school systems until landing a superintendent’s position in Limestone in 1992.
During that time, Morse help found – and became the first superintendent of – the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, the state’s only charter magnet school.
In SAD 47, the school district expanded programs for struggling students, added all-day kindergarten and programs for 4-year-olds. The district also developed a comprehensive technology program and instituted a district-wide focus on improving literacy.
Morse said about 30 percent of the students there take advanced placement courses for college credit. Offering college courses, he said, is one way to make high school more interesting to disaffected juniors and seniors.
“So often when they get to be 17 and 18 years old, high school seems less relevant to them,” he said. “If you can get them into a college setting and show them they can be successful, then we will have more youngsters attending Maine colleges.”
School Committee member Sarah Thompson, who led the search process, said Morse has demonstrated leadership experience in several educational settings. “He has prioritized effectively and created efficiencies to stay within budget while reducing dropout rates,” she said.
Since 2003, Morse also has served as a gubernatorial appointee to the state Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.
State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a press release that the School Committee made a terrific choice. “Jim has a proven record of helping students and teachers achieve their best,” said Alfond, chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
Morse was selected from a field of 10 candidates following a 10-month search process that included input and participation from teachers, school administrators, residents and business and community leaders.
The School Committee will formally vote on the nomination Wednesday night at City Hall. Morse is expected to sign a three-year contract that will make him the highest paid public school superintendent in the state at $131,500 a year – more than a 14 percent increase over Whynot-Vicker’s salary of $115,000. He will also earn nearly $10,000 a year in retirement benefits; Whynot-Vickers received none.
While Whynot-Vickers draws $13,000 in health insurance and receives a city-leased vehicle plus gas (estimated to cost $5,000), Morse will draw $1,000 for dental insurance and receive a $3,500 in-district travel stipend and be reimbursed for out-of-district travel in accordance with the Internal Revenue Service rate.
In comparison, the city of Westbrook is also expected to hire a new superintendent this week, at an annual salary of $125,000. Westbrook paid its previous school chief just under $100,000, according to School Committee Vice Chairwoman Colleen Hilton.