Superintendent's Notebook: Budget fog lifts, batteries recharged

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The Portland Public Schools budget overwhelmed my life from January through March. My work days began before dawn and often continued until midnight. I awoke thinking about subsidy figures and drifted to sleep reviewing staffing numbers in my head to be sure they were exactly right.

The budget now is in the hands of the Portland City Council. As I’ve begun emerging from the fog, several recent events reminded me why I love working as Portland’s superintendent. I call these experiences “battery chargers.” Let me give a few examples.

I recently met with staff from all over the district to talk about curriculum development. We discussed the need for Portland’s schools to have a coordinated, sequential, predictable curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

One teacher boldly stated, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Another said, “We need to think of ourselves as a system again.” I felt energized by all of the professionals who share my passion for uniting the system. It will take us at least three years to achieve that goal, but I’m confident that Portland’s staff will meet the challenge.

Riverton School’s staff impressed me with their grit. When the state labeled Riverton a “persistently underperforming” school, staff members were crestfallen. They quickly recovered and focused on the work before them. They are completing a grant application that outlines how they plan to improve students’ academic performance over the next three years.

As I walk the halls of our high schools, I see hundreds of Netbooks in use. We completed distribution of the Netbooks in January. A mere three months later, staff and students are taking full advantage of this technology in innovative ways. Portland’s high school students now have one-to-one access to computers, just like our more affluent neighbors.

“Edutopia,” a national publication and Web site, has recognized King Middle School and Casco Bay High School for their innovative work to improve student performance. King Principal Michael McCarthy will be honored this month as the Maine Principals’ Association’s 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year. The International Center for Leadership in Education is spotlighting Casco Bay High School as a proven model for student achievement.

At Portland Arts and Technology High School, carpentry teacher Frank Kehoe has launched an exciting, new curriculum in sustainable building practices. His students are constructing a building that meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification requirements. The carpentry program recently won an excellence award from ecomaine.

The federal government has awarded our district a $500,000 competitive grant to address childhood obesity. The grant will pay for changes in the school lunch program, nutrition education and physical activity programs. We will install salad bars in more schools, increase the use of local foods and provide nutrition information about school menu items. 

I don’t have room to share all of the wonderful things happening in the Portland Public Schools. But I did want to give a sampling of our successes so you will know why the long, intense budget season is worth our investment of time and energy.

My battery is charged once again. I’m ready to continue the work that excites me, helping our district to become the best in the state.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.