Superintendent's Notebook: What was I thinking?

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When the news spread that I was named Portland’s new superintendent of schools, many people congratulated me with messages such as “Good for you” and “You’re the right guy for Portland.”

Sadly, I also heard from a minority who asked questions such as “What are you thinking?,” “Why Portland?,” and “Don’t you know …?” It was as if I had been appointed chief executive officer of AIG.

Why Portland? Well, for starters, this is where I grew up and walked the streets as a boy. I lost interest in school and dropped out for most of my junior year of high school. But thanks to the help of some excellent mentors, I learned the value of education. That is a lesson that I hope we can impart to many young people in our community who struggle as I once did.

As the largest school district in the state, Portland is unique and faces many challenges. But I also see great opportunities to take advantage of our size, diversity, highly trained staff and other strengths.

During the past several months, I visited nearly every school, met with every administrator and talked to dozens of parents, community members and city government officials. I learned that there is an awful lot of pride in Portland’s schools.

My first visit, to Hall School, set a very high bar. I spent two hours with Principal Kelly Hasson. I visited with students and staff in their classrooms and at lunch. Everyone was engaged in learning and teaching. I thought as I left, if all the schools in Portland are this focused on children, then I made the right choice.

I discovered that Hall School was, indeed, typical. Every one of Portland’s schools, from the elementary level through high school, shares a focus on student learning. All of the staff members who I met were proud to share their work with their students, often inviting me to participate or at least observe. Bulldogs, Rams or Cougars made no difference, as school pride was in great supply.

So what are the challenges?

The first is continuing the work to make sure that the school system finances are safe, solid and solvent. The Portland public schools had a financial catastrophe two years ago. Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers and the School Committee worked aggressively to take corrective action. The city supported the School Department by providing expertise, guidance and resources. The district hired a new business manager and lead accountant. The school system increased budgetary controls to assure that there would be a meaningful and accurate accounting of district funds. That work continues.

We live in tough economic times. School systems, local government and state government all are affected by a poor economy. The prediction is that Maine schools will have less to work with next year and even less two years from now. That’s why the Portland School Committee has decided to change from a one-year budget to multi-year budgeting.

The second challenge is to face head-on the dropout rate in Portland. According to state data, one out of five students is not completing high school. That is completely unacceptable. We need to find out why we’re losing so many young people and develop an action plan to lower the dropout rate. Young adults without an education face a tough future. Today, more than ever, education is critical for a productive future.

During the months ahead, I will share with you some of my ideas about how we can face our challenges and build on our strengths as a district. And I will ask for your help in contributing to the effort. Students and parents, retirees and single people, business leaders and politicians – all of us have a role to play in building an excellent school system for our city.


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jamesmorse.JPGJames C. Morse Sr. became superintendent of schools in Portland on July 1. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at