Phillips to leave SAD 61

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

Truly, Patrick Phillips thought he would end his educational career as SAD 61’s Superintendent of Schools.

Hearing about dramatic changes in the Maine State Retirement System, as well as seeing his contribution to his two daughters’ college education rising, Phillips calculated he would need to find a new job that pays more and he would need to work a few years beyond his anticipated retirement date.

Phillips immediately found the “right fit.” Last week, he was selected as the new superintendent for Regional School Unit (RSU) 23, which serves Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach. RSU 23 had received 14 applications for the position, and a search committee interviewed seven finalists.

Phillips will begin his new job July 1.

“It was a very tough decision. It wasn’t me looking at the market and being opportunistic. I recognized my daughters’ college tuition was going up this year, and the odds are very high that there will be changes in the retirement system, expecting people like myself to contribute twice as much per year. It was a calculation for me about survival. People probably think, ‘What the heck, he is probably one of the highest paid individuals in the region,’ but the fact is, we get big tax bites. A third of my income goes to taxes. Another third goes to my daughters (one is a junior and the other probably be in graduate school, and I want to help her out),” he said. “I was looking forward to finishing out my career here. The board and I had talked about it. They hoped it was going to be my last job, and so did I. Seeing what is going on with the retirement system as well as cost of living, I found that the final three years of salary I earned would determine what my retirement would be. What you do in those final years really makes a difference.”

Phillips said the difference in salary between the two school districts is “significant.” He added, “It was an offer that I could not refuse.”

Phillips strongly believes his departure occurs at a time that SAD 61 is in very capable hands.

“The work here, that I have done over the past three years, is well underway. Part of the calculation for me was my confidence level in the ability of the excellent team of professionals, whom I work with, that the projects and work would be in good hands,” Phillips said.

He cited the efforts of new high school principal, Ted Finn, and a “group of professional staff members that are really stepping up to the plate with great energy and imagination” as they reinvent and reshape Lake Region High School’s curriculum.

“I have been progressively stepping back over the past year as leadership there has taken on full responsibility for that work. I have still been involved and gone to a number of meetings, but I am finding more and more, they don’t need me as much,” Phillips said.

Phillips also pointed to the strong leadership of Andy Madura, director of Buildings, Grounds, Maintenance and Food Service, who is the point person regarding the high school’s renovation and construction projects.

“Andy is doing a wonderful job,” he said. “He is always on top of every matter.”

Meanwhile, SAD 61 acted quickly last week as the school board unanimously voted to make Dr. Kathleen Beecher as interim superintendent. Beecher has served as the assistant superintendent for several years. Previously, she was principal of Sebago Elementary.

“Kathy is extremely capable. She has been preparing herself for the superintendency for the past few years. I have had many conversations with her about it, and have involved her in some of the key work that I have been doing in order to help groom her for that role. She has been involved in negotiations and other key areas,” Phillips said. “Kathy knows the ins and outs of curriculum work; the federal government’s grant program; she has been our Title 1 coordinator; so Kathy has already managed some of the key work in the district. She finished her doctorate a couple of years ago, so she is well versed in assessment and professional development, education reform issues and she has been deeply involved in the high school work, by design. She has so many wonderful personal characteristics — she is extremely smart, well regarded by the board, a person of great integrity and a tremendously hard worker — that I believe she will do very well as the interim superintendent. I think it is great that the (school) board gave her a unanimous vote of approval.”

At the moment, Phillips found that the availability of superintendent candidates is rather shallow, so SAD 61 is “quite fortunate” to have someone of Beecher’s caliber able to step into the interim role.

“It’s a great market right now for superintendents, with between 25 to 35 openings across the state,” he said. “Communities such as Cape Elizabeth have had to readvertise. I had explored a couple of other possibilities, but I wanted to see how this opportunity with RSU 23 would play out.”

It proved to be a good match because RSU 23 was seeking a superintendent who had experience with strategic planning, and developing teacher and administrator evaluation (he cited the work here by Stevens Brook Elementary School Principal Cheryl Turpin, who has led the development of new evaluation standards — which SAD 61 lines up perfectly with national guidelines as Phillips saw last week while at a conference in Washington, D.C.). He will also attempt to keep the newly-formed RSU together as Dayton residents have mulled the idea of withdrawing.

“There are always growing pains and power issues,” he said. “Being part of a district will ultimately benefit the three towns.”

Phillips leaves SAD 61 after three years. During his tenure, Phillips contended with several major challenges from leading the passage of a major renovation project at Lake Region High School and Vocational Center to overseeing an overhaul in the high school curriculum to a 21st Century Learning model, after LRHS was identified as one of the state’s 10 persistently low-performing schools as determined by the Department of Education.

Phillips offered some thoughts on the following:

Most proud of? PP. To have received public support for the high school project, especially during these tough economic times. It was an amazing thing. When it is all done, people will look back and say this was the right time to do it because of the availability of the zero percent financing through the stimulus bill. Had we waited, we would have wound up spending another $4 to $5 million in interest charges. We got this done at just the right time.

Even though it was very painful, the high school designation as a low performing school has led to some very incredible changes. It’s tough to change high schools. Sometimes it takes a powerful catalyst to break the calcification — things get rigidified. That listing broke that rigidity. It made people really think it is time to do things differently — develop a high school that when our kids leave here, they are prepared for life — not 1980 but life in 2020 or 2030.

Data system development, teacher leadership roles and teacher evaluation changes were two other elements Phillips mentioned.

Challenges ahead for SAD 61? PP. The greatest challenges I see for public education are early childhood and transitioning out of school. We need to insure that the first year or two of education, all of our students leave third grade with strong literacy skills. We need to do a better job in getting low performing students’ parents more involved in the school. We have to make sure that our high school program is 21st Century. The world is changing so rapidly. It doesn’t change and stay stable for 20 years. It’s changing, changing again, changing again. Our students need to be more adaptable. They need to be able to problem solve. They need a flavor of how the real world works.

Your stay here? PP. It has been wonderful. This has been a great job. I have loved every day working here in this district. The school board has been very supportive. Had it not been my sense of where my financial situation was headed, I would have been quite content to finish out my career here.

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