SACO – The Regional School Unit 23 board voted unanimously Tuesday to offer the position of superintendent to Patrick Phillips, who now heads School Administrative District 61 in Naples.
Phillips was chosen to take over RSU 23, which covers Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach, after the search committee interviewed seven finalists. The school district received 14 applications for the post.
Superintendent Mike Lafortune is leaving after overseeing the creation of the regional unit, which resulted from a state mandate requiring school districts across the state to consolidate.
Phillips has been with SAD 61 for the past three years. As superintendent, Phillips oversaw the district’s response to Lake Region High School’s placement on last year’s list of 10 persistently low-performing schools as determined by the state Department of Education.
A new high school principal was hired, and Phillips was a powerful influence on an ad hoc committee that was tasked with identifying weaknesses in the district and reshaping curriculum in an effort to boost scoring. The high school managed to avoid the list in 2011.
Phillips previously served as deputy commissioner with the Maine Department of Education. In addition, he has taught school, been a school principal and an assistant superintendent.
David Galli, chairman of the RSU 23 board, said on Tuesday that the school district still has to negotiate a contract with Phillips, but that if all goes as planned, he would start on July 1.
Reached Wednesday at a school improvement conference in Washington, D.C., Phillips said there were two things that most attracted him to RSU 23.
One is that the district was looking for someone who could help oversee its strategic planning effort, which would include the creation of a new vision to guide policy and curriculum development.
The other factor that attracted him, Phillips said, is that RSU 23 was specifically looking for someone who had a background in the creation and application of teacher and administrator evaluation programs.
In addition, Phillips, who is an avid sailor, said he’s excited to be closer to greater Portland and to the ocean.
Last week the Saco City Council joined the Dayton Board of Selectmen in saying the consolidated school district has not worked as promised and both governing bodies are now seeking permission from the Legislature to withdraw from the RSU.
On Friday, the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee took public comment on a bill that would allow Dayton to leave RSU 23, which leaders in Saco asked the committee to amend to also include that city.
According to Ryan Boyd, the Education Committee clerk, the committee did not take action on the bill or the request to add Saco, but it planned to take up the issue during a work session on Wednesday, after the Sun Chronicle’s deadline.
Phillips said he was aware of the situation, but is confident there is no support in Augusta, either at the Department of Education or in the Legislature, to allow the dismantling of RSUs across the state, particularly since most have only been in operation for two years.
“I don’t believe there is an interest at the state level in deconstructing the RSUs, considering all the time and effort that went into their creation,” he said.
While Phillips doesn’t believe the Legislature will support the bid by Saco and Dayton to leave RSU 23, he said as the new head of schools, it would be up to him to show community leaders and residents the “enormous benefits” that have resulted from consolidation.
During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Gary Curtis, an RSU 23 board member from Old Orchard Beach, agreed and said, “I think it would be wise for us to sit down with the municipal leaders, in Saco especially, and talk about where we are and what we do.”
As far as he’s aware, there is no “hue and cry” from the public in either Saco or Dayton to pull out of the RSU.
“I think this is an effort that was ginned up entirely by Dayton and Saco municipal officials,” Curtis added.
He’s been in contact with each member of the Education Committee and attended Friday’s public hearing in Augusta.
Curtis said during that session, Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of education, testified against the proposal by Dayton to withdraw from RSU 23. He said Bowen and his staff recognize there is already a provision in state law that allows communities to get out of their RSU commitments and to authorize them to withdraw under individual bills submitted by legislators would be too piecemeal.
Also, on Tuesday the RSU 23 board agreed to hire an expert to help the district create a new cost-sharing formula designed to be fairer to taxpayers in all three communities.
The plan, according to Lafortune, would be to have the new formula in place before the community wide vote on the new fiscal year budget is held in June.