PORTLAND, Maine — Members of the public were introduced to a woman who might become the next superintendent of Portland Public Schools as one of three finalists agreed to field questions in an open forum Tuesday night.
Marguerite Vanden Wygaard, deputy superintendent of the Paterson, N.J., school district, told a crowd of parents, teachers and reporters that she would hope to implement a rapid response system within the district in which student progress is monitored frequently and teachers receive professional coaching whenever they need it.
Vanden Wygaard may be the only candidate Portlanders will have a chance to see before the city’s next superintendent is chosen. The other two finalists declined to take part in any public forums at this stage, citing confidentiality.
The superintendent search has been led by a three-person school board subcommittee chaired by Sarah Thompson.
“Portland has a diverse community, which is important for me, and you respect diversity in all of its nuances,” Vanden Wygaard, who Thompson introduced as “Dr. V,” said. “When I see open, affirming churches, that’s a sign to me the community is tolerant of a whole boatload of people who would be considered others. I see that Portland can close the gap, so you meet my career aspirations and personal aspirations. I believe there’s potential here that I haven’t seen in other places.”
Search consultants from the Illinois-based firm PROACT launched an aggressive campaign to seek comments from stakeholder groups throughout Portland on what qualities community members want in the district’s next top administrator, distributing an online survey to accompany a series of targeted public forums and workshops.
Out of the 159 people who applied for the post, PROACT planned to interview approximately 50, with 10 forwarded to the local search committee for an additional round of reviews before the pool was whittled down to the finalists.
The winning candidate will replace outgoing Superintendent James Morse, who is leaving Portland in mid-June to take the top administrator job at the Oyster River School District in Durham, N.H.
One of the finalists visited Portland for interviews Monday, followed by Vanden Wygaard on Tuesday. Kate Snyder, chairwoman of the school board, said the board will meet on May 23 with a panel of system administrators as well as a task force composed of representatives of community stakeholder groups, both of which are involved in interviewing candidates.
She said the board subsequently will hold a workshop about the search process, then decide on next steps. Morse’s contract expires on June 30 and district search updates have indicated the board hopes to choose his successor before his departure.
Vanden Wygaard told attendees Tuesday night she promotes personal relationships between teachers and their students and she asks teachers and administrators to assess student academic progress regularly and frequently.
“I double-dog dare [teachers] not to teach for the first two weeks,” she said. “[I tell teachers], ‘I want you to know every single student in your class.’ Because if you don’t know the kids, you have no idea. If you don’t ask the parents, ‘How does your child learn?’ you won’t have any idea how to teach.”
Vanden Wygaard also told the audience a superintendent should “never make a decision and then invite the public in for a conversation.”
“One of the things that gets superintendents in trouble all the time is that they make a decision and then go out for public input,” she said. “[The public] knows it’s not genuine. … How do you get a more diverse crowd [to take part in school government]? They have to feel that they’re going to be heard.”
She acknowledged that she has a “cordial” but “distant” relationship with her current district’s teachers union because the superintendent who works above her is that organization’s primary contact. But she said she advocates for a quick response when a teacher or administrator indicates a classroom need for periodic coaching in specific instructional areas.
“I don’t expect all teachers to be perfect at all things,” she said.