June 18, 2018
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Maine business leaders try their hands at running schools for a day

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Public education is hard work.

That was one of the first lessons learned by at least two members of Portland’s business community Monday as the city’s school department and Portland Community Chamber launched their Principal for a Day program, placing leaders from the private sector in administrative offices around the system.

While school officials and their business counterparts hope the initiative grows to become a dialogue about best practices and businesslike efficiencies, the first impressions among chamber members taking part centered around what they described as a heavy workload being shouldered by today’s educators.

“What I take away from it is how hard these teachers work and how much they put into their jobs,” said Tony Cipollone, president and CEO of the John T. Gorham Foundation, taking a few minutes away from a fourth grade music class at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School Monday to talk with the BDN.

“This just reinforces how much we don’t really appreciate educators enough,” continued Cipollone, who had earlier in the day sat in on a first grade class and another for students learning English as a second language. “We really need to give them as much support as we can.”

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said the program aims to harvest fresh perspectives from the business community on how to find efficiencies and boost performances while reacting to a constantly evolving landscape.

The state’s largest public school district is once again facing a budget crisis of sorts. Caulk’s early fiscal year 2014 spending plan of just less than $98 million involves cutting at least 50 jobs and implementing furlough days for administrators as a way to offset state subsidy reductions and other budget constraints.

The evolving landscape, in this case, involves the introduction of charter schools in Maine, which pull tuition funding from previously established public school systems, and a proposed shift of faculty retirement costs from the state government to the local districts. The combination of changes, Portland school officials have said, add up to more than $2 million in new expenses in the coming fiscal year that the city will have to absorb, squeezing already tight finances even further.

Caulk, who has advocated for greater interaction between the schools and other Portland community institutions since being hired in August, said businesspeople are experts in managing change.

During a Monday morning news conference to announce the program, the superintendent said he was pleased by the enthusiastic response he received by chamber members, who quickly filled up the available Principal for a Day slots.

Caulk described the initiative — which provides the chamber members crash courses in helping run school facilities for a day each — as a first step in what he hoped would become an ongoing dialogue between the city’s business and public education sectors.

“At the end of the day, what we hope to do is create relationships that will last a lifetime,” he said.

From a business perspective, the program makes sense, said MEMIC executive and chamber volunteer Michael Bourque. He echoed comments previously made by Caulk that a strong school system naturally fuels a strong business environment, not only by producing reliable and innovative employees but also by attracting new companies and entrepreneurs whose workers may have children and want to be near good schools.

“It’s become clearer and clearer the business community has to play a vital role in [encouraging] the work force of the future,” Bourque said Monday.

“Principals are leading complex organizations and so are businesspeople. They have a lot of common experiences and challenges that they can talk about,” he later added. “The chamber has been [helping businesses share best practices] for years, and bringing schools into that conversation is going to be a winner.”

The first part of the conversation Monday left participating chamber members with what they called new appreciations for what the city’s public schools are up against.

“I think it’s important for everyday folks to really understand how many challenges our schools face,” Cipollone said.

“I didn’t appreciate that there were 500 students in this elementary school, and out of that number, 100 are speaking English as a second language,” said Mark McAuliffe, managing partner of Apothecary by Design Pharmacy, who also spent Monday at Lyseth.

Other chamber members to take part in the program throughout the week include Eileen Skinner, president and CEO of Mercy Health System of Maine, Unum Director of Social Responsibility Cary Olson-Cartwright and L.L. Bean public affairs manager Carolyn Beem, among others.

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