BELFAST, Maine — RSU 20 has had better days. The beleaguered midcoast school district now has seven of its nine member communities — including Belfast — working on withdrawal plans. Its teachers have now been working for three years without a contract. A sharp drop in state and federal school funds has led to a steep rise in local taxes raised for schools.
But Brian Carpenter, the new superintendent who succeeded retiring Superintendent Bruce Mailloux on July 1, said Tuesday that he thrives on a challenge.
“I’ve got a great one,” the Aroostook County native said. “I like creating a vision and moving toward it — and getting people to step outside their comfort zone.”
The district is composed of Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.
Carpenter, 58, who now lives in Bangor with his wife and infant son, has had a lot of experience working in school districts around the state as well as holding down high-responsibility positions with the U.S. Army in the Pentagon. Over the course of his career, he has also been tasked with figuring out ways to work around difficult financial realities.
“I’ve worked in crisis situations for the military,” he said. “I’ve worked on reduced budgets — seeing money go away, and being told that you have to do the same thing with less.”
Carpenter tried to begin his career in 1974 after graduating with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Maine. But there was an economic downturn, and no jobs to be had anywhere.
“Engineers were a dime a dozen,” he recalled.
That’s why he joined the U.S. Army and spent nearly three years serving with the 82nd Airborne Division. Carpenter said he was trained to go to Vietnam, but the war ended in 1975, before he was sent there.
After that first active-duty military stint, he went back to school to get a degree in social sciences from the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Then he launched a career in teaching, which began as a science teacher at East Grand High School in Danforth and continued to Mars Hill High School and Madawaska High School over the years.
“I was heading north,” he said.
Meanwhile, Carpenter earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and then became a school administrator. The Army reservist was working as the principal of Hermon Middle School in 2003 when he was deployed to an active-duty position with the Army operations center in the Pentagon.
“I was involved in sending out orders to combat commanders in the field,” he said. “It was very intense. A big change from middle school principal. There was more responsibility.”
Carpenter left Washington, D.C., in 2004 to return to Maine, and went back to his job at Hermon Middle School. But in 2006, he was deployed again, this time being sent to Fort Sill, Okla., where he did computer simulations of how many people would be needed for combat operations and what types of weapons. Then, a military official requested that he go back to the Pentagon, where he worked as the chief of staff for the Army’s Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate.
“As chief of staff, I dealt with people on the hill, answering legislative questions,” he said. “I dealt with deployments. I dealt with foreign area officers, diplomats and visiting dignitaries. … I got to meet a lot of great people. I had a great time.”
When his stint ended and he came back to Maine, it was not an easy transition, he said.
“I definitely missed the buzz,” Carpenter said.
He found part-time teaching work at the New England School of Communications in Bangor and part-time work as the superintendent in Lubec. But after school consolidation, that position was eliminated and Carpenter found another job as the vice principal of Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.
As far as his new position as RSU 20 superintendent goes, he said that he’s hopeful that the long-delayed teachers’ contract will be resolved soon.
Additionally, all Maine school districts need to work toward creating a diploma that requires graduating students to meet learning standards in different content areas, and he will steer RSU 20 schools toward that goal.
Working with diminishing funds is going to be another constant reality for the district, he said.
“I think the whole thing boils down to what does the local community want for their students to ensure they’ll be successful in postsecondary and in the workforce,” Carpenter said. “There is no easy solution for any of this. Whatever the state can’t provide, somebody’s got to do. And nobody wants to make the tough decisions, but somebody has to — or at least provide courses of action that are realistic.”