PORTLAND, Maine — James Morse, who is credited with rebuilding Portland Public Schools’ financial stability in the wake of a high-profile crisis in 2007, announced Thursday he will retire as the district’s superintendent at the end of his current three-year contract.

Morse made the announcement during an abruptly called midday press conference at the department’s central office, and was joined by Kate Snyder, chairwoman of the Portland Board of Education.

Morse joined the school system in July 2009 as the replacement for previous superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor, under whom the district, in fiscal year 2007, had a budget overrun of nearly $2.5 million, a financial crisis that ultimately led to the resignations of O’Connor and Finance Director Richard Paulson.

On Thursday, Morse said when he arrived in Portland he discovered systemic central administration problems “much more widespread that anybody realized.”

“I thought I was just coming in to fix the broken financial department,” Morse admitted to the assembled media Thursday. “The school board knew the tip of the iceberg. The city knew the tip of the iceberg, and that was that the financial department was broken. What they didn’t know was that almost everything else was broken, too.”

Without going into greater detail, Morse said the district had no written curriculum on file and “systems in the central office were not responsive to student needs, and systems in the central office were not responsive to staff needs.”

But he suggested the greatest reclamation job he faced when he was hired was straightening out the system’s finances.

“We transformed the financial department from a place where advancement came from within regardless of qualifications to a place where we’ve got a [Certified Public Accountant] as finance director and an accountant and other highly qualified individuals on staff,” Morse said. “We turned that from a backwoods kind of department to a state-of-the-art department.”

Morse indicated he began to consider leaving after the end of his initial three-year contract, which expires on June 30 of next year, when he told Snyder last year he didn’t want the Board of Education to consider extending his pact.

This year, he said, he told Snyder scheduled performance reviews would “not be necessary.” Morse said he opted to retire, in part, because the superintendent to reform the district should not also be the administrator to “maintain” that reformed district over time.

“The research is pretty clear,” an emotional Morse told reporters Thursday. “The transformational superintendent should not be the maintenance superintendent.”

Snyder said the advance notice gives the Board of Education nearly nine months to develop a search process and pick a top candidate to lead the district moving forward.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.