Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb speaks to students at Fruit Street School in this Jan. 10, 2020, file photo. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said Thursday she will step down in October after 12 years leading the city’s schools to become a professor at the University of Maine.

The public announcement of her retirement came the day after Webb and school committee members apologized to students of color for their experiences with racism at Bangor High School, which school department leaders learned about through a Bangor Daily News article published earlier this week. Webb, 59, also shared details of an outside investigation she has ordered into how Bangor High handled reports of the discrimination that five Black students experienced.

She’s also stepping down as the school department, the fourth largest in Maine, puts together plans for reopening buildings this fall after closing down in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Please know I am fully committed over the next four months to the top priorities of reopening plans, building antiracism and equity, and for a smooth transition of leadership,” Webb said.

Webb will become a professor in UMaine’s Educational Leadership program and will also serve as the executive director of the Penobscot River Educational Partnership, a teacher training collaborative.

“There’s a call to action across the nation that we need high-quality educational leaders, and with the things that I’ve learned, I hope to be able to have an impact,” she said.

Webb served as assistant superintendent of the Bangor School Department before she was promoted to her current role in 2008. The school committee had voted unanimously last July to extend her contract, which wasn’t due to expire until 2025. Webb informed school committee members of her decision on Wednesday night.

Webb said she has been planning to leave since February and had been planning her retirement announcement for weeks. Her departure is unrelated to the BDN article’s revelations about racism at Bangor High School and Black students’ and parents’ calls for Bangor administrators to take stronger antiracism action.

“She is an outstanding leader and I have often said with her skills, she could lead a Fortune 500 Company. We are lucky she chose education,” Bangor School Committee Chair Warren Caruso said in a statement. “We also know Dr. Webb will guide us through the next several months with a focus on the priorities of reopening plans and a call to action to build antiracism and equity.”

The school committee has not announced a timeline for the search for Webb’s replacement.

The Bangor School Department has stood out as a strong academic performer during Webb’s tenure based on standardized test results. Bangor students consistently outperform their peers statewide, and their overall performance has actually improved statewide in recent years while the statewide performance stagnated.

In addition, the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers has actually narrowed in Bangor in recent years while it’s grown statewide. Some 55 percent of Bangor students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, making the district poorer than the state as a whole.

“I’m proud of our designation as an outperformer whereby our students’ achievements are consistently higher than where the demographics say they should be,” she said.

Bangor schools have developed a reputation for producing students who excel in the sciences. In 2012, Bangor High School became the first school in Maine to establish a STEM academy, a program within the school with a curriculum heavy on science, technology, engineering and math.

Webb also initiated a number of regional academies to provide training to teachers. She said she’s looking forward to continuing those efforts in her new role.

After schools shut down and switched to remote learning in March, the Bangor School Department was also among the first in the state to try to provide internet access to all students who had no access at home. It did that through a local fundraising effort that generated more than $60,000 to purchase mobile hotspots those students could use to connect.

But the school department under Webb and her predecessors, including the school committee, has drawn criticism for being closed off. School committee members have been told their job is to support the superintendent, and public debate among members and public comment at meetings have traditionally been limited. The committee has gone long stretches recording unanimous votes.

Last fall, Webb and school administrators came under fire for Bangor High School’s response to a student’s suicide, which the high school principal announced to students over the loudspeaker, going against expert advice for schools on responding to suicides to help classmates grieve and prevent more suicides. The school department also ignored outside offers of help from two organizations with mental health expertise.

Administrators publicly defended their response at a school committee meeting in December, but the school committee later passed a new suicide prevention and response policy that Webb had developed.

Under new leadership, Webb said she hopes Bangor can continue to address students’ mental health needs and further antiracism work.

“I want to see Bangor continue to be the best that it can be in all areas,” she said. “You have to continually think about societal needs and push the organization not to get too comfortable. You have to really think about what we do well but also constantly examine what we have to do better.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the size of the Bangor School Department.