Members of the Bangor School Committee are pictured during a Nov. 9 meeting at City Hall. Clockwise from left: Marwa Hassanien, Carin Sychterz, John Hiatt, Warren Caruso, Clare Mundell, Tim Surrette and Susan Sorg. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Bangor parents want the next leader of the city’s schools to focus on maintaining their academic quality and continuing to address racial equity, while communicating clearly and openly about all of it.

Those are some of the takeaways from a survey about 665 Bangor parents and residents completed to inform the Bangor School Department’s search for a new superintendent. The survey results showed parents want the school department to continue working on issues it has recently started addressing, such as racial equity and diversity, and that they want a leader who is strong on the traditional aspects of school leadership as well, such as managing budgets and advancing student achievement, said Ray Phinney, school safety and communications director for the school department.

“[Respondents] were really interested in the racial equity piece, the budgeting piece and the academic excellence piece but they also really want someone who can communicate about all three of those,” he said.

Bangor parents periodically criticized the school department for a lack of transparency and communication under former Superintendent Betsy Webb, who stepped down at the end of October after more than a decade as superintendent. But the flow of information has increased under Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg, and a new school committee has begun to debate more in public, in contrast to how the committee traditionally operated.

At the same time, parents who responded to the survey were eager to maintain the standard of academic excellence which Webb has largely been credited with fostering. Bangor’s performance on statewide standardized tests has consistently exceeded state averages despite a large population of low-income students. A number of Bangor schools have received national recognition for academic excellence.

The survey was open to parents for two weeks, when Bangor also faced an unprecedented shortage of school bus drivers due to COVID-19 cases and had to transition to remote learning for more than a week. Plans for instruction often changed on short notice during that period.

Phinney said survey responses over that period changed, with an increased emphasis on student safety and communication as the district faced the pandemic-driven transportation challenge.

“I would say that parents are right now, because of the current climate of what’s going on in the world, the parents are more invested in seeing change and positive change,” he said. “Parents are not getting access to things, they’re not able to go talk to teachers, they’re not able to walk into the office, and they’re missing out on it. And so they want someone to really tell them what’s going on, and how it’s impacting your kids.”

The school department will continue soliciting feedback from the community as the superintendent search progresses. On Wednesday night, the Bangor School Committee discussed alternative ways to gather more feedback from parents who live in certain parts of the city, such as the Capehart neighborhood run by the Bangor Housing Authority.

The committee will also host virtual public forums on Feb. 22 and 23 before it finalizes the job description to solicit superintendent candidates. The Maine School Management Association is leading the search, but Bangor is also seeking a diversity consultant who will ensure the search considers candidates with diverse backgrounds.

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