PORTLAND – The Board of Education is a step closer to hiring Portland’s next superintendent. The board has narrowed the choice from 159 candidates to seven semifinalists, all from out of state.

The board Saturday interviewed four semifinalists using Skype, a service that allows users to communicate by video over the Internet. Tonight, the board will use Skype to interview the other three remaining candidates.

After the interviews, the board will narrow the field to two or three finalists, said school board member Sarah Thompson, who is leading the search.

The finalists will be flown to Portland on May 14 and 15 and possibly another date for a series of meetings with the school board, school administrators and a 12-member “finalist interview panel.”

The panel is composed of stakeholders, such as union leaders, parents and city officials. The finalists will also attend a forum that will be open to the public.

The choice of a replacement for out-going Superintendent Jim Morse is hugely important for the future of Maine’s largest school system, said Mayor Michael Brennan, who is serving on the interview panel.

Brennan said he wants to have a role in selecting the new superintendent. At the same time, he said, it’s important that the candidates understand that city officials and school officials are working as partners.

“I want to make sure that whomever is selected as superintendent understands that the mayor and the City Council are very supportive of education and intend to work with the new superintendent and the Board of Education to improve our school system,” Brennan said.

Morse, who was hired for the job in 2009, will work his last day on June 15. He announced in October that he will retire when his three-year contract expires at the end of June. His annual salary is $131,500.

In February, Morse accepted a superintendent’s position in the Oyster River School District in New Hampshire, serving the towns of Durham, Lee and Madbury.

When Morse took the job in Portland, Maine’s largest school district was recovering from a budget crisis that led the previous superintendent, Mary Jo O’Connor, to resign.

In announcing his plan to leave Portland, Morse said he had no idea how “broken” the school district was when he became superintendent, but that he had done the “hard work of transformation” that will allow his replacement to succeed.

Thompson agreed. “We are looking for someone who can pick up where Jim (Morse) left off,” she said. “We don’t need to bring in someone to do a complete overhaul. Jim did a lot of cleaning up and putting the right processes in place.”

She declined to identify the finalists or say how many of them are from outside New England. She said the finalists are superintendents, assistant superintendents or top administrators of large, urban school districts, or work at the state level overseeing a region.

Thompson said the board ideally would like to have a new superintendent start work by July 1.

The school board hired a national head-hunting firm, PROACT Search, to find candidates. The firm, based in Wilmette, Ill., will be paid $24,750 plus expenses for its work in Portland.

The school board on May 31 will hold a “celebration” for Morse and the superintendent’s executive assistant, Susan Ward, who is retiring in June.

Ward has served for the past 12 years as executive assistant to three Portland superintendents.

The event will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, 150 Ocean Ave.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressheral.com

Twitter: TomBellPortland