This story was updated at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, to correct the salary and benefits of Herb Hopkins.

PORTLAND – After a year and a half on the job, Superintendent Jim Morse has an administrative staff with four fewer positions and $110,000 less in annual salaries and benefits than when he started.

His reorganization of the central office probably will wind up being a break-even endeavor because Morse plans to spend most of the savings on three part-time positions to bolster the finance department.

Done at the direction of the School Committee, Morse’s reorganization followed a series of terminations, resignations and retirements. It led to the hiring of several administrators with larger salaries, more clearly defined duties and corporate job titles such as chief academic officer, chief finance officer and chief operations officer.

Critics continue to question the reorganization, especially because Maine’s largest school district could face a $6 million reduction in federal aid next year. School Committee members say it’s too early to tell whether the reorganization has been successful, but they’re confident that it will be.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, what would the alternative be?” said Peter Eglinton, who stepped down as committee chairman when his term ended this week. “I don’t think the school system wants to go back to just getting by day to day.”

When Morse started the reorganization in the spring, he said it wouldn’t increase administrative costs and could save money. In the last year, the central office staff has been reduced from 39 to 35 people and its annual payroll has dropped from $2.46 million to $2.35 million, according to data provided by Morse.

Now, Morse worries that the reorganization has cut too deeply and left the district vulnerable to the kinds of administrative and accounting errors that fueled a $2 million budget deficit in 2007.

“There is increasing pressure on the remaining employees to monitor budgetary and accounting aspects of the district,” Morse said. “In order to prevent the district from ever going down the road to financial implosion again, we need to make sure we have the right people and processes in place.”

To keep the district on track, Morse wants to increase a part-time certified public accountant to full time — one of four business specialists in the finance department. He also wants to hire an additional half-time accountant and a half-time budget manager.

Morse said the hires are necessary in part because Business Manager Herb Hopkins resigned last month to become finance director of Yarmouth schools. Hopkins earned $111,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Hopkins, who held similar positions in Scarborough and Brunswick, came to Portland in 2008 after its previous business manager and superintendent resigned during the budget crisis.

Morse’s reorganization started soon after the district received a consultant’s report that was highly critical of Portland’s special education program.

Positions eliminated in the 2010-11 budget were: special education director, assistant superintendent, educational planning director and human resources director. The people in those jobs either retired or resigned. Combined salaries and benefits for the positions ranged from $99,316 to $113,124.

Since then, Morse has hired a chief academic officer, a humanities curriculum coordinator, a math and science curriculum coordinator, a chief finance officer, a chief operations officer, a special education coordinator and a human resources coordinator.

Combined salaries and benefits for those positions range from $85,024 to $132,843.

Morse’s annual salary and benefits total $145,000.

Mark Usinger of Portland, a parent and business owner, has been a vocal critic of Morse’s reorganization. He questions why the district hired more expensive administrators when federal stimulus money is expected to dry up and could lead to significant teacher layoffs and program cuts.

“We’ve added a lot of highly paid people at the top and a lot of titles we didn’t have before,” Usinger said. “I’m wondering how we can retain all these people with a loss of federal money and a Republican-controlled State House. I don’t think we can consider raising taxes. I don’t see a sense of thriftiness in the top administration. I see thriftiness in the schools, but I don’t see it at the top.”

The new administrators are leading efforts to negotiate contracts with the district’s employee unions, develop the district’s first comprehensive curriculum, increase budgetary controls, improve food service and transportation efficiency, and share more resources with city departments, among other things, Morse said.

“I think we’re in a much better position than we were a year ago to deal with the challenges that lie ahead,” said Kate Snyder, who was sworn in Monday as School Committee chairwoman. “We have a group of people who we’ve hired to get us out of the struggles we find ourselves in. Jim did a strategic reorganization to hire competent people who could do the job that wasn’t getting done.”

Steven Scharf, another resident who watches the district closely, said Morse should have eliminated several more central office positions and avoided raising administrators’ salaries during the recession. He also questions the need for corporate job titles.

“Titles don’t guarantee that people actually do the job,” Scharf said. “Morse has demonstrated that he has the follow-through to get people to work for him. He didn’t have to change job titles to do that.”

Jaimey Caron, a School Committee member who heads the Finance Subcommittee, said the new titles help to set the tone for a new administrative team with clearly defined responsibilities and accountability from top to bottom.

In the past, Caron said, administrators had broad, undefined responsibilities and were held accountable for little. That is no longer the case.

“We’ve learned from hiring Dr. Morse that you often get what you pay for in experience and leadership,” Eglinton said. “A year from now, it should be very clear whether these positions are efficient.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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