PORTLAND — The two finalists in the School Board’s hunt for a new superintendent have leadership experience, solid academic credentials, and dedication to student improvement under their watch – at least on paper.

This month, a five-person team representing the board’s search committee is visiting Philadelphia and Paterson, N.J., where the finalists work, to watch them in action and talk to their colleagues, staff, and community members.

“We want to see the paper come to life,” School Board member and search committee Chairwoman Sarah Thompson, who will not go on the visits, said.

Still in the running after a national search process are Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the deputy superintendent of Paterson, who was introduced to Portland residents in mid-May, and Emmanuel Caulk, who toured Portland schools at the end of May. Caulk is an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia.

The site visit team spent a 12-hour day in Philadelphia on Monday, and was expected to debrief the search committee on Tuesday, Thompson said. The team will go to Paterson within a week or two, she said.

The board has already spent considerable time – more than eight hours each, Thompson said – with the two candidates. The School Deparment’s cabinet spent about an hour with each, and both candidates made at least one hour-long public appearance to answer questions from the community.

The candidates’ local visits allowed the board to discuss “all kinds of issues that you can’t get in an interview,” Thompson said.

But the site visits are an essential part of the process, she said. They are a chance “to say ‘OK, does everything we heard in person (seem) accurate?”‘ Thompson explained.

The site visits also allow for on-the-ground assessment where on-paper comparisons between the districts are difficult. In many ways, Portland’s school system is vastly different from either Paterson’s or Philadelphia’s.

While the city’s student population is rapidly diversifying – immigration and other demographic trends have pushed the number of minority students to more than 30 percent in recent years – both candidates come from systems where 50 percent or more of students are African-American or Hispanic.

Portland’s schools are also on much firmer footing than either of the candidates’ current districts.

Under Superintendent James C. Morse Sr., the district has overcome financial foibles that culminated in a $2 million budget shortfall in 2007.

In Portland, graduation rates for the three high schools are about 75 percent or higher. The percentage of students who perform at or above the standard on the state’s standardized tests, the New England Common Assessment Program, are below targets, but above 50 percent for grades three through eight, with the exception of the East End and Riverton elementary schools. School Improvement Grants at both of those have lead to noticeable improvements over the last year.

Meanwhile, Paterson’s district has been under tight state control since 1991. Some test scores and graduation rates have been improving since the district developed a new strategic plan in 2009-2010. But they remain low, with the graduation rate up to 58 percent in 2011, having been at just 45 percent two years prior.

The Philadelphia district’s graduation rate rose to just over 60 percent last year, but the system as a whole is in a state of financial disarray that makes Portland’s shortfall of five years ago look like mere pennies. Officials project a shortfall of more than $1 billion by 2017 if drastic action is not taken, and the district announced in April that it would likely dissolve.

Forty schools there will close next year; 64 will shut by 2017. Students will be shifted to charter schools and administration, which has already downsized to about 650 central office staff from twice that many, will be reorganized into “achievement networks” of a few dozen schools.

The struggles of those school districts may be a concern for a search committee, but shouldn’t be the focus of their assessment, said David Ray, chairman of the Yarmouth School Committee, which last hired a superintendent three years ago. Ray was on the board then, but was not involved in the search process that resulted in Yarmouth Rhode Island school administrator Judy Paolucci.

Whether a candidate comes from a thriving district or not isn’t the key issue, Ray said. “Its more a question of whether or not they had the ability to lead, and lead a school district,” he said.

The goal is to find a candidate whose approach to the job meets the culture of the school district, Ray said, mentioning the necessity for site visits: “You begin to form a much bigger picture of how (the candidates) perform in their districts.”

It can be more difficult to judge a candidate who has not filled a superintendent’s role in the past than one who has, Ray said. “It’s about stepping up to a different level of organization where you’re not responsible for one aspect of it but all aspects of it,” he said.

The sheer size of the candidates’ current districts – Caulk presides over 36 schools in Philadelphia, and Vanden Wyngaard is second in command in a 52-school system – could be an advantage for them, Thompson said.

“Portland is something they can wrap their arms around and do a great job,” she said. The district has just 16 schools.

The search committee hopes to make a final selection by the end of the month, Thompson said, but nothing will be decided before the site visit to Paterson is arranged. Even if a selection is made this month, the next superintendent may not start right away depending on the terms of their existing contract, she said.

“We’ll wait for the best,” she said. “If we need to wait 90 days and put an interim in, we’ll do it.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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