On the heels of a year in which district schools were targeted by five separate threats of violence during a three-week span, School Administrative District 75’s new interim superintendent says safety will be a key focus going into next year.

Dan Chuhta enters the year as interim superintendent, taking over the leadership role after Superintendent Brad Smith’s retirement in June. Chuhta served as assistant superintendent for six years prior to being appointed to the interim role.

“As I’ve been thinking about how to communicate my priorities with my colleagues in the district, the board and the community,

I’ve thought of three things,” Chuhta said. “Helping students be safe, helping students be well, and helping students continue to learn.”

Chuhta has been busy this summer. Although he has a background of knowledge in MSAD 75, he wanted to hear from those he’d be working alongside in his new leadership role. Chuhta has been meeting with school board members and staff from the district’s leadership committee to hear their thoughts on what’s working and what could be improved.

Student safety resonated as a priority with many in the school community. Schools in the district were targeted by five separate threats in a three-week span during the 2017-18 school year.

“I think in some ways having and continuing the close relationships we have with our first responders is an important piece as well,” said Chuhta. “One of the unique things in our district is we do go between the two counties, but we work closely with both sheriff ’s offices as well as the Topsham Police Department.”

Chuhta said the district would be looking at crisis response programs offered by law enforcement.

Related to safety, student wellness will be a large focus for Chuhta this year. He said he’d work to improve student health, not only in terms of nutrition and physical health, but also in terms of mental health.

“This district has had, for a long time, a commitment to wellness,” said Chuhta. “Even in my role as assistant superintendent, I was beginning to hear more and more, from more and more people, that mental health was a topic on people’s minds.”

He said the district would assemble a mental health task force this year to look at data and determine what changes might improve students’ mental well-being, and what factors hurt it.

Chuhta said the call for task force members will be sent district-wide. He expects social workers and school counselors to be part of the group. If their research finds resources need to be adjusted to meet student needs, Chuhta will work with his school board members to make the necessary changes.

A piece of helping students continue to learn is helping them be prepared for school. MSAD 75 introduced a pre-kindergarten program for the first time this year, taking in 32 students. Two classrooms of 16 will start in the fall, with one at Williams-Cone Elementary and the other at Brunswick Head Start Center.

“For the most part, most people will immediately go to the academic piece,” Chuhta added. “But, there’s also the social and emotional piece. We’re really looking for school readiness and to provide that support and development.”

The district received a $266,387 state subsidy to start the pre-K program. Chuhta said any family in the district’s four towns can apply.

“What’s kind of neat is up until this point the only time kids came together from across the four towns was at the middle school,” said Chuhta. “These kids will come together as pre-K students and then go their own way until middle school.”

With pre-K beginning, Chuhta’s attention will be drawn to another ongoing project, the new high school building. He credited Athletic Director Geoff Godo with finding temporary homes for the high school’s sports teams as the construction continues. It will be three years before sports teams return to their home turf, with athletic field construction beginning once the two-year school construction project is completed.

“That’s an exciting piece because people are going to be able to see it,” Chuhta said.

Chuhta was a curriculum coordinator for science, technology, engineering, and math for Portland Public Schools prior to joining MSAD 75 as assistant superintendent in 2012.

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