3 reasons to be optimistic about Portland’s top choice for superintendent

Portland Public Schools central offices on Cumberland Avenue. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland Public Schools central offices on Cumberland Avenue. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Xavier Botana is the presumptive nominee to become the next superintendent of schools in Portland.

The district issued an announcement this morning that its search committee, which over several months whittled down a field of 41 applicants, has settled on Botana as its top choice to take the job.

The larger Portland Board of Public Education will officially vote on the pick tomorrow night, and you can read about the extensive search process and Botana’s qualifications in this district release, included below:

Portland picks Botana as top choice for superintendent

As you can see, that’s a pretty thorough explanation of how we got to this point. But for added value, allow me to parse out a few highlights that may be of particular noteworthiness as you think about how Botana’s background prepares him for life in Maine’s largest city:

Botana talks the talk. Literally.

Botana has a number of qualities that make him an appealing choice for Portland. One that jumps off the page is that he has a diverse background and is bilingual — his family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba — so he’s relatable to and understanding of a student population which features many immigrants and speaks nearly 60 different languages.

He has ties to Maine

Let’s be up-front about this: The Portland superintendent job is a perfect stepping stone between a top assistant job and a full superintendent position at a larger (and higher paying) district in some other state.

For a case in point, look no further than previous Portland superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, who arrived in 2012 after serving as an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia and left town three years later for a $240,000-per-year gig as a top school administrator in Kentucky.

There’s not a lot Portland can do about that, unfortunately. If Portland wants the best possible candidate, it has to consider hiring somebody good enough to be sought after elsewhere. And unless you’re the New York City Department of Education, there’s always going to be somebody out there who can offer more money or a higher profile opportunity.

One thing the Portland search committee can look for in an applicant, however, is a connection to Maine. A superintendent who has a personal tie to the state may be willing to linger here longer, and in Botana has a tie.

He visits Sunday River every winter to participate in a ski program for youths with disabilities. Is that a strong enough tie for Botana to stick around for four, five or six years instead of three? We’ll have to find out.

He’s a community builder

One thing that has been a focus of the district and its affiliated Portland Education Foundation in recent years has been community outreach — seeking public support and private funding for programs and initiatives.

The whole “It takes a village…” thing is big in Portland, where school officials work hard to involve business leaders, parents and volunteers.

Xavier Botana (courtesy Portland Public Schools)

Xavier Botana (courtesy Portland Public Schools)

The district announcement above notes that, in his Indiana district, Botana has spearheaded a number of local engagement efforts and collaborative partnerships, including the transformation of several vacated school buildings into neighborhood hubs, like a wide-ranging youth center featuring a theater program and an early childhood education facility.

This experience finding new uses for old school building would’ve been nice to have over the past few years as Portland officials looked for things to do with the old Nathan Clifford School and the deteriorating West School. But even though no more of those projects are on the immediate horizon here, Botana’s background working with community stakeholders to build support around common ideas could come in handy in Portland.

For a bonus reason to be optimistic about Botana, re-read the part of the announcement above regarding the makeup of his current Michigan City, Indiana, district. It has a similar student population size as Portland Public Schools, and has apparently done well to overcome budget deficits and dropping enrollment to build up some really innovative offerings, like STEM and arts magnet schools.

Does all this mean Xavier Botana’s going to be a perfect superintendent of schools who never has detractors in Portland or controversies to overcome? Certainly not — Caulk and each of his predecessors, James Morse and Mary Jo O’Connor, faced their shares.

But there will be time to write about those disputes, as well as how Botana handles them, if or when they arise. For now, we have the luxury of being optimistic.

As an added bonus, and blast from the past, the following three videos feature a presentation Botana gave on how to revamp high school education in the other Portland — Oregon — when he worked there in 2009:

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.