FAIRFIELD — When Superintendent Reza Namin comes to a school district, he has a mission — to make it better.

Sometimes that means restructuring the administration and changing how things are done, ending contracts that aren’t benefiting students and standing up to politicians.

Namin, a native of Iran, former professional soccer player and the new superintendent of School Administrative District 49, is OK with that. He says significant change comes with a price.

“A transformation to me means we need to change how we make decisions,” said Namin, who earns $120,000 to lead the Fairfield-based district. “We need to change how we communicate to each other and parents.”

The approach has some in SAD 49 excited about a new kind of leadership and a fresh perspective. But there are also those who have reservations, especially after Namin introduced a significant administrative restructuring plan right away and had a controversial departure from a Massachusetts school district.

“The reality is I’ve been in a lot of fights and I’m not afraid of any fight,” said Namin, 59. “One thing you will see is I will fight for the fact the community needs to have a voice. … I will fight with any politician, any system that will take the money away from the kids and hypocritically talk that they’re about kids.

“I am going to go directly into it and I’m not afraid of it. I get a lot of scars through the process. I’m not afraid of it.”

For two years from 2009 to 2011, Namin worked in the Westbrook School Department, where he was a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year Award in 2011. But the district also faced a $3.7 million budget shortfall after Namin’s departure, and one former official there said a restructuring plan similar to what Namin is proposing now in SAD 49 didn’t work.

Earlier this month, the SAD 49 school board approved an administrative restructuring plan that will include the elimination of the Lawrence High School principal and the Lawrence Junior High School principal in favor of a single principal for grades 7-12. In a similar move in Westbrook, Namin introduced an administrative restructuring plan that included combining the middle and high school principals’ jobs into one position.

Marc Gousse, who was the Westbrook High School principal at the time and ended up moving into the 7-12 principal job, said the restructuring didn’t work, and after Namin’s departure in 2011, the district restored the positions to what they previously were.

Gousse, who succeeded Namin as interim superintendent in Westbrook and now is superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, said he is not familiar with what Namin is proposing in Fairfield, and ultimately each community needs to decide for itself what works best, but he cautioned residents to do their research.

“There were a lot of layers to the (restructuring) and yes, on paper it showed a significant savings; but I can tell you it also led to some, in my opinion, gaps in supports for students, staff and schools,” Gousse said.

At the time the district was facing a $3.7 million budget shortfall in 2011, Gousse said, it was a result of unavoidable expenses, including salary increases and utility costs.

Namin, meanwhile, said the former Westbrook administrator was “part of the problem I cleaned up” when asked about the budget shortfall in an email and why restructuring the Westbrook administration might not have worked out.

He also said the plan didn’t have enough time to work, as he chose to leave the Westbrook district in 2011 to be closer to his wife’s family, particularly her father, who was battling cancer.

The chairwoman and the vice chairman of the SAD 49 school district did not respond directly to questions about Namin’s restructuring in Westbrook, as well as a controversy that ensued while he was superintendent of the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District in Massachusetts. They said only that they were comfortable with their decision and had vetted Namin’s experience.

MASSACHUSETTS CHALLENGE

In the Spencer-East Brookfield district, Namin ended up resigning after two years on the job.

School board officials banned him from district property and declined to comment on what they called a personnel issue, according to an article at the time in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Namin told the paper he experienced retaliation from former employees as well as racism and efforts to ruin his reputation by members of the public who were not happy with changes he made.

In 2013 he resigned, reimbursed the district $17,000 in travel expenses and went to work for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts as its chief academic officer.

“Dr. Namin was very forthcoming with the board and thoroughly answered all of our questions,” SAD 49 School Board Chairwoman Shelley Rudnicki said in an email. “I am perfectly comfortable with the board’s decision to hire him and I am confident he is the right person for the job.”

Vice Chairman Tim Martin also said he is happy with the hire the board made and Namin was thoroughly vetted.

“Anybody can do a Google search,” he said. “We thoroughly vetted him and he brought up all the things you’ve mentioned in our original interview. We didn’t even have to.”

Still, at least one school board member said she was unfamiliar with the nature of Namin’s departure from the Massachusetts school district or his work to restructure the Westbrook district.

“Had I known those things … about the other places he’s been to, that certainly would have made an alarm bell go off,” Clinton school board member Janice Chesley said.

She said she has missed some school board meetings this year and did not vote on hiring Namin, but she has heard from some people who are anxious about the restructuring.

The plan includes eliminating three administrative jobs, restructuring and advertising for five others, adding two new jobs and changing job descriptions of five more.

Those whose jobs are eliminated or advertised for would have the option to apply for new ones.

“Personally, I don’t dislike him. I’m just not sure what’s going on with this whole thing about people having to re-apply for their jobs,” Chesley said.

For his part, Namin said articles in the Telegram were misleading because reporters were not privy to information discussed in executive sessions, but he did not point to any specific false statements and verified that he did resign and did have to pay back $17,000.

Superintendent Reza Namin on Jan. 17 in his office in Fairfield.

He also said a changeover in school board members who disagreed on whether the travel reimbursements should have been awarded in the first place is what led to him paying them back and it “wasn’t all about me.”

Ultimately, Namin said, he resigned voluntarily because members of the Spencer-East Brookfield school board and community were not on board with the changes he proposed, and without a unified vision, he felt it was better to move on.

“You can either stay there for a long time or take the challenge directly and do something about it,” he said. “I’m the type of person who goes directly into it and faces it. With that comes a lot of struggle, because you have to take away folks who had benefits, contracts worth thousands of dollars that didn’t benefit the community. You have to remove people who are incompetent. You have to remove money from where it’s being wasted and put it where the kids are.”

Mary Gershman, who was chairwoman of the school board in Spencer-East Brookfield during Namin’s tenure, confirmed he was superintendent there from 2011 to 2013 but did not respond to a request for further comment.

CHANGING PERCEPTION

At the Massachusetts sheriff’s department, Sheriff Christopher Donelin gave Namin a glowing review.

He said Namin was instrumental in bringing about changes for the department, including establishing connections with a local community college, grant writing and implementing a new mathematics curriculum aimed at providing inmates with the mathematical skills needed to get jobs in manufacturing.

“We have a wonderful relationship now with the community college doing great programs,” Donelin said. “It’s really important because you see a dramatic decrease in the likelihood someone will commit a crime if they have a college degree.”

In addition to his work in Spencer-East Brookfield, Westbrook and at the sheriff’s office, Namin also worked as a superintendent at the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District in Orange, Massachusetts, where he said he did some of his most impactful and successful work.

By the time he left there in 2009, the district was named one of the Best School Districts in the United States by U.S. News & World Report.

“It really changed the whole perception of the region and the community,” Namin said. “My life experience going through that process is (why) when I came here, I wanted to do the same thing — have an entry plan, visit every classroom. I want the students to get to know me as a person even though they can’t say my name. I wanted to experience, to see face-to-face where the kids are and who they are.”

Much of his approach to education is based on his own experience of fleeing Iran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to come to the United States to attend Worcester State University.

He didn’t know anyone, had little money and couldn’t speak English, he said, but the struggle to be successful and work through those hardships taught him that the same can be done in struggling school districts.

A resident of Old Orchard Beach, where his wife, Regina, lives with their Maine coon cat, Ziba, Namin also has an apartment in Waterville that he keeps so he can be close to the school district.

He said he’s better prepared than ever to lead the six schools in SAD 49.

FOUNDATION IN FAIRFIELD

After being on the job for about five months, Namin already has made significant changes in SAD 49, which consists of the towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield.

In addition to the administrative restructuring approved earlier this month, Namin wrote in his 100-day report that he intends to move all sixth-grade students in the district to the junior high school, though he said last week there are actually no concrete plans yet to do so.

The idea, he said, came from the sixth-grade students themselves, who had expressed anxiety about the transition from elementary school to junior high.

“The restructuring was done as a start to the foundation,” Namin said. “Any decision made from this point on is going to be only made after we have the entire community informed, given an opportunity to listen and share and have researched all the possibilities and make a decision together.”

Lauren Conohan, a fifth-grade teacher at Albion Elementary School, said Namin was asked recently about the idea at a community meeting and he was open to having a conversation, which she appreciated.

Her students are also excited by Namin, who frequently visits the school to play with them at recess, eat lunch in the cafeteria or visit classrooms.

“One of the parents in my class that attended both parent meetings in Albion has remarked to me that her child is fascinated by him and can’t stop talking about his visits,” Conohan said in an email. “You can’t help but notice that others in the school feel the same way.”

Namin also hopes to implement a universal pre-kindergarten program by next year. In September, after learning funding for Clinton Elementary School’s program had been cut, he worked quickly to shift district funds and pull together the $118,000 needed to reinstate the program for this school year.

In individual schools he has started school councils, decision-making bodies composed of the principal, parents, teachers and community members whose duties will include reviewing the budget for each school, identifying needs of students and formulating school improvement plans.

Superintendent Reza Namin, left, and State Board of Education members Fern Desjardins and John Bird observe children Dec. 12, 2018, in one of the classrooms at the Fairfield Primary School during a tour of the school.

Albion Elementary and Fairfield Primary School Principal Lori Lee said the school councils are just one good idea Namin has brought to the district.

“I really am excited by his leadership,” she said. “It’s a transformational leadership. He’s looking to get the community involved, the staff, the students. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

When it comes to the school district budget, Namin also said he has plans to do things differently after hearing from principals that they wanted more say in the funding for their schools.

Communication will improve with Namin rolling out personalized rather than automated robocalls to families and the recent launch of a website that includes live feeds from classrooms, he said.

The goal is to transform SAD 49 into a high-performing school district and improve the outlook of graduates.

The district already has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the area, according to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Education, at 90 percent.

Still, only 45 percent of students are at or above state expectations in English and literacy and 39 percent are at or above state expectations in mathematics.

And 18 percent of students were chronically absent in the 2016-2017 school year, compared to 15 percent statewide, according to the education department.

“There’s the perception they need to change academically, that they’re not as high-performing (as some other schools),” Namin said. “There’s a lot of bullying going around, a lot of substance abuse, a lot of social and home struggles that the community struggles with. That needs to change.”

In three years, Namin said he would like to have seen on average 10 percent growth each year in the district in terms of state expectations and 10 percent to 20 percent growth for special education students who take state tests.

“People need to feel like they have ownership,” he said. “That takes one or two years. If the board starts to struggle and doesn’t work together, that’s also a problem. We need to support these initiatives and stay with them, and if that comes through, (we will be a high-performing district) in three years. If not, it will be all struggles, rumors and misrepresentations, and it will take longer.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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