Longtime educator and Skowhegan-based Maine School Administrative District 54 superintendent Brent Colbry, 68, is retiring after 46 years in education. Colbry is at his office in Skowhegan on Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

SKOWHEGAN — After a 17-year stint in Maine School Administrative District 54, longtime Superintendent Brent Colbry is retiring, capping off 46 years in education.

Throughout his career, Colbry, 68, has worked in several school districts, including Lincoln, Millinocket and Skowhegan, all mill towns where he has faced financial challenges and overseen social change.

A special education teacher, he worked with developmentally challenged kids before they were part of public education and then welcomed them into school when the law requiring special education was passed.

He has witnessed huge changes in education driven by technology and is wrapping up his career in the midst of a global pandemic that has closed school facilities and shifted teaching online.

When Colbry began teaching, there were no state or federal guidelines on special education in public schools. Technology was in its infancy and had yet to make a significant impact on curriculum.

“Technology has been huge,” Colbry said. “I was a curriculum coordinator in my youth. Some things come around again and ideas about strategies and how to improve the learning or teaching … it’s cyclical, but the technology and how we rely on it has changed dramatically over the years.”

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, he said that his staff, along with other school staffs nationwide, have had to shift to remote learning. Many in-person meetings have been replaced with online video platforms such as Zoom. And the level of sophistication that teachers bring to curriculum development has changed.

“I am a certified elementary school and special ed teacher, and I took one class on how to teach reading,” he said. “Now, you could get a master’s degree in that. The levels of the profession and also the growth in special education and all of those kind of special needs that kids have has changed.”

But with each change and each crisis, Colbry did what he said had to be done when he was superintendent in Millinocket: “You work your way through it and make the best of what you can and with what you’ve got.”

 

MISTER SPECIAL ED

When he began his career, Colbry said he was “Mister Special Ed,” the only special ed instructor at Mattanawcook Junior High School in Lincoln. Now, in MSAD 54, more than 100 ed techs work in special education as well as others.

“The needs of kids have become more significant, and our roles as educators to address it has grown,” Colbry said.

“My original goal was to be an archaeologist,” Colbry said. “That’s certainly a ’60s kid talking. I wanted to get out of Maine and go away and become something different.”

After graduating from Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft in 1970, Colbry attended the University of Arizona for a year and a half, studying archaeology, but decided to move back to Maine and transferred to the University of Maine in Farmington. At UMF he received a bachelor’s degree in special education, which was new then, with a minor in education in 1974, later earning master’s degrees in school administration at the University of Maine.

“In the early days back in the ’60s and ’70s, public schools didn’t offer special ed programs at all,” Colbry said, “so a lot of the parents … formed their own association.”

The former National Association for Retarded Children, formed in the 1950s by parents of people with developmental disabilities and now known as Arc of the United States, was created to serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Colbry worked at one of the organization’s school facilities, the Little Red School House in Dover-Foxcroft, during his college years.

“I got to work with those kids, and later on those kids came to public school,” Colby said.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed, requiring public schools to accept federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities. Passing this meant that public schools were now required to evaluate children with disabilities and create an educational plan for them with parents.

After graduating from University of Maine in Farmington, Colbry worked at Mattanawcook Junior High from 1974 to 1984, teaching eighth grade and special education. He then went to teach at Southern Penobscot Regional Vocational School in Bangor, where he was the assistant vocational education director.

 

Brent Colbry, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 54, holds a school board meeting May 2, 2019, at Skowhegan Middle School. Colbry is retiring Tuesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

MILL TOWN LEGACY

After working in Bangor for just over a year, Colbry then went to Millinocket, where he performed a variety of roles simultaneously from 1985 to 1991: special education director, director of reading, assistant to the superintendent and curriculum coordinator.

“(Millinocket) is a small, rural community, so I had to wear all of those hats,” Colbry said. “I did that for seven years, and then I decided that I wanted to be a superintendent.”

For three years he worked at School Union 90, which served the towns of Alton, Bradley, Greenbush and Milford, but then returned to Millinocket.

“I went back up and did a nine-year stint there as a superintendent, and that also included working through a mill closure and all the trauma that went on in that community,” Colbry said.

The Great Northern Paper Company paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket were incorporated in 1901 and the community thrived during the 20th century. In early 2003, the mills announced that they would be filing for bankruptcy protection and eventually closed in 2008.

“The advantage I had was that the community knew me as I had been there seven years prior, so I knew all of the players in the community and I had the credibility with the staff, so we worked like you would through any crisis: You work your way through it and make the best of what you can and with what you’ve got.”

 

LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT THE KIDS

“The biggest satisfactions are around when you can do something really good for the kids,” Colbry said. “If all of your work behind the scenes, publicly or with the board, gets you to a place where you really make a substantive change for the kids that will last, that is the reward.”

In 2003, Colbry took on the superintendent position at MSAD54, which serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

“(MSAD54) is a very progressive district,” Colbry said. “It’s stable, has a great staff and a very supportive community that is willing to take risks. All of the things that I wanted I found here.”

“The first two or three years (in the MSAD 54 district) were really good in the sense that there wasn’t a financial crisis at that point,” Colbry said. “This felt pretty good in the sense that you could be more focused on curriculum and growing and improving the system. And then of course, the recession began.”

Having come from Millinocket where the school district had to downsize helped him navigate the recession.

Colbry said it was important to look at how to maintain core programs and essential services that were needed for students while also being responsive to taxpayers.

He has had a hand in making tough decisions, such as closing Cornville Elementary School in 2010, which was later revitalized as the Cornville Charter School.

MSAD 54 Board of Directors chairperson Lynda Quinn said that she worked in the district as a teacher when Colbry stepped in and from the beginning has had a very close-knit professional relationship with the superintendent.

“I feel confident and comfortable every time he talks about money,” Quinn said. “I know he’s going to watch every dollar. He is fair and his argument is always compelling.”

Quinn said that Colbry has a way of bringing the board together. Though there are many different people with different opinions occupying the 23 seats, he has been able to connect and engage with each member.

“He’s an incredibly intelligent man,” Quinn said. “He misses nothing. He hears things, sees things, processes quickly and misses nothing. When he came to us, our ears were perked up because he came to us from Millinocket.”

Colbry has had to help navigate the board through a mascot change and transitioning some of the high school bathroom facilities to gender-neutral options. The board is still working on selecting a new mascot. The process is set to resume in the coming weeks.

“It’s important that people can deal with those kind of issues,” Colbry said. “Some of those could end a superintendent’s run. (What has kept me here) is good people, the great administrative team and great staff.

“There is nobody on that board still sitting there that hired me. (It’s about) your leadership style, your ability to lead has to transcend. People hire the superintendent (to work for) the community and to transcend that to different groups over time and still be able to maintain the support of them … it’s been a good run.”

“At the end of the day, we all work for what is best for those kids, and that’s because of Brent,” Quinn said. “He sets the tone that it’s all about the kids.”

 

Longtime educator and Skowhegan based SAD 54 school superintendent Brent Colby, 68, is retiring after 46 years in education. Colbry packed a box of mementos while cleaning out his office Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

LONG-TIME LEGACY

At the time of his retirement, Colbry will have worked in the Skowhegan school district for 17 years. Assistant superintendent Jon Moody said that superintendents typically stay in a school district for about four years.

“To have had someone that’s been in education for 46 years, someone who has been that superintendent in one location for 17 years … we’re very fortunate,” Moody said.

When Colbry wraps up at the end of the month, Moody will be the district’s new superintendent. Messalonskee principal Mark Hatch will be joining the administrative team as assistant superintendent.

“I have been so fortunate to have had the last four years to learn from Brent,” Moody said. “I am truly blessed to call him both a mentor and a friend.”

Skowhegan Area High School principal Bruce Mochamer said that from the beginning, Colbry has been a humble and supportive leader of the district.

“He’s so calm and gentle about stuff,” Mochamer said. “He’s good to work for because he won’t micromanage, but there is an expectation there that you will get your task done. But if you get stuck, you look for his leadership, because he won’t give you the answer, but he will give you the advice to solve it.”

 

NAVIGATING THE PANDEMIC

In mid-March, MSAD 54 closed the schools and shifted to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“(The school year) is certainly not ending exactly the way I had envisioned,” Colbry said. “When you’ve done this job or have been in education as long as I have, you tend to get to the place where you pretty much have seen how things go and how they’re going to turn out. Different players and different twists, you cover the same kind of issues. You can usually predict the outcome, but you can’t with this.”

Though his last day is Tuesday, Colbry is still planning for future months, considering all options to reopen school facilities in the fall.

“No one saw this coming,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is provide some sense of normalcy for kids, parents, teachers and staff. There is a lot of anxiety, but I can’t say enough about the staff that has stepped up and responded to the situation.”

Mochamer said that because Colbry is backed by the board, navigating the last few months has been easier for the district.

“His leadership is so different,” Mochamer said. “He never wants to be in the limelight. He has gained their trust over time and he has guided them through many tough budget situations. What you see is what you get with Brent. He is a good money person and a good people person.”

“We have heard stories about him, his children and grandchildren for years,” Mochamer said. “He checks in with all of his staff and it’s not about his job; it’s because he really cares about those conversations. It’s going to be different because we’re accustomed to Brent, but him and (Moody) have worked together well as a unified team, and having those two up-front together is really nice when you’re the top leadership support in the district.”

“I will miss the nostalgia,” Quinn said. “We are pretty close to the same age and have lived during some troublesome times, so our conversations are always nostalgic.”

Raised on his father’s farm in Sangerville, Colbry, who lives in Etna with his wife, Deborah, who is also retiring after 47 years in education, said that he will be spending time working in his garden, volunteering and is also considering going into consulting.

“My dad was one of those traditional Maine people,” he said. “(He did) wood working, carpentry, he was a farmer, all of that stuff. And it served me well.”

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