Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster takes a break Tuesday afternoon from meetings at the Dingley Building. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — The Lewiston High School Class of 2019 will be the last to receive its diplomas from Superintendent Bill Webster, who has announced he will retire in a year.
In a letter Tuesday to School Committee Chairman Francis Gagnon, Webster said his resignation is effective June 30, 2019. He is giving a year’s notice so the board has time to conduct a search for a new superintendent.
Webster said he has been “blessed” with living in Lewiston and being the superintendent.
“The quality of committed educators and community members helps ensure that our schools and community will continue to strengthen in the years ahead,” he said.
Webster was hired by the Lewiston School Committee in November 2010, replacing retiring Leon Levesque.
Webster, 68, said his age is part of his reason for retiring.
Webster said when he retires next year, “I’ll be in my 70th year.”
“As much as I enjoy my work and enjoy Lewiston, my colleagues and friends,” he said, “I want to make sure I do what I want to do while I’m in good health.”
School Committee Chairman Francis Gagnon shared a letter with the Sun Journal that he sent to Webster after the two met Tuesday. At that meeting, Webster told Gagnon he is retiring next year.
Gagnon said he and the School Committee members appreciate all Webster has done “toward the management and betterment of Lewiston Public Schools.”
He thanked Webster for providing ample time to conduct a search for a new superintendent.
“Lewiston Public Schools and our city has become a better community because of your efforts,” Gagnon said, “and we will miss and reflect upon your achievements for many years.”
The School Committee will hold a workshop Monday with Steve Bailey of the Maine School Management Association to start the search process for Webster’s successor.
Before coming to Lewiston, Webster was superintendent for Ellsworth-area schools. Before that, he worked as a teacher, was chief executive officer of Haven’s Candies and was an executive at Hannaford.
He said in 2010 he decided to apply for Lewiston superintendent in part because he was “excited” by the city’s growing immigrant population. Since 2010, the immigrant population has continued to grow.
His time in Lewiston and interaction with families and students from Somalia and other countries did not disappoint, he said.
“Lewiston has met and exceeded my expectations,” he said. “The city has challenges and tremendous opportunities. We have, collectively as a community, had an impact on students and increasing student success every day.”
Webster said he is most pleased with how district in recent years has increased student choice and programs, “whether it be expanding pre-K, expanding alternative education or providing more opportunity for students to succeed in classrooms.”
The school department has several new programs to help students, ranging from an alternative program for ninth-graders, to more in-house special ed programs, to a program at the Dingley Building to continue schooling of suspended students.
Webster said he is also happy with the school leadership in place. Most of Lewiston’s current batch of principals — from Jake Langlais at the high school to Jana Mates at the Lewiston Middle School — have been nominated by Webster and hired from within the school department. Also, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Chabot is the former Lewiston High School principal, and before that was principal at Lewiston Middle School.
Yesterday I announced my retirement in a year to give sufficient time for Lewiston to conduct a thorough search process for my successor. I love our city and during the coming year am committed to fulfilling the responsibilities of my position.
— Bill Webster (@LewistonSuper) June 20, 2018
Webster said he is pleased with the building improvements that have modernized schools and are meeting the needs of the growing student population.
That list of building improvements includes the new Connor Elementary School, now under construction; two expansions at McMahon Elementary; an expansion at Farwell Elementary; an expansion and renovation at Longley Elementary; and a major renovation and expansion at the Lewiston Middle School, a classic, beloved 1933 building that originally was Lewiston High School.
In recent years, Webster led two successful school building votes. The first in 2012 expanded and renovated the middle school with $9.1 million of local taxpayer money. The second in 2016 to build Connor Elementary School with state money.
And as part of the new elementary school under construction, the city is getting new athletic fields and community walking trails.
While improvements have been made, Lewiston schools continues to face challenges.
As has been the case for decades, student test scores continue to fall below the state average, as has the high school’s four-year completion rate.
Over the past five years, Webster has had to respond to school enrollment that shot up higher than experts predicted, prompting sudden needs to find more space for students and relieve crowded schools. The biggest population growth was the fall of 2015, when 270 new students showed up when school began, 170 more than expected.
Over the past two years, there have been student tragedies, including the deaths of three middle school students, the latest during a June 12 field trip to Range Pond in Poland. An investigation by the school department’s lawyer on what led up to seventh-grader Rayan Issa’s drowning is ongoing.
Webster said he decision to retire has been in the works for weeks and is unrelated to recent events.
“It’s just the right time to pursue other interests that retirement will allow me to pursue,” he said.
When he retires in 2019, Webster said he will have many projects lined up, including adding a second bathroom at his home in Georgetown. In the coming months, he and his wife, Molly, plan to prepare for their move to Georgetown.
Webster also said he looks forward to doing some writing, and is considering writing a musical about Malaga Island in a way “it would resonate with students in Lewiston and Maine.”
Between now and next year, Webster has pledged to fulfill the responsibilities of his position.
“I will do whatever asked to prepare Lewiston Public Schools for its next leader,” he said.
Bill Webster (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)