SALEM – On Aug. 8, 1996, Quenten Clark was the only person in the room during a school board meeting holding a superintendent’s certificate. Since the previous superintendent had left SAD 58, giving two-days notice, and the board needed a superintendent to conduct its meeting, Clark was hired on the spot.

He had served as the Phillips school principal for two years before the promotion. “If the board had given me the option a few months later of going back (to his old job), I’d still be principal at Phillips, but they didn’t give me that option,” he said.

He entered the superintendent position during a tumultuous time for the district.

“Ten years ago, this district was a very different place,” Clark said. “We were still recovering from huge financial cuts in the early ’90s; we’re still trying to rebuild the music program from that. And at the time there was contention with the teacher’s union, and we were in the middle of a book crisis.

“My first two years, I spent the whole time with lawyers, dealing with the book case, and there was a sexual harassment case that went on. There was a lot of strife and struggle.”

Things have changed greatly over the past 10 years, though.

“I hardly ever talk to a lawyer now,” he said.

“I think the individual schools have gotten better,” he added. “I think were able to keep a lot of the kids in school that would have dropped out before. We’re able to be more flexible in meeting the needs of the students instead of meeting the needs of the school.”

One large improvement has been the high school, Clark said, giving much of the credit to Principal Jeanne Tucker.

“We’ve turned Mt. Abram High School around,” he said. “(Tucker) has worked to make it a student-centered place. We allow kids to have internships, and we accommodate their hopes and needs more.”

Subjects like music that were once considered unnecessary in a time of large budget cuts are coming back in force. “Now we have a band marching in every town parade,” Clark said, again giving credit to a faculty member – Bea Milewski, the instrumental music teacher.

“My job is to find the money to hire the right people,” he said. “We have wonderful people in this district who love the district and love the kids.”

He added that the communities have taken more of an interest in their schools as well. “From Beulah Moore, who at 91 is still making the batons for graduation, to the local contractors donating” time and money to add lights to the playing field at the high school.

But not everything that has happened has been an improvement.

“Ten years ago, Maine was the best in the country in teaching and learning,” Clark said. “But for some reason, they decided we needed to look like everybody else.”

The state and its districts focused on developing assessments and teaching kids to pass those assessments. “The weeks the kids spend to prepare for the state tests, they are not learning new stuff. Over the course of their school career, that’s a lot,” he said.

Clark is hopeful for change.

“We really need to get back to what Maine was doing right in the early ’90s and not so much looking like the rest of the country.”

Clark has seen his own job develop over the years.

“When I first started, I labored under the illusion that I was an educator,” he said. “I finally figured out that my real job is money, law and politics. I do that so the educators can educate.”

The issues have changed, too. “I’ve gone from dealing with lawyers to dealing with corn silos,” he said.

Among Clark’s plans for the future is alternative heating sources, starting with a corn stove to heat the bus garage in Salem. A silo will soon be erected at the garage to hold an entire year’s supply of heat – 615 bushels of corn. On average the garage uses 2,100 gallons of heating oil per year, all of which will be replaced by corn at a cost equal to about 80 cents per gallon of oil. He is also considering burning woodchips to heat the high school and hopes that corn or wood pellets could be burned in the future to heat the smaller elementary schools.

For the upcoming school year, the district will require 110,000 gallons of oil at a cost of about $250,000. The installation of a silo and corn stove is costing the district less than $15,000, and Clark figures it will pay for itself in four years.

Energy costs weren’t a concern for the district 10 years ago, when it could purchase oil at 60 cents per gallon or $80,000 for an entire year, but that has changed in recent years, and Clark said SAD 58 has lost two or three teaching positions to cover the rising costs.

“The next step is to get the state of Maine to treat wood burning in schools similar to the way Vermont does by subsidizing part of the cost of conversion to burning wood chips,” he said, adding that the state could develop its knowledge about the most efficient ways to heat schools if it started with a few districts.

SAD 58 is also looking for ways to be environmentally friendly. Although no contracts have been signed, Clark has an agreement with the developers of a proposed wind farm in Redington, Maine Mountain Power, to purchase wind-powered electricity on a 10-year rate basis if the project is approved.

“Our electricity will be wind, and our heat will be from the forest, we’ll be a pretty green school district,” he said. “Although we like to say we are going yellow with the corn.”

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