TOPSHAM — When Mt. Ararat High School’s Class of 2011 turns its tassels this June and moves on to other endeavors, the superintendent of schools will also turn a new page.

Michael Wilhelm, superintendent of SAD 75 for two decades and former principal of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, announced his retirement on Jan. 13. The Casco resident told the SAD 75 board of directors he plans to retire June 30 at the end of his contract.

“The decision has been a difficult one,” Wilhelm said in a letter to the board. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in SAD 75 over the last 22 years. I have continually felt supported by this 14-member board that has always been able to cut through the ‘sound and fury’ to find that rational place where its true responsibility lies.”

Wilhelm said “it’s been quite a ride” the past 22 years. He was hired as assistant superintendent in 1989 and became superintendent two years later, replacing Robert Cartmill.

His longevity “could only have been because I was having such a good time, and I was,” Wilhelm said. “… I really do believe that you can’t stay in this position unless that’s the case.”

Prior to his time with SAD 75, Wilhelm was principal of Freeport High School from 1984-1989. Before that, he was a high school principal from 1980-1984 in Buckfield, where he had begun teaching in 1969.

Although he took a year off to attend law school, Wilhelm soon went back to education, a career that has spanned much of his 65 years.

“I firmly believe that the future of all of us is rooted in our education,” he said. “Education gave my life purpose — every angle that you can speak of.”

Wilhelm, who is married and has four children and three grandchildren, said he looks forward to the extra free time retirement will bring, when he can dabble in other interests, like guitar-playing and fishing.

Looking back on his tenure at the helm of SAD 75, Wilhelm recalled occasional challenges that were ultimately successful. For instance, implementation of the district’s all-day kindergarten program in the mid-1990s, which met with some resistance at first. Still, he said, “we were able to prove its value over time.”

Another major endeavor was moving the middle school students out of Mt. Ararat High School, which had housed grades seven through 12 at the start of Wilhelm’s time with the district. More than 1,300 students were attending classes in a building meant for 900, he said.

When Brunswick built a new high school and moved its students out of the old one, SAD 75 was able to lease the structure to house its seventh- and eighth-grade students. The students remained there for about six years until 2001, when Mt. Ararat Middle School opened, Wilhelm said.

That school was built on part of 42 acres the district acquired at no charge from the federal government, which was looking to get rid of that portion of the Topsham Navy Annex property. Several buildings on the property, which now also include space for the district’s administrative offices, had been vacant for a few years.

“We were able to work with (U.S. Sen.) Olympia Snowe’s office and make that transfer happen,” Wilhelm said.

The new property, which offered playing fields and vacant buildings, conveniently abuts Mt. Ararat High School, and the acquisition nearly doubled the size of the district’s campus.

With completion of the middle school came the opening of the Orion Performing Arts Center, a 900-seat venue.

Wilhelm’s tenure has also seen an addition built at the Harpswell Islands School, the renovation and connection of the Williams and Cone school buildings into one facility, and construction of a Bowdoin Central School.

A challenge the district faces is the proposed closure of West Harpswell School, which the School Board has supported in 2009 and 2010 and which Harpswell voters blocked last year. Harpswell will vote again on the matter on Feb. 1.

Wilhelm has said that moving West Harpswell School students to the larger Harpswell Islands School, as well as other reorganization strategies, would provide all SAD 75 students equal access to educational resources.

Wilhelm, who was named Maine State Superintendent of the Year in 2003 and earned his Doctor of Education degree in 1996, also praised the district’s work in promoting student and staff wellness.

The process to find a new superintendent will likely begin soon, and its start is up to the School Board, Wilhelm said. At last week’s meeting, though, members were thinking more about the superintendent, they would be losing than about his replacement.

School Board member Joanne Rogers said Wilhelm has been “one of the most ethical people I have ever worked with, and his responsibility to this district has not ceased in any of the 22 years that he’s been here.”

Board member Dorothy Gardner called Wilhelm a good leader for the district.

“He’s spent many, many long hours guiding and directing us in the right direction, doing what we need to do for the benefit of our students, as well as staff,” she said.

Wilhelm, who received a standing ovation, said in his letter that he is convinced that SAD 75’s focus on “literacy, data-driven decision-making, professional collaboration, and student and staff wellness is the path that will lead to greater success for all students. We are already seeing the results.”

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