Superintendent search down to two candidates

BAR HARBOR — A school superintendent in Aroostook County and an education administrator and consultant in the Caribbean are the finalists for the job of superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS). One of two, however, was fired from a principal’s job in New York City five years ago following alleged lapses in judgment.

Michael Hammer

Michael Hammer

Charlie Wray, chairman of the superintendent search committee, announced Tuesday that Michael Hammer, interim superintendent of RSU 50, which includes schools in Dyer Brook and Stacyville, is one of the finalists.

The other is Jose Maldonado-Rivera, who is founder and head of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet school in the Dominican Republic.

Maldonado-Rivera was founding principal and associate scientist at the Columbia School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York starting in 2006. In 2009, he won the Blackboard Award as New York’s outstanding public school principal.

The New York Times reported in November 2010 that he had been fired “after an investigation found he had used a school employee, with whom he later became romantically involved, as a babysitter and allowed her to live rent-free in his apartment.”

He was already on probation in connection with the accidental drowning of a sixth-grade student during a field trip the previous June.

According to the Times story, “An investigation found that officials at the school did a poor job planning the trip – there were no lifeguards at the beach and [the student] could not swim – and failed to obtain the required parental consent forms.”

Wray said Tuesday that Maldonado-Rivera, in his application for the superintendent’s job here, revealed that he had been dismissed from the principal’s job in New York.

Jose Maldonado-Rivera with his children

Jose Maldonado-Rivera with his children

Wray said members of the search committee have spoken with several people who are familiar with Maldonado-Rivera and his work, in addition to the references the applicant provided, and that they gave him high marks.

“And we have talked extensively with Jose about it,” Wray said. “Our feeling is he is still a very capable candidate.

“He acknowledged that he made a mistake earlier in his career, and we felt that because of his strength as a candidate, he was still very attractive to us.”

Wray said that, according to some of Maldonado-Rivera’s references, there is more to the story of his dismissal than the Times reported. The Times story did say that Maldonado-Rivera had many supporters and that some felt his firing was unwarranted. But the newspaper also said that some teachers and parents described him as “mercurial, unfair and unyielding.”

Maldonado-Rivera has a doctorate in science education from the Teacher’s College of Columbia University and a master’s degree in evolutionary ecology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He also is a school reform, accreditation and turnaround consultant to the Puerto Rican Department of Education and the Dominican Republic’s Ministries of Education and Environment.

In 2011-2012, he served as “turnaround headmaster” at St. Constantine’s International School in Arusha, Tanzania.

He began his career in education as a public school biology teacher in Puerto Rico in 1987.

Maldonado-Rivera, 54, was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is married and has three children.

In an email to the Islander, Maldonado-Rivera said he is interested in the superintendent’s job for a number of reasons.

“First, I like the human scale of the district, its diverse school geography [the fact that some schools are on outer islands], its obviously talented and committed teachers and support staff, and that it is already a strong and thriving school system,” he wrote.

He said he spent many hours looking at the schools’ websites and Facebook pages and “peered deeply into the soul of the schools.”

Maldonado-Rivera said his first love is teaching.

“I still love the thrill of seeing young minds click and the wonder and excitement that comes with learning,” he said. “I think this is important because I see my primary responsibility as a school leader to motivate, inspire and provide all the support necessary for every teacher to be great.

“I’m analytical and mathematically minded, so I am good at solving problems, looking at budgets, crunching data and making decisions with them.”

Maldonado-Rivera said he and his family are looking for a place to settle that is “multidimensional” and offers a high quality of life.

“We’ve been running around adventure after adventure. … It’s time for us to grow with a place, see our kids develop as part of a community and garner the longer term bonds of relationships and savor the fruits of one’s good work.”

The other finalist, Hammer, 47, grew up in Damariscotta. He is married and has two daughters, both of whom are students at Ellsworth High School.

He currently has a one-year appointment as interim superintendent of RSU 50.

From 2011-2015, he was superintendent of RSU 29, which includes schools in Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello.

Hammer was principal at Hancock Grammar School from 2003-2011. Prior to that, he served as principal at Winter Harbor Grammar School and as assistant principal at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School. He also was a teacher in Trenton and Lamoine.

He holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Maine.

Hammer told the Islander on Tuesday that he is interested in the superintendent’s job because the MDI Regional School System is “a premier school district” that has high expectations for staff and students.

“They offer a tremendous amount of opportunities to students … and are able to lead initiatives they feel strongly about,” he said. “The communities rally around their students and are very supportive of their schools.”

Asked about his strengths as an education administrator, Hammer said he has the ability to establish collaborative relationships with a wide variety of people.

“I’m action oriented, make decisions based on what is best for students, am visible in the schools and have an open door policy on communication,” he said.

Hammer said he understands from experience how small schools work, and he understands “the concepts of island independence and local control.”

Wray said Maldonado-Rivera is scheduled to visit several schools in the district and meet with faculty, staff and board members March 17 and 18.

He said Maldonado-Rivera probably would talk about the issue of his firing from the principal’s job in New York during those meetings.

“He’s ready to address it; he’s quite frank about it,” Wray said.

Apparently referring to that, Maldonado-Rivera said in his email to the Islander, “I have made mistakes, and I have matured and learned from them. I have been humbled and been tested by the storm.”

Hammer is scheduled to visit the schools March 21 and 22.

After that, the search committee is expected to recommend that the school system board offer the superintendent’s job to one of the two candidates.

Six people applied for the job, and the search committee conducted second interviews with three of them. Wray said the committee feels it has selected two very strong – albeit very different – finalists for the job.

“One has very solid experience as a superintendent in Maine and understands the local education landscape,” he said of Hammer. “He’s a great candidate.”

As for Maldonado-Rivera, Wray said, “He has had experience all over the world and has fairly impressive academic credentials. He has worked successfully in a huge number of cultures and has great vision about education.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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