The Universal Notebook: Ken Murphy remade Yarmouth schools

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As a former member of the Yarmouth School Committee (1995-2001), I received an email Sunday evening informing me that Dr. Ken Murphy, superintendent of Yarmouth schools from 1982 to 2009, had suffered a fatal stroke.

Ken and I butted heads on several occasions over the years, primarily because he was a meticulous and methodical man and I wasn’t. Still, I liked him personally and admired him greatly as an educational leader.

Edgar Allen BeemOne could, in fact, make the case that Ken Murphy remade the Yarmouth school system, creating the high-performing system it is today. Of course, he did so in collaboration with the faculty, staff, students, community and school committee. But Ken was the guy with the vision.

The Yarmouth school system grew and improved in part because voters easily approved annual budget increases, which during my six years amounted to about $500,000 a year. We were always able to make the case for expenses because Ken Murphy adamantly refused to pad the budget with nice-to-have items that could be eliminated to appease the town council. If it was in the school budget, it was needed.

Because Yarmouth schools had low administrative overhead and achieved outstanding educational results, when school consolidation was all the rage and the state was forcing other municipalities to merge systems, Ken led the effort to exempt Yarmouth from consolidation, which, by the way, rarely delivers any savings.

In 2001, the day I left the school committee, Yarmouth voters passed a $20 million bond issue that renovated and rebuilt the schools for the 21st century. Ken and the school committee led the effort to educate the community and secure approval.

Jane Gildart led the successful school bond campaign and served as chair of the school committee while I was on it.

“Ken Murphy taught me so many things,” Jane wrote in response to the news of Ken’s passing. “The most valuable thing he taught me as a thinker: when positing or evaluating a policy idea, always play it out first to see the ways it can go wrong. It’s guided my thinking on so many levels for nearly 30 years and I hope I taught it to my children.”

Another way Ken Murphy helped remake the Yarmouth school system included redesigning both the curriculum and assessment system K-12. When the state rolled out its Learning Results, Yarmouth was essentially already there.

He also directed the adoption of a new teacher evaluation system and made sure Yarmouth used a win-win approach to contract negotiations. And he persuaded the faculty and the community to accept a slightly longer school day and school year so that Yarmouth kids received more education time.

David Hill, who served with me on the school committee, wrote, “Ken’s legacy will live on in so many ways.” 

“When the Town of Chebeague Island was in the process of seceding from Cumberland, we interviewed the two school systems to decide with whom to affiliate,” Dave offers by way of example. “Cumberland was all about the financial arrangements while Yarmouth, led by Ken, was all about education and learning.  Our choice was simple.”  

“Ken taught me to ask, ‘what problem are we trying to solve?’” continued Dave. “A simple yet defining question that often led to the answer, ‘I don’t know!’ That saved a lot of wasted time.” 

In notifying the staff of Ken Murphy’s death, Yarmouth superintendent Andrew Dolloff observed, “Ken was a visionary leader who continued and furthered a reputation of excellence in the Yarmouth Schools during his decades of service in the district. Beyond Yarmouth, he impacted the lives of many educators and students through his teaching at the University of Southern Maine. Ken hired many of our veteran staff members, and I am certain his impact continues to be felt today, 14 years after his retirement.”

Well done, Dr. Murphy. Well done.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

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