The Portland Board of Public Education voted unanimously Tuesday, Jan. 3, to appoint assistant superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend as interim co-superintendents until a new superintendent is selected later this spring. Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, currently co-principal at Deering High School, will take on the role of interim assistant superintendent for the transition.
The appointments follow the Dec. 16 resignation of Superintendent Xavier Botana, who cited district payroll issues as his reason for stepping down. The district has struggled to pay all of its more than 1,500 employees in a complete and timely way since the fall, and continues to work on a variety of issues to resolve immediate problems and strengthen its payroll system long term. Botana’s last day in office will be Jan. 13, after which time the new team will move fully into leadership.
Board Chair Sarah Lentz said the team has the right skills to lead the district during this transitional time.
“Assistant superintendents Nalli and Townsend have demonstrated tremendous leadership during their tenure with the Portland Public Schools. They are deeply embedded in the equity and academic work across the district, respected by their peers at all levels, and extremely well positioned to continue pursuing district priorities,” Lentz said. “Dr. Ahmed brings crucial skills in restorative justice and community building as well as a commitment to fostering healthy school cultures. Navigating the next six months will be an exercise in collaboration, and there will be significant challenges, but we feel the combination of skills and experience these three leaders embody will support us through this period.”
Lentz added, “For the remainder of the school year, the Board will be supporting this interim leadership team on the following priorities: Stabilizing payroll operations; beginning to rebuild trust with BIPOC communities and staff in general; and passing the 2023-2024 school budget.”
She noted that the successful completion of these initiatives will pave the way for a new superintendent. Botana had originally planned to retire at the end of this current school year, so the Board has already formed a Superintendent Search Committee to select a new superintendent to serve on a permanent basis by June 2023.
For some, Botana's departure calls into question the district’s commitment to the essential equity work that took place under his leadership, but Lentz said that work will continue.
“The Board unequivocally supports equity work in our district and will continue to endorse it at every level,” Lentz said. “The work of making our schools more equitable was never the work of one person. It continues to be work that all of us must play a part in advancing.”
Nalli and Townsend also said they plan to continue the work Botana initiated through the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. The interim co-superintendents issued the following joint statement:
“In full transparency, we both accept this interim appointment with mixed feelings but with full hearts and total commitment to our community and to our colleagues. This is an especially challenging moment for our district and we are all experiencing the strain in different ways.
As we step into this interim role, we do so with a commitment to say what we mean and mean what we say, to consistently ask ourselves and each other if our shared decisions are in the best interest of our students, to seek out diverse perspectives and opinions, especially those that are different than our own, and to operate with cultural humility.
We also are proud to appoint Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed as Interim Assistant Superintendent. Dr Ahmed will provide leadership around our middle school work and community engagement in addition to maintaining some responsibilities and presence at Deering.
We are grateful to have worked under the leadership of superintendent Botana and remain committed to following through on his vision and our shared Portland Promise.”
Melea Nalli joined the Portland Public Schools in the summer of 2016 as a consultant supporting the development of the Portland Promise in partnership with Botana. She became Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning once the plan was formally adopted. That role involves overseeing curriculum, instruction and assessment; behavioral and mental health; diversity, equity and inclusion; student support services; language development; ESSA grant programming; public PreK; and summer school.
Nalli started her career in education in the late 1990s after graduating from Bowdoin College with a double major in Africana studies and sociology. Her studies and her experience growing up in the Minneapolis Public Schools compelled her to pursue a career in social justice and in public education specifically. She joined Teach For America and taught special education in a small border town in Texas, where she was named the district teacher of the year. She went on to hold a variety of other teaching and teacher coaching positions and spent over a decade working in education reform nonprofits that partner with urban and rural school districts focused on educational equity. Prior to joining the Portland Public Schools, she served as the chief operating officer for The Achievement Network, where she led the national network teams to coach school and district leaders around data-driven instruction. Melea, who has two children in the Portland Public Schools, holds a master’s in education leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Aaron Townsend, an innovative educator with more than 20 years of educational experience as a teacher, school leader and system leader in Maine and California, joined the Portland Public Schools in 2019 as Assistant Superintendent of School Management. He has worked directly with school leaders to deepen the district’s instructional vision and sustain safe and welcoming school communities as everyone works towards graduating every Portland student prepared and empowered.
Townsend began his educational career in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan, as an English teacher and program outreach program director. He returned to Maine, and in 1999 began working as a social studies teacher for Auburn Middle School, where he had previously been a student, and then became a service learning coordinator for the Auburn schools. Aaron joined the Oakland (California) Unified School District in 2002 as a lead teacher and went on to become a school and district leader who led innovative school improvement initiatives. He was the founding principal of the Oakland Unified district’s Coliseum College Prep Academy and led that school’s transformation from a low-performing middle school into one of the top secondary schools in the city. He then led the transformation of four district middle schools through the district’s Office of School Transformation. Townsend next joined the district’s human resources division, becoming the Deputy Chief of Talent Management and helping to transform the department into a Talent Development Division to find, keep and grow extraordinary educators for district students and families.
In 2016, Townsend became a senior consultant for the High School Redesign Initiative of California-based Pivot Learning, leveraging his varied experiences to support school transformation across California and Massachusetts. He returned to Maine and joined the nonprofit Great Schools Partnership in 2018, where he was a senior associate before joining the Portland Public Schools. Aaron graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Education Policy and holds a masters in school leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed has served as co-principal of Deering High School since 2020, after holding the role of acting co-principal for the previous year. He joined the Portland Public Schools in 2001 and his previous experience includes being a language facilitator, educational technician and teaching physics and chemistry at Portland High School and science at Lyman Moore Middle School. He later joined the Deering faculty, teaching physical science and Arabic. In 2013, he became the first certified public school teacher of Arabic Language in Maine. In 2015, he became assistant principal at Deering.
Dr. Ahmed holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Maine. His dissertation research focused on refugee parental involvement in schools. He holds a master’s of science degree in education from the University of Southern Maine, and earned his teacher certification through USM’s Extended Teacher Education Program (ETEP). He also holds a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from Pakistan. Dr. Ahmed was born and raised in Somalia and speaks Somali, Arabic, English, and Urdu.
To learn more about this transition, view the letter that Chair Lentz sent to staff and the community today, prior to the Board’s meeting.
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 51 percent of the district’s students are white and 49 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.