New Peabody superintendent hits the ground running

Ethan Forman/Staff photo Peabody schools Superintendent Cara Murtagh sits in her office across from City Hall. This is Murtagh's first year as superintendent, after six years as the assistant superintendent and 14 years as a principal and teacher in the district.

PEABODY — Two weeks into the new school year, everything is a little different for Cara Murtagh.

Though she's worked in the Peabody schools for 20 years, this is the first time Murtagh is the one in charge of more than 6,000 students and 450 teachers in the district's 10 schools.

She was chosen by the School Committee last November to become superintendent of schools this year, succeeding interim superintendent Herb Levine, who had been leading the district since 2015. Her salary is $185,000.

"We had a wonderful start," said Murtagh in a recent interview in the administration's downtown offices at 27 Lowell St., across the street from City Hall. "It really, really went off well. We have a wonderful new team." 

There are a couple of new administrators as well, including Assistant Superintendent Chris Lord, and Tom Lafleur, the district's business manager. Rounding out the team are Stephen Farrell, as human resources director; Ruth Grube, as special education director; and Lisa Connors, supervisor of transportation.

The Brown Elementary School also has a new principal, Lauren King, but all other building principals have returned for this academic year.

"Our motto this year is: 'Every student, every day,'" Murtagh said, reflecting their focus on success for every student. 

Even after serving as assistant superintendent for six years, Murtagh said it's a challenge to take over such a large school district — "and we are growing. On Sept. 4, I told the teachers we had 6,037 students, and as of today, we are well past that." 

As a new superintendent, she's getting some on-the-job training through a three-year program sponsored by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. 

"There's 41 new superintendents in the state this year, so I'm in the Superintendents Induction Program," she said. "We meet monthly. My coach meets with me on a regular basis, actually six hours a month above and beyond the meeting time with my colleagues."

A career in Peabody

A Peabody native, Murtagh has spent her entire career in her hometown.

She began studying nursing at Emmanuel College in Boston and wound up with a bachelor's degree in education studies with a concentration in history. Later she earned her master's in teaching from the same college.

In 1997, she started as a teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Peabody, then moved to the Carroll Elementary School, where she was a teacher, assistant principal and principal. She also served as principal for a year at the Center School.

Murtagh said education is in her blood. Her father, Jack Murtagh, was the principal of the former Kiley Brothers Memorial School for 37 years. He died in 2014 from lung cancer. Her uncle John Murtagh was the principal of the Burke Elementary and Higgins Middle schools.

She does not have children of her own, she said, but "I have 6,000 I have to take care of every single day ... I treat the children in this district like my own. I have to. I worry about them just like I would if they were my own."

Looking ahead, one of the big projects this year is preparing for the process to renew the high school's accreditation, beginning in the fall of 2019, with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

"We're updating all of our curriculums, we're going over all of the standards they have been put forth to us," she said. "We have teachers and teams going out to different schools to check things as we do observations. And it's that vision of the graduate that we are really focusing on, and the standards of the vision of the graduate, whether it be for college or career." 

So far, Murtagh is getting good reviews.

"I'm very excited about the future of the district with Cara being the leader of the school community," said Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who serves as chairman of the School Committee.

He described Murtagh as a hard worker. "She's going to do a terrific job for us," he said.

School Committee member Brandi Carpenter credits Murtagh with some "great people skills."

"I was extremely impressed with the way she began the school year," Carpenter said, and that includes being in close communication with the School Committee. With Murtagh, who has worked her way up through the Peabody school system, there was no "getting-to-know-you" period.

"I think we are a few years ahead with Cara," Carpenter said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.




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