During one of the most unorthodox school years Portland Public Schools have ever seen, the School Board’s three newest members said they are ready to tackle the district’s issues head-on.
Yusuf Yusuf, a 40-year-old caseworker, will replace Mark Balfantz as an at-large representative. Yusuf defeated candidates Stacey Hang and Nyalat Biliew for the seat, in a race that hinged on ranked-choice voting to declare a winner Nov. 3.
According to the city’s official election results, Yusuf initially received 38.98 percent of the vote, with Hang taking 37.12 percent. After round 2, Yusuf ended up with 55.75 percent of the vote over Hang’s 44.25 percent.
In District 4, social worker Aura Russell-Bedder defeated firefighter Chris Vail for the seat being vacated by Timothy Atkinson. Jeff Irish defeated Anthony Emerson for the District 5 seat being vacated by Marnie Morrione.
Yusuf, Russell-Bedder, and Irish said ensuring students receive proper educational resources during COVID-19 and promoting equity in schools will be their first priority as members of the board.
With COVID-19 cases spiking higher than they have ever been in Maine, Irish said he is no longer sure his campaign pledge to get city high school students back to in-person learning soon is advisable.
He has heard rumors, he said, that the district could return to all-remote learning if cases continue to rise, and in light of the surge he thinks that is “probably a wise move.”
“Do I want the kids back in school? Yes, but I think it’s wise to be read in with a little more specificity with what’s going on in the schools before I jump to any conclusions,” he said last week.
Regarding the potential for the ballot initiatives approved Nov. 3 to indirectly impact school matters, such as the parameters for planned elementary school renovations, Irish said he thinks it is “definitely going to affect contractors” who may otherwise have submitted proposals for the project.
“It’s already been a delayed roll out as it is, both financially and time-wise, so adding another barrier to that is definitely going to be problematic,” he said.
According to materials for the Nov. 10 School Board meeting, passage of the Green New Deal referendum question will likely impact aspects of the project’s construction and design because it sets specific wage and training requirements for workers, and requires the project to meet specific energy codes.
As a candidate who was against the board’s recent removal of school resource officers from the district, Irish said his objective as a new board member is not to “come in there stomping (his) feet and changing things,” and acknowledged the issue has already been addressed.
“My intention isn’t to come back there and put it back on the table at least in the near term,” he said.
Russell-Bedder said she is committed to educating herself on how many active cases of COVID-19 are present in the district, and what students and families need during this time.
She said the issue of COVID-19 and equity in schools intersect in some ways. For instance, the lack of resources some students and families experience in areas such as technology, she said, are more obvious during the pandemic.
Her children’s classes have not done “a lot of remote work yet,” she added, due to some children not having access to computers. A shipment of laptop computers ordered for city elementary students was backlogged until Nov. 1.
“I think for me some of the priorities are just those very basic resource needs,” Russell-Bedder said. “(And) making sure that I’m doing whatever I can to advocate for families to have what they need and also for meals and some of those basic supports.”
Like Irish, Russell-Bedder said she is concerned about the potential for the recently passed ballot questions to affect the elementary school construction, but she hopes the projects can still go forward.
Russell-Bedder said she also would like to advocate for ensuring access to public preschool for 4-year-olds in the city.
Yusuf said one of his biggest objectives as a new board member is to close the opportunity gap among students, especially for those with disabilities. His job as a caseworker, he said while running for his seat, has shown him that such students have been most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he would like to collaborate with local professionals who “already work on the ground” tackling issues of student equity, and give them his input on how he thinks efforts could be improved.
Ultimately, he said he is especially grateful for the team of volunteers who worked on his campaign, as well as elected officials and community leaders who supported and endorsed him.
He said he also hopes his victory shows local youth that public office is attainable.
“No matter how tough it is,” Yusuf said, “if you put the work in it can be reached.”