A Portland firefighter and a social worker are competing in the Nov. 3 election to represent District 4 on the School Board, where Timothy Atkinson is not seeking re-election.
Firefighter Chris Vail ran for mayor in 2011 and currently serves on the executive board of the Portland Fire Department Union Local 740.
Social worker Aura Russell-Bedder is making her first run for elected office. She campaigned for the $64 million school bond passed three years ago, which will fund upcoming renovations at four city elementary schools.
Vail said in addition to his volunteer experience, which also includes serving on the board of the Peaks Island Trefethen-Evergreen Improvement Association for nine years, he thinks being a “people person” and good communicator would make him a good fit on the School Board.
Russell-Bedder said as a parent of children in the public school system she has experience attending many “hours-long” meetings for several years. She said that will serve her well if she is elected.
Vail and Russell-Bedder disagree on an issue that divided the board this summer, its decision to end the school resource officer program in the Portland Public Schools.
District 4 includes the city’s East Deering and Back Cove neighborhoods.
Russell-Bedder is familiar with working with people in crisis and said she thinks many families are in “get-by mode” now as they cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
She said officials did a “good solid job” instituting a hybrid model for reopening the schools while being faced with an “unprecedented crisis.” The pandemic has posed “a really tough situation to meet the needs of everybody,” she said, but the focus going forward should be finding ways to test students and teachers for the virus and ways to help provide child-care options for families.
Russell-Bedder also said she believes the city’s “most vulnerable kids” should be a priority when planning the next steps, including food-insecure students, English language learners, and those with special needs.
“I think if we were having to be back to remote at some point in the winter I think those student populations need to be at the top of the list for whatever in-person supports would be offered,” she said.
She supported the decision to discontinue school resource officers, although she acknowledged many people were unhappy with the process. As the School Department works to take what she calls an “anti-racism stance,” she said she believes there will inevitably be “unpopular changes and things that are messy.”
For many minority students, she said resource officers “were not helpful,” and the schools should follow more of a “restorative justice” model to fill the gap left by officers.
“We have to hear our most vulnerable community members,” she said. “A lot of youth and staff members have spoken up about their concerns about (the SROs).”
Russell-Bedder said a “huge priority” of her campaign is school funding, which will require working collaboratively with officials at the local and state levels to ensure schools get what they need.
She also said “de-colonizing the curriculum” is necessary for the schools to make further strides in terms of equity, which should include ensuring students know “the real history” of the U.S.
She thinks diversity in staffing is key as well.
“If we’re saying our school district is a gem because of the diversity and the many languages spoken, then we also have to walk the walk and be hiring staff of color who bring great expertise and really help our students,” she said.
Although he now lives on Washington Avenue, Vail spent 30 years as a Peaks Island resident after his family moved there from Massachusetts in 1973.
His wife was a major factor in their 2003 move to the mainland.
“After one winter living with me on Peaks she said she could not do another,” he said.
A Portland firefighter since 1999, Vail said he was “strongly against” the School Board’s July decision to end the school resource officer program. He said the board executed a “whiplash to judgment” on the issue.
Vail said he believes the School Board made the decision in the context of a “national outcry,” and did not communicate enough with students before voting.
“I would love to see and work towards the officers returning to those schools,” he said.
Regarding the district’s response to the pandemic, Vail said he feels school officials are doing “the best they can” without much guidance at the city, state, or federal levels. He said long-term planning for safety should be the top priority going forward.
For instance, he would like to implement features at the “building level,” he said, to keep students safe. He cited “better air handling systems” in the schools, which were a discussion topic about the upcoming elementary school renovations.
“I think the foresight needs to be beyond the minute-to-minute or even semester-to-semester,” Vail said.
Similarly, in terms of budgeting for the schools, Vail said he is always in favor of keeping funding in classrooms, where he said the city’s “frontline education really happens.”
He believes the model of having multiple administrators at each of the city’s schools needs to be reviewed during the next school budgeting process.
“It seems like some of our dynamic is a little bit antiquated to a population that just isn’t here anymore,” he said.
Although he knows administrators are working hard, “especially during COVID,” Vail said “difficult conversations” around staffing might be necessary at some schools because it is unrealistic to expect additional state funding.
One area where he thinks the School Department has done an “excellent job” is developing diversity. He said he thinks if any school is failing in any of the areas outlined by the department’s code of ethics, the School Board should work to change the institution “from within.”
“If there’s any inequality or any gap with diversity it almost needs to be a school-to-school or a classroom-to-classroom specific conversation,” he said.