Emily Figdor, new chair of the Portland Board of Education, outside Reiche Community School in the city's West End, where dissatisfaction over large class sizes led to Figdor's involvement in school affairs. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Emily Figdor never planned to run for office.

But two years after being elected to represent District 2 on the Portland Board of Education, 46-year-old Figdor now chairs the panel, succeeding at-large member Roberto Rodriguez.

In addition to her roles on the Operations Committee, Policy Legislative Committee, District Building Level Advisory Committee, and Finance Committee, Figdor has championed shifts within the schools since being elected in 2018. This past summer, for instance, she successfully advocated for the removal of resource officers from city schools.

In contrast to her recent transition to elected office, Figdor has more than 20 years of experience in the public policy sector, in Washington, D.C., and in Maine. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Stanford University and a Master of Public Health from Columbia University.

Figdor is a lead writer and senior fundraising campaign director at the political advocacy organization MoveOn.org, and spent nearly a decade working for Environment America, a network of state-based environmental advocacy organizations. While living in the nation’s capital she worked as a senior policy analyst for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, a role that involved lobbying Congress. 

Figdor also has two daughters, a fourth-grader at Reiche Community School and an eighth-grader at King Middle School, and first became involved in education issues as a parent and member of the PTO.

A tarp shields the construction underway at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

In 2015 she co-founded and directed the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools campaign, which successfully lobbied for a $64 million school bond to renovate four of Portland’s elementary schools. Voters approved the initiative in 2017.

Portland residents may also be familiar with Figdor in relation to the policy work of her ex-husband Steven Biel, who co-founded Progressive Portland, which advocates for progressive initiatives and backed former Mayor Ethan Strimling in his reelection campaign last year. The group also helped fund the campaign to renovate the elementary schools.

Figdor said she has been frustrated because her work in education is sometimes viewed through the lens of Biel’s activity, and said it is a struggle as a woman to “break free of that.”

“People would always expect that he was the one that was running the campaign to pass the bond and I was just out there talking about it,” she said. “It couldn’t have been further from the truth, but that’s the struggle that (women) face.”

It was a concern of one of Figdor’s daughters that jump-started her current work.

She said her oldest daughter “lost her love of learning” as a second-grader at Reiche, due in part to large class sizes.

Figdor responded by organizing parents and advocating for two additional teachers to be hired at Reiche and one additional instructor at Talbot Community School. They succeeded and class sizes were reduced.

The process involved appealing to the School Board and inspired Figdor to do research into the School Department. She found the city had held what she called “task force after task force” that found its elementary schools were “failing to meet educational standards,” but had not substantially invested in renovating them. 

This pushed her to lobby for the school bond, which will eventually fund extensive updates to Lyseth, Longfellow, Presumpscot, and Reiche elementary schools.

Construction started at Lyseth in June 2019, but the work on the remaining three schools has been delayed more than once due to funding concerns and most recently, the passage of the Green New Deal initiative. After voters approved the Green New Deal on Nov. 3, questions loomed about how new project standards, worker requirements, and building codes required under the resolution would affect the projects.

Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, where renovations sought by Emily Figdor and OK’d by voters in 2017 may finally begin next year. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The School Department recently learned, however, that the work at Longfellow, Reiche, and Presumpscot can go forward without project design changes because plans were submitted to the city before the initiative took effect. 

“Like any project, you’re going to face a bunch of obstacles. But these schools are going to be renovated and it’s going to be like night and day for our students and educators,” Figdor said.

After her success pushing to get the elementary school renovations funded, she said she was able to see how the School Board functioned “up close” and felt she had some professional skills she could utilize, which inspired her to run for the District 2 seat. She said she also admires Superintendent Xavier Botana and wanted to see if she could help him and his team be successful.

For people wondering if she will push a liberal agenda as School Board chair, Figdor said she has “strong views.”

“I really believe that we should live in a more fair and a more just society and I’ll fight hard for that, for a better country and a better world, and I’m not going to shy away from that because those values guide my every day,” she said. 

In the same vein, she said her biggest objective as board chair will be to focus on making Portland a more equitable school district. The School Department, she said, has “huge opportunity gaps,” which must be closed for all students to be successful.

She joined Rodriguez in proposing a resolution this year to remove the school resource officers from schools. The original resolution cited a Black Lives Matter call for police to be removed from school budgets, as well as more than one incident where black Portland residents had been killed by city police officers.

The board passed the resolution 7-2 after a seven-hour meeting on July 1, with Botana expressing his support.

Figdor said she believes there are “three central pieces” to promoting more equity in Portland’s schools: providing universal preschool with before and aftercare, decolonizing the curriculum, and fully funding the district’s plan to meet the needs of English language learners.

“It takes just an immense amount of work to dismantle racist systems and rebuild in a way that enables black and brown kids to be successful, and so that’s really where I want to put my energy,” she said.

She also said the coronavirus pandemic has made all of the schools’ challenges “more dire,” including challenges related to the school budget and equity. Budget issues especially, she said, will be “front and center” during her term as chair.

With COVID-19, Figdor said, it has become clear how important it is for students to remain in school instead of learning entirely remotely. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to keep as many of our students as possible physically in school,” she said. 

Several School Board members spoke about Figdor’s competency for the chair when they unofficially voted for her in a Nov. 17 caucus. At-large member and Finance Committee Chair Anna Trevorrow nominated Figdor, and called her a “natural leader.”

“It has become very apparent to me in the last two years working with her that she puts the collective goals of this board ahead of everything and uses that to lead,” Trevorrow said. 

At-Large member Sarah Jordan Thompson said she believes Figdor is “up for the challenge,” “does her homework,” and is engaged “deeply in the work.”

Ultimately, Figdor said she thinks it is important to have a community that values public education, and she looks forward to bringing community members into the board’s work “as much as possible.”

“I think it really strengthens our decision-making and our policy-making,” she said, “and leads us to better outcomes.”

Portland school officials are expected to proceed with renovations at Longfellow Elementary School and two others where planned work has been delayed. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

School construction projects can proceed

After a series of delays, the Portland Public Schools can send its remaining three elementary school construction projects out to bid.

Attorneys for the schools determined the Green New Deal, which voters approved Nov. 3, does not apply to projects that were already in the city’s substantive review process before the initiative went into effect Dec. 6. Site plans for Longfellow, Presumpscot, and Reiche were submitted to the Planning Board prior to that date.

School officials were previously unsure how the initiative would affect the three projects. Under the Green New Deal, new construction in Portland must adhere to the 2019 Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code, new green building requirements, and contractors must hire a percentage of workforce employees as apprentices and pay higher wages.

Although the Green New Deal doesn’t apply, Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools, said via email Dec. 4 the schools will “continue to implement” the fair contracting provisions outlined in the Green New Deal for the upcoming elementary projects. It did the same during the work on Lyseth Elementary School, where construction began in June 2019.

Additionally, according to a memo to Superintendent Xavier Botana from attorney Aga Dixon of Drummond Woodsum, Reiche Community School is further exempt from the Green New Deal because it does not qualify as a “renovation” project under city code, which defines renovation projects as work having a greater or equal cost to the existing building’s market value. Reiche’s total building cost exceeds the value of the proposed new construction.

All of the school site plans must be approved by the Planning Board before construction can begin.

The School Board was scheduled to hold a first reading Dec. 8 to authorize Botana to proceed with developing design specifications and seeking bids for the remaining three projects.

Meeting materials suggested the district’s plan is now to stagger the projects’ bidding schedule in February, March, and April of 2021, with construction beginning in June.

School Board members are scheduled to vote on the plan at their Dec. 22 meeting.

— Elizabeth Clemente