There have been three vacancies on the Portland School Board since last fall, leaving it with only six members to deal with drafting a budget, managing the challenges of COVID-19, and most recently, protests organized by middle school students – not to mention the more mundane aspects of establishing policies for the Portland Public Schools.
Several of the dozen candidates competing for the open seats have been critical of the board’s level of communication and its receptiveness to different viewpoints.
The election on Tuesday, June 14, will be decided by ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank the candidates by order of preference, choosing only one candidate per rank. Voters can also select only a first-choice candidate, which won’t spoil their ballot.
For the at-large election, where two seats are available, voters should still not select more than one candidate as their first choice, because ballots that have more than one candidate marked as a first choice can’t be counted.
Seven candidates are running for the two vacant at-large seats. Both are for six-month terms, with the opportunity for reelection in November.
The winners will complete the unexpired terms of former board members Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez, who were elected to the City Council last November.
• Stephanie Albert, 37, said she’s running because of the value and importance of the School Board’s guidance. As an attorney for more than 10 years, she said she has the skills necessary to listen well and advocate for others.
She also said she’s a parent of two children just starting out in the public schools, which makes her “committed to making it the best it can be.”
Albert said she feels the board has done very well with limited resources, but transparency about how its decisions are implemented may be lacking; she hopes to do a better job keeping parents informed.
Although she hopes to see the schools provide additional outdoor learning opportunities and implement early language learning, she said she is running without a specific agenda.
“I think my flexibility stems from the fact that I’m not a politician,” Albert said. “This campaign is important to me because I am a parent and a Portlander, not because I have political aspirations.”
She said she feels the board has become increasingly politicized and hopes that the community can view it as a “functional, fairly apolitical workhorse, and not a springboard for future office.”
• Benjamin Grant, 44, is a lawyer with significant political experience: He is a former chair of the Maine Democratic Party, lost in the Democratic primary in House District 41 two years ago, and ran unsuccessfully for the Portland Charter Commission last year.
This time, he said, he’s running because of his passion for Portland schools. He has two daughters in the schools and hopes to continue the School Department’s progress and ensure that the investments being made in the district are working.
Grant said he is particularly interested in the future of the city’s high schools after a recent proposal to combine them was denied funding by the Maine Department of Education. He said he understands there will be people with strong opinions about making changes, but hopes to make it a community conversation.
“As this emerges, it’s my goal to really ask the people of Portland what they want out of their high schools, and do we have an opportunity to do better than we are now,” Grant said.
He also said the schools have to deal with declining enrollment, which has an impact on funding, but hasn’t seen any proactive steps proposed to tackle the problem.
“I don’t think we should sit back as leaders and assume this is just the natural way of things,” Grant said. “There has to be something we can do to convince people to either stay in Portland schools or to come here.”
• In 2020, Stacey Hang said, the School Board’s conversations about removing school resource officers sparked her decision to run for the board. Hang received the most votes in the first round of balloting, but lost as a result of the ranked-choice tabulation.
“I was very naive to what a school board really did, I never really paid attention to it too much,” she admitted, but realized the board was a bit different from what she expected.
Hang, 46, said she decided to run again this year because the board needs more diversity.
“Our city is so diverse, and there’s so many different people living in it, that I feel education is best served when you have different perspectives being brought in,” she said.
Hang, who taught for 10 years before becoming a pediatric nurse, said her experience led her to believe she would’ve responded to the pandemic differently than other board members. She said she found it disheartening that students in 10th-12th grades didn’t have a hybrid learning option and missed out academically as a result.
“I would’ve wanted more information as to really why that had to happen,” Hang said, “because I worked in a high school and they made it work.”
If she is elected, Hang said she also hopes to dive into the mental health support systems available to students.
• With a 20-year background in equity and inclusion at places like the Maine Philanthropy Center and Learningworks, Sarah Lentz said she wants to join the School Board not to change course, but to ensure progress continues.
“I’m not coming in to change a bunch of things, but to steward the work forward,” she said.
Lentz, 40, said she sees herself as a “fierce advocate” for underrepresented communities and wants to ensure students of color can be heard and their voices amplified.
She said the recent protests at Lyman Moore and Lincoln middle schools suggested there are differences between policies and practice in the schools, and while PPS does have assets and policies in place for victims of any form of discrimination, it seems few people know how to use them.
There is more to learn about what happened before a path forward becomes clear, Lentz said, but “(I) don’t ever want a student in the PPS to feel like they aren’t represented or they don’t have a vision of themselves in the way that they’re learning.”
The protests are evidence that students experience discrimination, she said, which is where the education piece comes in, with students deserving the full truth when it comes to their academics.
“Being able to teach them to understand how to navigate it and how to change it is just so important,” she said.
• Kimberly Mancini, 50, said she hasn’t been happy with what she sees as the board’s singular viewpoint.
From her own experience and discussions with other parents, she said, there have been times when certain ideas could have been brought to the table, but they’ve been too easily dismissed.
“I don’t like that way of doing things,” Mancini said. “I like to hear what people have to say and listen to their different ideas, politics aside. I don’t think that belongs on the board at all.”
Mancini volunteered with the PTA at Lyseth Elementary School when her son was there and said she is confident she can work well with anybody and help facilitate conversations.
She said her son now attends one of the middle schools where the recent protests were held, and her conversations with other parents have made her concerned about an uptick in bullying at those schools.
More transparency from the superintendent’s office and even the School Board wouldn’t have hurt, Mancini said: “I thought that was a tremendous compromise in giving the students a chance to have their voices heard. I think what happened after that – things fell apart.”
Mancini also said she hopes to see the implementation of mentoring programs and mental health support groups for students and staff.
• Amber Schertz, 41, is the mother of two children in Portland elementary schools. She said she is concerned about a lack of clarity from the School Board and believes she can help make improvements.
Shertz’s background is in product and project management where she had to listen to and confer with stakeholders, and she believes her communication skills will be useful as a board member.
“It’s nearly impossible for anyone to spend six plus hours a month sitting in on the (board) discussions just to understand what is coming up and what the plan is,” Schertz said.
She said she feels like her questions to the board have often been left unanswered, or she has been told they wouldn’t be discussed. “(That) to me, is not a way of serving a community,” she said.
Schertz said she knows the board has been dealing with a lot, including the recent protests and the pandemic, but education must come first.
“It hasn’t been clear to me … what their recovery plan is going to be, and I still don’t think there is one,” Schertz said.
She said she wants to see more communication regarding how students will get caught up on the learning they’ve lost in the pandemic, and a plan to address behavioral and mental health issues.
• Richard Ward, 27, is a graduate of Rockland High School (now Oceanside), and said he knows what it’s like to need extra support from a schooling standpoint as an autistic student and adult. He said he doesn’t want any students to fall through the cracks and that their individual needs should be met.
Ward said his priorities for the board include more work to fight food insecurity among students, and partnering with local food banks to do so, as well as representing single parents and others whose voices often aren’t heard.
Ward, who is endorsed by the Christian Civic League of Maine and has publicly supported anti-abortion protests on his social media accounts, said he feels he’d be able to get along with other School Board members and believes most would agree with his core principles. He said he views himself as not left or right, but as a “classical liberal.”
The School Department recently began reexamining its policies about teaching divisive concepts, and while Ward said he’s against banning books, he doesn’t agree with teaching young students about racism or discrimination.
“I just don’t necessarily agree with teaching (divisive concepts). I believe in teaching ‘this is what makes us great,’” he said. “Everyone’s got their history and let’s be proud of it.”
Five candidates are in the race for the two-year term representing District 5, which has been vacant since former board member Jeffrey Irish resigned last October citing divisiveness on the School Board.
The district includes both Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools, where student protests to publicize claims of discrimination were held on May 13.
• Sarah Brydon’s twin first-graders attend Talbot Elementary School. She said she decided to run while helping them navigate school during the pandemic.
“I found myself thinking, ‘what can I do as one person?’” said Brydon, 43, who is a board member of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools and has raised money for school programs that often don’t make it into the school budget. She said this experience gives her insight into looking at future budgets and being strategic about how finite resources are spent.
She said she looks forward to working collectively with other board members. “I want to ensure we maintain the ability to disagree respectfully,” Brydon said. “It’s really important to retain our ability to have those (difficult) conversations.”
When she was in high school at Deering, Brydon said the marching band was a large part of her life while she was a student at Deering High School, and it’s an experience she hopes to restore.
“There are so many things that would be lovely to do. That would be one to consider,” she said, because of the soft skills and life lessons it taught her.
• Elizabeth Capone-Newton, 40, uses her time as a volunteer basketball coach as a metaphor for her School Board philosophy. The board has a facilitative role, she said, as a coach does, and looks out for its players – the students and their families.
But she said she can’t be a good coach without listening to the players, so she feels the board needs to emphasize communication with students and families and listen to them to help them help themselves.
Capone-Newton has two children in the school system, and her partner is an educational technician at Deering High School. She has worked in public health and for school and youth programs, which is where she said she gets her desire to listen to stakeholders.
Because it can be difficult for busy parents and families to keep up with the School Board, Capone-Newton said “we can’t expect people … to come to us – that’s unreasonable. It’s our responsibility to go to people and make it super easy for them.”
Parents and students hold the answers, Capone-Newton said, and they won’t be properly served unless board members make connections with them. She referenced the family council model at Presumpscot Elementary School as the best way PPS engages parents.
Even if it might be difficult to implement, she said, the School Department could at least experiment with it in other schools.
• Barbara Goglin, 59, has lived in Maine for 12 years and has three adult children. She said her decision to run came after she spoke with people who were frustrated and decided they needed a voice.
Goglin admitted she’s relatively uninformed about School Board matters, but has been listening to others about what issues seem to be the most pressing.
“I’ll be asking the questions the people in the neighborhood need to know,” she said. “I’m there to learn and facilitate.”
Goglin said her strengths include that she’s not aligned politically in this race and believes picking sides shouldn’t interfere with progressing toward a goal. That she doesn’t have any children in the public schools is another strength, she said, because it allows her to be objective in making decisions.
Looking ahead to what faces the board in the next two years, she noted the replacement of Superintendent Xavier Botana, who is leaving the job in 2024. She said she hopes the board will focus on the academic success of superintendent candidates’ previous schools.
• As someone critical of the School Board in the past, Josh Haefele, 45, said he wanted to give the election a shot.
“I don’t have any experience or grand ideas of a political career,” Haefele said. “I’m just a parent that’s trying to get involved.”
Haefele said he feels the School Board has become more of a “political position for future endeavors,” and he said he and other candidates he’s supporting share a similar dedication, “to the core of what a school board should be there for, the students and the faculty.”
He said he supports more funding for English language learners and there should be more of a focus on preparing students for life outside of school, including more incorporation of trades and home economics in the middle schools.
Haefele said he hopes that he and sitting board members could set aside their disagreements and work together. “There may be members of the School Board that don’t want me on it,” he said. “I’m sure of that.”
• Lou Anne Viola, 49, is the parent of three children in public schools. She said she’s running for the District 5 position because the School Board lacks different perspectives.
“That is the reason why I’m running, to hopefully offer some different perspectives, not to cause trouble, but so we can look at things in many different ways,” Viola said.
She said she feels people have a lot to say but are afraid to speak out because of how they may be perceived. She said she’s not afraid to speak her mind, especially if she’s doing so on behalf of members of the community.
Viola, who has a son at Lyman Moore, said the protests last month weren’t handled appropriately by school administrators, including the leeway students received.
“You can’t expect them to behave in an adult manner, with such a big issue when they aren’t adults. They’re kids,” Viola said. She added that their feelings are valid, and their topics of concern need to be discussed, including all forms of bullying.
Viola said she hopes to implement more social and emotional learning, especially in light of the pandemic, and argued that the board is still in a reactive phase when it comes to COVID-19.
She acknowledged that everyone is going through it for the first time, but said “let’s keep looking out and figuring out what’s going to happen in the future.”