Voters will decide only one school board contest on Nov. 8. Two at-large seats are unopposed, filled by two board members who were elected in June to unexpired terms. The District 3 seat, currently occupied by the board’s Vice-Chair Adam Burk, has two additional candidates running.
All three candidates shared their thoughts on both Portland Public Schools’ short- and long-term future, including alignment of the district’s high schools and Charter Commission Question 5, which would remove city council oversight of the school budget process.
Burk, 42, is a Nason’s Corner resident, with two children in PPS elementary schools. Burk, who uses they/them pronouns, has a Master’s in Education and taught at the private high school Waynflete, and works as a director at the Peter Alfond Foundation, a philanthropic trust.
In Burk’s view, recent discussions about school alignment shouldn’t be just limited to the high schools. Taking a wider look at a variety of teaching models should be the routine, they said.
“People were talking about how Casco Bay High School is the bee’s knees in terms of outcomes,” Burk said. “Why aren’t we making [the Casco Bay model] more accessible [to other schools]?”
Burk doesn’t like the narrative of “returning to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it “unrealistic and unhelpful” and that it puts more pressure on students and teachers.
Instead, Burk said it’s important for the district to encourage finding a reconnection and motivation for learning again, as well as offering support that acknowledges how different things are.
Burk advocated in favor of Question 5, which would remove the city council’s authority over the school budget — although it’s “not a hill I would die on.” Collaboration with the city council has to happen, Burk said, but the current process creates an unhealthy dynamic.
“If you remove that [dynamic], we can have the productive parts of the collaboration between these two elected bodies that are collectively trying to help Portland be the best that it can, without that weird power imbalance,” Burk said.
Opperman, 68, was a science teacher of more than 40 years, running the science department at Cumberland’s Greely High School. She has a doctorate in Public Policy with a concentration in Educational Policy from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School — and believes it’s time to get a longtime teacher back on the school board.
In her opinion, the school board has spent a lot of time on topics that don’t make a difference — like recent changes to high school enrollment, for example. But she believes that alignment of Portland and Deering High Schools should happen in the future, citing the availability of quality courses and similar scheduling.
Opperman said the district needs to rethink its approach to academics following the pandemic, even for students that may not have fallen behind. Kids “in the middle” need attention as well, she said, so that those who aren’t in advanced-track programs and those without specific learning challenges don’t get overlooked.
“How can we make it so the students are getting quality learning time so that they don’t feel pressured to learn?” she said. “So that they can experience the joy in learning?”
Opperman thinks Charter Commission Question 5, which would allow annual school board budget proposals to bypass city council and go straight to a public vote, misses the mark. She worries it could potentially lead to voter or taxpayer backlash aimed at the school district. Opperman also took issue with the fact that school budget money (approximately $50,000, according to Superintendent Xavier Botana) was used toward exploring the political and legal ramifications of Question 5 rather than on something that directly impacts students.
“School dollars will always be limited no matter how the budget is approved. Policy must be made to impact the learning first and foremost,” Opperman added.
Running for the school board for the second time, Sam Rosenthal, 69, graduated from Portland High School in 1971. He believes his engineering background — including a graduate’s degree in Applied Mathematics from Northeastern University — would inform his analytical and data-driven approach should he be elected to the school board.
Rosenthal wants to reverse the flow of how the board’s processes work. Rather than have board members “push rules down” on the teachers, he’d want to meet with teachers and learn what issues they want to focus on, and let that dictate policy.
“They’re the people that are in the trenches of the battle of public education,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal emphasizes test scores as a primary measure of achievement, and sees them as one of the district’s major problems. He said Portland schools haven’t met the achievement goals of the Portland Promise, a comprehensive 2017 plan for student learning driven by Superintendent Xavier Botana. Rosenthal questioned the district’s focus on expanding equity measures for students, arguing that equity should be achieved through providing each student a good education, thus setting them up for a “bright economic future.”
“If you want to achieve equity, to me, this is how you do it: empowering the students by giving them a good education,” he said.
Rosenthal isn’t in favor of Question 5 because he’s concerned about the School Board “routinely increasing the budget.” Without council oversight, he worries the budget increases may continue to rise — and expressed concern that budget changes haven’t contributed to improvement in academics.
“Test scores are going down, yet they’re pushing more students out — they’re graduating higher percentages — to me, as a mathematician, there’s a disconnect there,” he said.