In perhaps the most challenging school year in recent history, the two candidates in the District 5 election for the School Board have sharply differing views on the hybrid school format.
Candidates Andrew Emerson and Jeff Irish are vying for the seat being vacated by Marnie Morrione. District 5 includes the city’s North Deering, Deering Center, and Riverton neighborhoods.
Irish, who was born and raised in Portland, has experienced the pandemic through the lens of a parent with two children in the city’s public schools.
Emerson, a 2013 alumnus of Deering High School, who has Asperger syndrome and required additional support services after the death of his father, said he is concerned about services for students with special needs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Irish and Emerson, who share a 20-year age gap, are also on different sides when it comes to the School Board’s decision to end the school resource officer program in the Portland Public Schools.
At 25 years old, Emerson remembers his school years well and said while he would have found the hybrid model difficult as a student, he is in favor of it.
“I am supportive of the hybrid model for as long as there is not an FDA-approved (COVID-19) vaccine that is free for everyone and that is safe for children to take,” he said.
However, he also said he understands the concerns about the format, especially with regard to special needs students. He emphasized the importance of “letting parents and students choose for themselves how often they go to school in person.”
“I certainly don’t support sending kids back to overcrowded classrooms in the middle of this pandemic,” he said.
A 2020 graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Emerson works at a local supermarket and as a freelance journalist.
Although he ultimately agreed with the decision to do away with school resource officers, he said he thinks the School Board “went about it in totally the wrong way.”
As a student at Deering, he said, resource officers did not make him feel safer, and “walking by somebody with a loaded firearm” made him uncomfortable. However, he does not think the School Board gave community members enough time to express their opinions about the change.
“I think removing the SROs without co-equal in the number of social workers was a bit short-sighted,” he said, “even if I do fall kind of on the anti-SRO side.”
In the same vein, although Emerson said he understands the tax burden is “fairly high for a lot of Portlanders,” he thinks increasing school funding for support staff such as counselors and social workers would be a “net benefit” for the district in the years to come.
Emerson also said he is proud to be endorsed by the local group Equity in Portland Schools, and with 47 percent of students in Portland public schools being people of color, he thinks increased staff diversity would encourage more equity.
“I think if we had a faculty staff that reflects the diversity of our community I think that would be a huge benefit not only for students of color but also for white students,” he said.
He added he thinks the Portland Public Schools are doing a good job at moving toward equity, but “we could always be doing more,” and a more diverse faculty could create a “different perspective.”
He also said members of the next School Board will need to “very closely monitor” how the pandemic is increasing the opportunity gap for the district’s students.
“I think schools are best when they reflect the communities they are a part of,” he said.
With a work history that includes eight years in the military and a decade at a law firm managing million-dollar estates before becoming a district supervisor for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 45-year-old Irish said he believes his skills will be helpful in his first campaign for elected office.
While he understands the reasoning behind the hybrid school reopening this fall, Irish said navigating it in a household where both parents work full-time has been “difficult.”
He said students are “losing a lot of hours and necessary education.” As a high school parent, he said he is especially concerned about the all-remote model for older students.
“I feel really bad for the 10th- (through) 12th-graders that seem a bit disenfranchised in some of the decision making with respect to coming back to school,” he said.
Going forward, he said he hopes Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and the School Board will try to utilize “larger indoor spaces” as a way to “get some students into school for their social and emotional health.”
Irish disagreed with the board’s July decision to remove school resource officers. He said the board’s 7-2 vote was rushed, and he would have supported the alternate proposal to study resource officers’ effectiveness for a year.
“As a parent whose kids go to schools, if after that year the studies showed the SROs didn’t need to be in the schools, then I would’ve supported that despite my desire to keep them in,” he said.
Irish said the most recent school budget – $119.9 million and without a tax increase – was “measured” and that school officials made “the right decision” under the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Some difficult choices needed to be made,” he said, but he would not have supported an increase or decrease in school funding.
In terms of ensuring more equity in city schools, Irish said under the metrics the district currently has access to, he thinks it is “hard to measure an actual reason for the disparity and opportunity gaps” between students of different races. However, he thinks some of the inequity is linked to the English Language Learner program.
Irish said he believes the schools should offer funding to current teachers to become ELL-certified because the required program is too costly for many educators. He also suggested offering successful ELL students school credits to mentor newer students through the process as a “cost-neutral approach.”
“If we want certified teachers we need to re-invest in our current teacher force and provide funding through the school budget for those teachers who want the opportunity to get those certificates,” Irish said.