There are two contested races for the Portland Board of Public Education, and both races are in districts on the peninsula. Incumbent Sarah Thompson is running unopposed for the at-large seat.
In District 1, which includes the city’s East End neighborhoods, political newcomer Thomas Kelley is challenging incumbent Jenna Vendil. Both candidates are single and have no children.
Kelley, 26, said the school board should raise academic expectations for students. “I’d like to see students continually challenged and provided with the tools to reach loftier ambitions,” he said.
He said he is strongly opposed to charter schools. He said he’d like to see high school students participate in programs offered by local higher education institutions, such as Southern Maine Community College and the Maine College of Art.
He said the school board over the past two years has done a better job managing the school district, and much of the improvement is due to Jim Morse, a former superintendent who resigned earlier this year.
Although he does not have children, he plans to have children some day, and he wants them to have good schools.
Overall, it benefits the community to have strong schools, he said. “Strong schools means there are better career opportunities and more people staying in the state,” he said. “It’s a wonderful circle that lends prosperity to a community.”
Vendil, 28, who is completing a three-year term on the school board, said she sees herself as a “connector” between the school system and the broad community. She noted that most of the city’s voters don’t have children in the school system.
“They pay taxes,” she said. “It’s really important to me personally to communicate to people who don’t have kids about what we are trying to do and to build strong public support for what we are trying to do.”
She said she also works to improve the educational experience of children from immigrant and refugee families.
She also wants to improve student achievement, but said there is no single approach for school reform. Rather, reforms must be undertaken at the school level, with the involvement of teachers and principals, she said.
She noted that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which has awarded Portland schools $5.1 million over three years, will be a huge help for creating reforms. She is also pleased with the school district’s new evaluation procedures for teachers and administrators.
“I feel really good about where we are going,” she said. “We are looking at the school board level how we can make sure we support the work that needs to be done at the building level to improve academics and student achievement.”
In District 2, which includes the West End, the race is between two newcomers, Holly Seeliger, 26, who is connected with the Occupy Maine movement, and Jeanne Swanton, 45, a mother of two who worked in Manhattan as a top executive for an international financial conglomerate.
Seeliger said she would like to see an expansion of student gardens that provide produce used in school cafeterias and would encourage more vocational options for students.
She said the city needs to spend more money on school infrastructure. The fact she doesn’t have children is an advantage, she said, because most people in Portland do not have children in school.
She said it’s important that the school board include members who aren’t parents so it can function as an “independent entity outside the PTO (Parent-Teacher Organization.)”
Although she never camped at the Occupy Maine settlement in Lincoln Park last year, she became involved with the movement. She arranged teach-ins on Congress Square and volunteered to be a newscaster for Occupy Maine TV on the Community Television Network.
As a hobby, she participates in burlesque dancing, a campy and often comical form of striptease that is enjoying a revival in popularity. She sees it as an expression of her freedom of speech, and she said voters in her district have expressed support for her right to dance, even if elected to the school board.
“It’s not a money-making venture, but something I do artistically with friends,” she said.
Swanton, 45, who is co-chair and treasurer for the Reiche Community School PTO, said she would bring 17 years of financial experience to the school board. Before she moved to Maine in 2007 from New York City, Swanton was a vice president for Citigroup Inc.
She said school and city officials should consider streamlining expenses by consolidating services, such as maintenance in information technology.
She views the district’s adult literacy programs as crucial for the city’s growing population of immigrants. She wants to see the district effectively implementing new math and science curricula and make sure that teachers get the support they need, she said.
The district must provide equity among schools in terms of facilities, technology and textbooks. Currently, there are “profound” differences between elementary schools, she said. “All of them should be on the same playing field,” she said.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at