PORTLAND — A difficult budget season and a pending bond referendum to renovate several schools are among the top issues facing six candidates running for two open seats on the Portland Board of Public Education.
The two winners of the Nov. 5 election will fill at-large seats being vacated by current board chairman Jaimey Caron and past chairwoman Kate Snyder.
Incumbent Laurie Davis is running unopposed for her District 3 seat.
The candidates for the two at-large seats are Pious Ali, Deborah Brewer, Ralph Carmona, Gene Landry, Frederic Miller and Anna Trevorrow.
The only candidates who have held elected office before are Trevorrow and Davis, both of whom were elected to the Charter Commission. Several â Carmona, Miller and Trevorrow – have run unsuccessfully for offices ranging from the Maine Legislature to the school board. All of the candidates emphasized in interviews that they did not see this as a political steppingstone.
Ali, Brewer and Landry currently have children attending Portland public schools.
The board oversees a roughly $100 million budget for a 16-school district with 6,986 students. The district employs 694 teachers and 60 administrators.
It’s the most ethnically diverse district in Maine, and 23.5 percent of the students are English language learners. For 30 percent of students, a language other than English is their primary language at home. The district has a 77 percent graduation rate and a 91 percent attendance rate, both lower than statewide averages.
Issues such as curriculum, graduation rates, test scores and attendance can come before the board and its seven standing subcommittees. The board works closely with the school administration and Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, who recently completed his first year in Portland.
Inevitably, the budget will dominate much of the board’s work, as it has in years past and because it dictates how resources are allocated. Much of the budget is fixed, and currently about 65 percent of it is spent on salaries. Flat or declining state funding and rising costs have led to years of difficult budget cycles, with budgets that raise property taxes but still result in significant layoffs of district employees.
The district is also still stabilizing in the wake of a financial crisis in 2007, when a $2 million deficit in the $82 million budget uncovered a host of financial management problems. The crisis led to the resignations of the superintendent and finance director at the time.
Also next year, the board will shepherd a June vote on a $39.9 million bond to renovate Lyseth, Presumpscot and Riverton elementary schools. The current board pressed to hold that vote this November, but the City Council put it off to 2014.
The district is still waiting to hear if the state will approve funding for the $20.6 million replacement of Portland’s Hall Elementary School. Despite assurances it is likely, no formal decision has been made. The state has also indicated it might provide $11.2 million to renovate Longfellow Elementary School.
Last year, voters passed a $98.3 million budget that cut about 50 teachers. The budget, which took effect July 1, increased the schools’ portion of Portland’s property tax rate by 3 percent, adding $58 to the annual tax bill for a home with an assessed value of $200,000.
Ali said he is supportive of the current board and superintendent, and that he would focus on increasing communication between the board and the community. One proposal would be to have the board meet four times a year in rotating neighborhoods so people who can’t attend or watch board meetings could participate.
“The school board is great, but there’s a breakdown in communication in what the school board is doing and what the community knows they are doing,” Ali said. “I have a lot of experience in bringing people together.”
Ali, a photojournalist from Ghana, moved to Maine in 2002 and became a citizen in 2009. He has a 17-year-old son enrolled at Casco Bay High School and a 9-year-old daughter at Lyseth Elementary.
Much of his professional work would help him work on school board issues, he said.
Ali works with children as a counselor for Portland’s refugee services, largely with those who are having difficulty integrating, he said. He volunteers in his children’s schools, and works with youth organizations such as Seeds of Peace and Portland-based King Fellows, a group for young people based on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
He has proposed focusing on issues facing refugee and immigrant students and their families.
“I believe that I can offer insight and perspective that does not presently exist. As a person of color, I immigrated here and understand what it entails,” he wrote. “Helping students to feel accepted can occur by using them as part of the teaching process and not isolating them in the process. There are dozens of ideas that are no-cost if we are open to exploring them.”
Ali has been endorsed by the Portland Education Association.
With three children in the Portland school district, Brewer said she was motivated to run for school board to give a voice to parents who don’t always feel informed about what’s happening at the schools and district.
Her top priority would be to increase communication, perhaps by creating a parents page on the district website, she said. Her training as a nurse also would prepare her to handle the complex issues facing the district, from questions about curriculum to the annual budget.
“I think I’m very logical,” Brewer said. “Very systematical and logical.”
Brewer said she would balance her support of a rigorous curriculum and improving schools with fiscal restraint.
“Being a property owner and a parent, I want to promote the schools but want to respect the fiscal responsibilities,” said Brewer, who attended Hall Elementary, Lincoln Middle and Deering High schools while growing up in Portland.
As a parent, Brewer has been active on her children’s parent-teacher organizations, and served for a year on the district’s Family Living Committee as it faced controversy over birth control being available in middle school and the sex education curriculum.
Brewer also said she wanted to explore ways to have students help each other, such as having older children earn their community service requirement by helping younger students do their homework after school.
Brewer said she hasn’t attended a board meeting, but has “read and read and read” to get up to speed on school board issues.
Carmona, a retired lobbyist, said his top priority would be changing the board schedule so it meets less frequently and gets more of its work done with larger committees. Currently, the weekly meetings regularly last at least four or five hours, particularly during budget season. Carmona said he wants to scale the meetings back to every two weeks, noting that other bodies with greater responsibilities manage to do their work in a shorter time frame.
“The process has to be reformed,” he said, because the board tries to do “everything” instead of focusing on the biggest issues.
Carmona, 62, said his chief skills are his ability to negotiate tough situations and be an advocate for the district. Since moving to Maine in 2010, he has been active in several organizations and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. He said he wants to serve on the school board because of its important role in the community and his ability to advocate for schools and students.
“It’s part of my DNA; I know how to advocate, and things change when you really engage,” said Carmona, who at 21 was elected as a California delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention and served two years as a University of California regent.
He said he supports the proposed bond measure to renovate the schools and would tackle budget challenges by going over the budget in detail and finding savings through efficiencies.
Carmona has been an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College and taught an International Relations course at Casco Bay High School. His five adult children all attended public schools.
Carmona has been endorsed by the Portland Education Association.
Landry said he decided to run for the school board after spending years actively involved in his children’s schools and serving on a range of committees. Three of his four children are still in Portland’s public schools, two at Ocean Avenue Elementary and one at Casco Bay High School.
“(Running for the board) is really an extension of that,” said Landry. “Every parent participates in some way. This is a different way to contribute.”
Landry also said he would bring a sharp eye to budgeting, using his own experience as a business owner and taxpayer to the conversation. Landry is owner of an online video production company and a former television news reporter.
“I want to make sure as much of that money as possible is spent on the education process,” Landry said. “It requires oversight.”
As for policies, Landry sees himself as carrying on with the current board’s work.
“The board in place now has worked really hard to get to where they are today, but it just doesn’t stop,” he said. “You have to have people committed to the process.”
That said, he wants to examine why test scores have dropped, and look at curriculum issues. Building up the schools to their best is important not just for students and the schools, but for the entire community, he said.
“I’m a big believer in public schools,” Landry said. “The stronger the schools are, the better the community is.”
Of all the candidates, Miller had the most specific criticism for the current board and its budget decisions, and said he was running to make sure the district did “the very best it could.”
“I believe the present school committee has messed things up rather a lot,” Miller said, “I think they made some bad choices in eliminating positions.”
Miller, a former special education substitute teacher who holds a master’s degree in education, specifically said they should not have eliminated education technicians who work with special student populations, from special ed to English language learners.
“The ed techs do the heavy lifting, so to speak, and you don’t get rid of your heavy lifters,” said Miller, who had dyslexia as a young student and worked with Portland school officials as a parent to address bullying and individual education plans for his children.
Miller has pledged to be an advocate for parents on the board, or in individual meetings if needed, to help navigate meetings with teachers or district officials. He also wants to ask volunteer agencies, such as Catholic Charities, to help students and their families who face challenges in the district.
Miller described the district as “good” overall, but said the board needs to address overcrowding at some schools and assist immigrant students, in particular.
Trevorrow said her political experience and interest in education have prepared her for the Portland school board. Trevorrow works in the State House as a legislative aide and was chairwoman of the Maine Green Independent Party.
“I was taught that education is the foremost of what’s important in life and that education is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you,” said Trevorrow, whose parents both taught in Maine public schools.
Trevorrow said she has done volunteer work in the schools, and this summer worked with children in a math program.
“I have something to add through my experience on the charter commission and I also have a passion for education,” Trevorrow said.
With Caron and Snyder leaving, “we’re losing some institutional knowledge,” she said.
“I think I can walk in with an informed perspective,” Trevorrow said.
She said she has a particular interest in curriculum issues and is comfortable tackling the budget, citing her background of working at Norway Savings for seven years.
Trevorrow said she would analyze the budget, “and it’s important we use that information to do better, but we also need to keep money in the classrooms. We need to make sure that the teachers are well respected and are empowered to do their job.”
The Maine League of Young Voters endorsed Trevorrow for the seat.
Davis, who is running unopposed for re-election, said she has enjoyed serving on the school board and wants to continue work already under way.
“I like it and I think I’m making a difference. I’m passionate about education and the role it plays in the city,” said Davis, who holds a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from University of Southern Maine.
“It takes awhile to figure out what’s going on, how it works and what are the issues – so a second term is an opportunity to take what I’ve learned and help the district move further,” said Davis.
The board is continuing to work on improving the budget process, she said, citing new multiyear budget planning. She also supports the building renovation plans.
“I feel very strongly about the Building for our Future plan,” she said. “We need to invest, and I think investing in education is always a good investment.”
Another priority for her is strengthening the ties between the city government and the board.
“We are continuing to work on (the idea that) having good schools is as important to our city as having good streets,” she said. “That’s well within our grasp; we just have to decide we’re going to do it.”
Davis has been endorsed by the Portland Education Association.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:[email protected]
This story was corrected at 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday October 15 to state that Anna Trevorrow and Laurie Davis had previously held elected office as members of the Portland Charter Commission. The original story had erroneously stated that none of the candidates had held elected office before.