Six candidates running for two open seats on the Portland School Board fielded a variety of questions Wednesday night, ranging from improving academic excellence to how they would handle an upcoming budget amid shrinking resources and increasing costs.
About 40 people attended the forum at Ocean Avenue Elementary School and sponsored by the school’s parent-teacher organization.
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 candidates answered questions in small groups, via a “speed-dating” style roundtable format, where people moved to different tables where the candidates were seated.
“I want progress in our schools,” said parent Erica Beck Spencer, after talking to a candidate. “I want someone who can move things forward.”
Several candidates were asked about the district’s $100 million budget, and how they would handle tough choices about rising teacher costs and flat funding. For years, the board has struggled with budgets, which have raised property taxes but still resulted in significant layoffs.
“You have to have a very frank conversation,” said Trevorrow, alluding to the upcoming teacher contract negotiations. Consultants to the district have found that teachers are “paid very well,” she noted.
“I think there’s a lot we’re doing well,” said Trevorrow, a state legislative aide who was elected to the city’s Charter Commission. “I’m interested in showing families that Portland is a great place to send your children to public school.”
The board has faced years of difficult budget cycles, with budgets that raise property taxes but still result in significant layoffs of district employees.
Brewer, asked what she would prioritize in a lean year, said she “firmly believes in arts and sports and co-curricular activities” and would work to “retain the teachers who really want to be there.”
“I want to have good options for our public schools,” said Brewer, a nurse who attended Portland schools and whose children are in school now.
Landry, a parent who owns a local online video production company, said he was running with service in mind, noting the hard work of the board, including upcoming contract talks, discussions about redistricting, and just the day-to-day responsibilities of the board.
“People have to ask, is the person I’m voting for going to do that work?,” Landry said. “The school board in many ways impacts your life in a far greater way than anything that happens in Washington, D.C.”
Ali, an immigrant from Ghana who works as a counselor with the city’s refugee services, said his two children are in Portland schools and he could give voice to the immigrant community. He said he hoped to create quarterly town meetings for residents to meet with the board members.
“Education is a collective activity, we win or lose together,” Ali told the crowd. “We need to sit down and think creatively” to improve the schools, he said, noting the success of Casco Bay High School and its expeditionary learning model.
Miller said he hoped to speak for students and families with special needs.
“This is my first try at municipal politics,” said Miller, a former special education substitute teacher who holds a master’s degree in education. His three children attended Portland public schools.
Carmona, who said he’s both a parent and a product of public schools in California, said he’s also taught classes, recently at Casco Bay High School, and served on the University of California Board of Regents. Now retired, Carmona said he would lobby at the state level to advocate for Portland schools and to increase state funding.
“I come to you as someone who thinks about these things,” said Carmona, who moved to Maine in 2010 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
The board oversees a 16-school district with 6,986 students. The district employs 694 teachers and 60 administrators. In addition to passing the school budget, board members deal with issues such as curriculum, graduation rates, test scores and attendance. The board works closely with the school administration and Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk.
Next year, the board will shepherd a June 2014 vote on a $39.9 million bond to renovate Lyseth, Presumpscot and Riverton elementary schools.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at: