Thursday, April 24, 2014
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 ‑ 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.”
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