Political veteran John Eder, active most recently in efforts to save Congress Square Plaza, is taking on local businessman Gene Landry for a citywide at-large seat on the Portland School Board in the Nov. 4 election.

In a second School Board race, political newcomers Rebecca Wartell and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler are competing for the District 4 seat being vacated by Justin Costa, who is running for the City Council.

The Portland School Board is the largest in the state, with a $102 million budget and more than 7,000 students. School Board members regularly spend a significant amount of time on the budget, curriculum issues, concerns about aging infrastructure and meeting the needs of a diverse student body.

More than half the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of reduced family income, and 32 percent of students primarily speak a language other than English at home. The district is also in contract talks with the teachers union now, and is facing a major renovation plan for several elementary schools in the district.

The district employs 1,225 people, including 571 teachers and more than 30 administrators.

In the at-large seat race, the two candidates differ in their views on the current board and school administration. Landry, who is running for a second time, is generally supportive of the board and Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk’s work in recent years.

Eder, by comparison, is advocating for change.

“I’m really concerned that public education is on the ropes in Portland,” said Eder, a Green Independent who served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives in the 2000s. He currently is outreach group director for a political consulting group, Nonstop Grassroots.

Eder said he worries about middle-class families moving to the suburbs when their children reach school age, district work being contracted out to vendors, and the current administration expanding its ranks while teaching positions and classroom resources are cut.

“This board has been abdicating their responsibilities,” Eder said. “Policy is made in the budget, and this school committee did not put its fingerprints on this budget. … The board should not just be doing the will of the administration, but scrutinizing the administration.”

Eder said he was also concerned about the threat of charter schools, and the standardized testing required by Common Core. Both, he said, are a move toward the privatization of public education.

“That’s going to be a watchword for me: privatization,” he said.

Landry has two children at Ocean Avenue Elementary and another who just graduated from Casco Bay High School. He owns an online video production company and is a former television news reporter.

He said one of his top priorities was attracting and retaining the best teachers.

“Our teachers are really critical,” he said, adding that he would work to finish the pending teacher contract “so our teachers feel secure.”

One of his biggest concerns is bringing test scores up.

“In every meeting I’ve been in, I’ve heard that while the graduation rate is OK, there’s a big percentage of students that go on to college and take remediation,” he said. “For me that’s a big red flag.”

In the District 4 race, Hatzenbuehler, a social worker, said she wanted to run because she has a 7-year-old daughter in the system and a pre-schooler entering soon.

Strong schools feed the local economy, from property values to an educated workforce, she said.

“A strong school creates a strong community, that’s why even people without children should care,” Hatzenbuehler said.

She said she supports the recent work of the board, but her background as a social worker could benefit the board as it moves forward.

“I think the board is in a good and stable place, and I think now it’s time to be more forward-thinking,” she said, noting the high number of economically disadvantaged youth in the schools. “Kids can’t be hungry and be expected to learn. Kids can’t have chaos at home and be expected to learn. We can do better and we can do more. There needs to be more mentoring and more opportunities for them.”

Wartell said her desire to effect social change and her own experiences growing up in Portland and going to Longfellow, Lincoln and Deering High schools all make her a strong candidate. She works as a server at Gelato Fiasco and is a self-employed massage therapist and fiber artist.

In New York, she worked as an art teacher and got involved in Occupy New York before deciding to return to Portland “to see if I can make more of a difference in my community here.”

Running for the school board was the logical next step, she said.

She said her networking skills also dovetail with a new School Board committee focused on connecting the board and district with the community.

“That just feels like the perfect place to plug in and do what I enjoy doing,” she said. “I’m really interested in community building.”

Incumbent Marnie Morrione is running unopposed for her seat in District 5.

 


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