Siblings Josephine and Paul Okot are challenging two Portland School Board incumbents, chairwoman Sarah Thompson and District 1 representative Jenna Vendil, in the Nov. 3 election.

The election comes as district officials and the nine-member school board are facing several major issues. The board is just beginning a search for a new superintendent, expected to be named by next summer. The district and board are also in the midst of the multi-year process of replacing Hall Elementary School. At the same time, district leadership has completely turned over, with new staff in all senior positions in the last 18 months.

The next group of school board members, including the winners from November’s election, will also update the district’s 2011 comprehensive plan, a five-year road map for the district’s long-term goals and broad strategies.

The Portland School district is the largest in the state, with about 7,000 students and 1,250 employees. In addition to 16 K-12 schools, the district also has an adult education program with more than 4,000 adult learners, and the Bayside Learning Community, formerly known as the West Program, for K-12 students with special needs.

Its current budget is $103 million, up from $90 million in 2010. Nearly 55 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty, and almost one in five students is an English language learner.

School and board officials are also dealing with new state education mandates, including a transition to a new state assessment, adjusting classroom instruction to adapt to Common Core-based state standards and a new proficiency based graduation requirement.

AT-LARGE SEAT

Thompson, elected in 2006 and the longest-serving member of the board, is running for re-election to her at-large seat. She said the district’s ongoing issues are one reason her experience is an important factor in the race.

“It takes a term or two to get into the groove and get what the work is,” Thompson said. “I feel truly invested after nine years. That historical perspective will be very beneficial not only to the board but with the (district) staff, from the superintendent to all the direct reports of the superintendent.”

Thompson said her top priorities are hiring a good superintendent and keeping “a healthy budget.”

“We are in a very good place with our finances, so it would be good to maintain that,” she said. The district is emerging slowly from several tight budget years that included staff layoffs and program cuts. “And always – first and foremost – we have to have talented staff in front of the students. If we can make that happen, we’re doing a good job.”

Thompson has been endorsed by the Portland Education Association, the teacher’s union. She and her husband both graduated from Portland High School, as did her eldest child; her youngest child attends Casco Bay High School.

Challenging Thompson is Paul Okot, the founder of the International Resource Center of Portland, which provides translation, interpretation and transcription services.

Okot said he is launching his first political campaign because he wanted to be a voice for students who are overlooked, something he experienced first-hand when he was a student in Portland’s schools.

Okot, who is from South Sudan and grew up in Portland, attended Reiche Elementary and Lincoln Middle School and graduated from Waynflete High School. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in Chinese, from Bates College.

“It was challenging,” he said of being in the public school system. “We weren’t being encouraged to excel, so I need to be part of the solution.”

Among his priorities, he said, would be expanding financial literacy education, increasing arts education and reducing the number of tests given to students. He would also work to decrease the number of student suspensions, by adding alternative programs for troubled students.

Okot said he is also running because he is interested in public service, noting that he used to be a case manager and enjoyed helping clients.

“It’s a great beginning that I want to experience, to get my feet wet and make plans from there,” said Okot, who has never attended a school board meeting.

“The overall focus is to have our school system be one of the top places to go for education. The world is becoming smaller and we need to stay competitive and provide resources for students to excel.”

DISTRICT 1

Vendil is running for a third term in District 1 against challenger Josephine Okot.

Vendil said she was most interested in continuing her work, saying she has established strong ties to educators, students and families in her district.

“Serving on the school board is one of the most wonderful and challenging experiences I’ve had in my adult life,” said Vendil, who was elected to the board in 2009 and selected as one of MaineToday Media’s 40 Under 40 – a list of emerging young leaders in the state. Vendil said she ran for the board because she needed – and got – support when her family became homeless during her senior year. She considered getting her GED and going to work, but was encouraged to continue her education, and eventually got a full scholarship to attend Bates College, which brought her to Maine.

“That experience has really shaped who I am and why I chose to run in 2009 and the experience has guided me in how I make decisions,” she said. “For me, (running for re-election) is about putting students first. I want to focus on providing quality service to our district and our families.”

Vendil was charged with drunken driving in June. She pleaded guilty this month to a misdemeanor charge of driving to endanger as part of a plea agreement. She served a 72-hour public service sentence Saturday and Sunday at a camp in Damariscotta Lake State Park, was fined $575 and her driver’s license was suspended for 30 days.

“I accept responsibility for the charge that I pled to,” she said. “I don’t begrudge the public scrutiny in light of the charges and I’ve accepted that this is what happens as someone who is elected to public service.”

“I’m really just focused on the families in our community and being a strong participant at the school board level, the same way I’ve done so for the last six years.”

She is being challenged by Josephine Okot, who has two children in the Portland Public School system.

Josephine Okot, who immigrated with her family to Maine from Sudan in 1996, said she would like to be a strong liaison to immigrant families who do not have strong ties to the board now. She said she would work to increase mentoring, which made a big difference when she was a student at Portland High School.

She has since mentored other students, telling them to go to college.

“My dream is to help the community, to make sure everyone in the community gets an education. I don’t want them to struggle and go through what I did,” she said, referring to times she was falling behind in high school before she got a mentor. “The refugee community, they all have the same complaint – their students are falling behind.”

She noted that many parents in the community feel left out because their students don’t necessarily tell them what is happening at the schools, and the schools don’t communicate well. Messages sent home are translated into other languages, but she said many people don’t read or write their native language, so a written translation doesn’t help.

Okot, who has attended a school board meeting, said she hoped to serve on the school board, and one day perhaps be on the city council.

“We need to get involved,” she said.

In District 2, Holly Seeliger is running unopposed to keep her seat.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine


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