The executive director of a social innovation lab is facing a retired engineer and volunteer at Portland High School in the race to represent District 3 on the Portland Board of Education.

Adam Burk, 39, is the co-founder and executive director of the Treehouse Institute and former chief operating officer at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, Portland’s first charter school. He’s also the parent of a 1st grader at the Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School and a volunteer with the Food Fuels Learning program.

Adam Burk

“I’ve tried to be a part of a solution and make education meaningful and impactful for our kids,” Burk said. “I spent a year as a volunteer trying to see how I could best contribute and after that year decided the school board would be a good way to leverage my past experiences and be a partner with the district, the superintendent, parents, students and families.”

District 3 is comprised of the southwest corner of the city, including the areas of Libbytown and Stroudwater. Laurie Davis, who has represented the district since 2010, is not seeking re-election.

Burk’s opponent in the race, Sam Rosenthal, 66, is a former radar system engineer who started volunteering with the computer science program at Portland High School, his alma mater, after his retirement in 2015.

Rosenthal said he was inspired to run for school board after reading articles about the poor academic performance of students around the country. He researched grade inflation and the graduation rates of honors students last year and presented his findings to the school board.

Sam Rosenthal

“The first thing that bothered me was people on the school board had no idea how bad things were,” he said. “They all had heard of grade inflation but no one had the data.”

Neither candidate has past political experience, though both have spent time volunteering – Burk as a tutor at Portland Public Library and mentor at the Telling Room and Rosenthal as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Recently Portland Public Schools launched a discussion on whether changes should be made to the high school choice process following a significant enrollment drop at Deering High School.

Rosenthal said he would be against changing the current system in favor of a lottery or assigned schools and instead would advocate for fixing what’s not working at Deering.

“To force parents to send their children to a school they believe is not going to give their children a good education, that’s going to be an awful hard pill for a lot of parents to swallow,” he said.

Burk, meanwhile, said it’s still unclear what was behind the enrollment drop and one year’s worth of data is not enough to make a decision on whether the choice process needs to change.

“I’m not hearing from parents or anybody really who wants to see that change,” Burk said. “So far what I’m hearing is a desire to preserve the school choice process as it exists, but I’m holding space for a conversation.”

When it comes to school consolidation and efficiency, Rosenthal said he sees a potential money saving opportunity with school consolidation and would also like to work with local lawmakers to ensure the state fully funds its share of school costs.

A facilities and enrollment study last spring indicated a reorganization of Portland schools could generate a one-time savings of $2.8 million, though no action was taken after pushback from the community.

Burk called the study “flawed” and said overall it yielded results that were not compelling. “There will always be that friction around what do we fund, but if we explore it further, I think it needs to be rooted in different questions that are relevant and acceptable to the community,” he said.

Both candidates said they support the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, and are committed to improving equity and closing opportunity gaps among student groups.

The best way to implement that, Rosenthal said, is through student nutrition programs, expanding access to pre-K and public-private partnerships like the Math Motivators program at Portland High School, a mentoring program for students struggling in math.

Burk said while he is a supporter of proficiency-based grading systems, if such a system doesn’t tie into the work being done in higher education or the broader education system, it could cause friction that in the short-term reinforces barriers for students.

He also said the district can work on improving equity through the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, public-private partnerships and nonprofits.

Rosenthal expressed concerns about proficiency based learning, saying it “allows for multiple retakes of tests” and “runs counter to developing good work and study habits.”

The race is the only contested school board election. In uncontested races, at-large member and board Chair Roberto Rodriguez and at-large member Anna Trevorrow are running for re-election.

 


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