PORTLAND — With one term-school board member Mark Balfantz opting to forgo another race, Portland voters have their choice of three candidates for one of the board’s two at-large seats.

Nyalat Biliew, a 2013 graduate of Deering High School, who is running against Stacey Hang and Yusuf Yusuf, wants to bring a younger perspective to school issues.

“I feel like I have the experience and the knowledge to really create realistic change. Having gone to Portland Public Schools and being a student there, I see where the schools are lacking in terms of creating a safe space for all students and addressing the issues within the school system,” she said.

Hang, a school nurse in another school district, said she never thought she would run for the school board, but was compelled to do so after the board eliminated the school resource officer program, a decision she didn’t agree with.

“The whole issue of school resource officers brought up a process … demonstrated the school board was heavily favoring one side,” she said.

Biliew is also passionate about the school resource officer decision, but for a different reason. She never felt comfortable with an officer in her school, she said, and she applauds the board’s decision to end the program.

“It is exposing (students) to law enforcement and the criminal justice system at such a young age. We don’t need that exposure,” she said.

Yusuf said he wants a seat on the board to make sure students get the mental health services they need. For the last four years, he has worked with Portland Public School students and their families as a mental health case manager.

“That gave me a lot of insight for what needs to be done to support and advocate for students with learning disabilities,” he said. “I work with a lot of students and understand their needs. Now with COVID, these students have even more difficult challenges.”

Yusuf said he supports the work underway by the Portland school system to close the opportunity gap between students who are socially and economically disadvantaged and those who are not, but wants to see more student and teacher voices included.

“To make sure schools are an enjoyable place to be, the students need to be heard,” he said.

Biliew said she also wants to find ways for parents to be more involved in education, especially parents of color. She wants to establish an on-demand hotline for parents and students with COVID-related questions, have staff attend anti-racism training, and have the schools transition away from punitive discipline for behavior issues.

“I want to try to bring a more restorative justice approach to punishment where kids are able to learn from their behavior instead of just being sent home and told they were bad,” she said.

Hang said if elected she would work to ensure class sizes stay consistent across the schools and that students are offered the same programming and access to technology no matter what school they attend.

“It’s about making sure schools are equal and breaking down the barriers to make sure kids have access to what they need,” she said.

Yusuf said he would like to see Portland start a universal pre-kindergarten program, something the district has made progress on, but has yet to fully implement.

“It gives all students an opportunity to start (school) at the same time and would allow all students to improve their social and academic skills before kindergarten,” he said.

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