A social worker and Presumpscot Elementary School parent is challenging a firefighter and Lyseth Elementary School parent in the race to represent District 4 on the Portland Board of Public Education.

Aura Russell-Bedder Submitted photo

District 4 includes East Deering and part of Deering Center. Tim Atkinson, the district’s current representative, is not seeking re-election in the Nov. 3 race. The term is for three years.

Aura Russell-Bedder, 43, is a social worker with two daughters at Presumpscot. She is also a co-founder of the grassroots organization Equity in Portland Schools, which raises awareness of local education issues, particularly around equity.

After getting involved in Portland Public Schools’ work to pass a 2017 bond to renovate four elementary schools, including Presumpscot, Russell-Bedder said, she has become more of a leader in her school community and has been looking for ways to build upon that work.

“I felt this was a good opportunity for me to have another role in advocating for my specific community I live in, East Deering, but also the entire district and specifically (to advocate for) wanting those four schools to get fixed equitably and other issues,” she said.

Russell-Bedder will face Chris Vail, 49, a firefighter for the Portland Fire Department, whose son attends Lyseth Elementary School. Vail said wanting to have a voice in the school department his son will grow up in as well as the board decision this summer to remove police officers from schools factored into his decision to run.

“I’ve felt a little bit of a disconnect from the school board with some of the highlights this year with the police officers being removed from Portland and Deering,” Vail said. “I really felt there was not a conversation about that. I felt like the current board wanted to jump onto a national conversation and I do not believe that is the way the school board should operate.”

He said there wasn’t enough outreach to parents and students for input on the proposal and he also opposed removing officers who some students had built friendships with and respect for.

Chris Vail Submitted photo

Vail said he doesn’t want to drag the issue out, but if it did come up again he would be interested in understanding “why there was a need to be part of a national platform when Portland is not every other city in America.”

On other issues, Vail said the health and safety of students and fiscal responsibility are among the things most important to him and he is open to looking at school consolidation or the elementary reconfiguration plan proposed last spring by Superintendent Xavier Botana as a means of saving money.

“We all know the times we’re in with COVID and the viral issues we have right now,” he said. “Our city is in giant financial trouble right now. In addition to looking responsibly at our budgets, we need to look at how many buildings we have and how much we’re sending kids all around the city to spots that could be centrally located.”

Russell-Bedder said the short-term impacts of COVID-19 are also important to her. “We need to continue to be as safe as possible and hopefully encourage the district to be flexible as things change,” she said.

If elected, Russell-Bedder said she hopes to continue working on the four-school renovation project and ensuring the renovations are completed equitably. She is also interested in following through on the goals of the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, by looking more deeply at inequities in student discipline and increasing the hiring of staff of color.

“The benefits from being in this school district are huge,” Russell-Bedder said. “Part of my wanting to run is wanting to give back for the benefits my family has had from being in the schools. These are areas where I want to see us do better. Certainly I’m coming from a place of seeing a lot of strengths and wanting to improve and not from a place of, ‘Things are in bad shape.’ It’s more, ‘We can do better in different areas.’ “

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