A Portland school board member who resigned unexpectedly Tuesday said the timing of his decision was not meant to coincide with another board member’s announced departure and that concerns about an August executive session are something he has been wrestling with for some time.

“I’m confident that I could have been more productive in my short time on the board and I can own that and I extend my apologies to District 5 residents,”  Jeff Irish said Wednesday. “However, that meeting on Aug. 17th was disturbing at best. As for it being an anomaly, one should hope it was. But given the players in the room, I suspect it wasn’t.”

Irish submitted his resignation in a letter to the board Tuesday, hours after fellow board member Sarah Thompson announced she was ending her re-election campaign because of a divisive atmosphere on the board.

Irish said he had made his decision “a while back” and was not aware of Thompson’s announcement until he and other board members were notified of it Tuesday morning. He said he shares some of Thompson’s concerns about how diverse opinions are not well received on the board, but also said he could have done more to communicate with other board members.

“I do share her sentiment in a sense,” Irish said. “I don’t know what kind of communication board members have with other board members. Mine is relatively limited. I don’t want to blame them. I could certainly reach out. It’s a two-way street.”

Most school board members didn’t respond to phone messages and emails Wednesday seeking their reaction to the two departures. Meanwhile, the situation on the board has left teachers frustrated.

“This whole situation is really frustrating,” Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said in an email. “We’re still navigating a pandemic, and a staffing shortage on top of that. There’s so much work to do, and instead of focusing on how we can work with the board to make that sustainable and successful, we’re losing them, too, and now there are three uncontested elections for three open seats.

“That’s not ideal for democracy no matter who the candidates are. We should not be reading inflammatory details about employment decisions that should have followed a confidential process. That doesn’t help educators or students. I hate that this is distracting from the real work that our educators – that so many people in this district at every level – are killing themselves to do.”

VACANCY LIKELY UNTIL JUNE

The vacancy left on the board by Irish’s resignation will likely be filled during the June 2022 state and municipal election, unless the City Council were to call a special election earlier, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said.

Irish, who was less than one year into his first term on the board, said his main reason for resigning was an Aug. 17 executive session in which he said fellow board member Roberto Rodriguez urged the superintendent to reconsider an administrative appointment for a school employee based on an email the employee had sent to the City Council regarding progressive members of the city’s charter commission.

In the email, the employee said she was embarrassed by the actions of progressive leaders on social media.

“These newly elected people need to do better,” the employee said. “No one wants to hear my next words, but we all know that if the people saying these things were NOT people of color, they’d be done, gone and trashed. Please hold ALL people accountable for their words, not just those with whom we agree with.”

Irish said he brought up his concerns during the executive session and asked Botana if the appointment was based on merit and performance, which the superintendent said it was. “Several members of the board were unable to bifurcate the appointee’s personal life with his/her historically professional career,” he said.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

“I would prefer PPS students be afforded an educational environment where educators and administrators with various mindsets are free to express them without concern of being held back professionally,” Irish added. “Individual thoughts by students and teachers make for better students and teachers. That meeting made it clear to me that some on the board think otherwise.”

The Press Herald asked the city for a copy of the email and any records of councilors forwarding the email. The city provided the email Wednesday evening but blacked out the name of the author, saying it was not public information under state law. However, the newspaper obtained an unredacted copy from columnist Bill Nemitz, who was copied on the original email to the council from Robyn Bailey, principal of Lincoln Middle School.

Bailey declined to discuss the email when contacted about it by phone Wednesday.

The city records showed that it was Councilor April Fournier who provided the email to Rodriguez in June. Fournier did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday.

“I think it warrants consideration and questioning why a city councilor would actively engage a board member in that fashion,” Irish said. “It’s pretty scary and that’s irrespective of any content in the email. That process itself is questionable.”

Other school board members offered little in response to Irish and Thompson’s unexpected decisions on Wednesday.

School board Chair Emily Figdor said Tuesday that she was surprised to hear of both departures and that she welcomes diverse opinions on the board.

“Some people don’t like change, but we have huge inequities in our city, and we’re finally tackling them head on,” Figdor said in an email Wednesday. “This kind of backlash always happens, though it’s disappointing. But the rest of the school board is more aligned than ever about our core work – rooting out racism in our schools and pushing toward equity. And we’re going to stay focused.”

School board members Adam Burk, Aura Russell-Bedder, Yusuf Yusuf, Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez did not respond to phone messages or emails Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Thompson said the board no longer works as collaboratively as it used to and board members can’t respectfully disagree.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

Board member Micky Bondo said it’s natural for board members to not always see eye-to-eye on issues and she hasn’t noticed any major shift in dynamics recently.

“I didn’t see that too much,” Bondo said. “She’s the only one who knows exactly what she’s talking about. For me, relationships matter so much. I’m used to sitting, talking and trying to find common ground.”

She said she could not say much about Irish’s decision given that his reason for resigning involved the disclosure of information discussed in an executive session, which makes it confidential under Maine law. “I respect his opinion,” Bondo said. “That’s all I can say.”

Thompson said Wednesday afternoon that she hadn’t spoken with Irish since his resignation but they texted back and forth Tuesday night.

“He said he didn’t want to take anything away from me resigning at the same time,” she said. “I said I didn’t feel that way at all, but I felt badly that he needed to do that. I think he did what he thought was right for him.”

Thompson said she could not comment on the concerns Irish raised about the Aug. 17 executive session, but in general the board and district have encouraged staff to speak their minds.

“If they happen to speak their minds and we don’t agree with that, that’s OK,” Thompson said. “That’s part of the process and part of the problem that’s going on. We can’t say we want to hear voices that agree with us but we don’t want to hear voices that don’t agree with us. I think that may be the point Jeff was trying to bring up.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.