Portland city councilors are weighing options for filling three vacancies on the city’s school board after one board member resigned and two others were elected to the council.

The situation has created three empty seats on the nine-person board, which some councilors say could be problematic as the school district heads into budget season this spring. Several councilors and a school board member said Thursday they support a special election for filling the seats, though a decision has not yet been made.

“I think we ought to have a really good discussion,” said Mayor Kate Snyder. “I’d like to see what it would take to get folks in those seats sooner rather than later, but I think we want to have a full discussion with the council and staff to talk about the timing and cost.”

A memo from City Clerk Katherine Jones on the logistics of a special election will be presented to the council Monday. Snyder said the council is expected to consider on Dec. 20 whether to hold a special election and then a public comment period that would allow residents to weigh in on the date for an election and on a recommendation from Jones to limit the number of  polling places to two.

School board Chair Emily Figdor said she was traveling Thursday and hadn’t seen the city clerk’s memo. “We’re holding a workshop on (filling the vacancies) on Tuesday and will discuss the pros and cons then,” she said in an email. Superintendent Xavier Botana said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the special election but is also looking forward to Tuesday’s discussion.

The vacancies on the board stem from the resignation of District 5 member Jeff Irish in early October and the election of at-large members Roberto Rodriguez and Anna Trevorrow to the council. Rodriguez and Trevorrow will be inaugurated as new council members Monday.

The city charter says vacancies on the board should be filled at the next regularly scheduled municipal or state election, as long as it is at least 127 days after the vacancy occurs so candidates have enough time to take out papers and campaign and the clerk has time to conduct the election in accordance with state and local laws. The council also has the option to call a special election on an earlier date, though still at least 127 days after a vacancy occurs.

The next regularly scheduled municipal election is set for June 14. If the council were to call an earlier special election, the earliest date would be April 12, according to the memo from Jones. The council may also want to consider other issues, Jones said in the memo.

A special election to fill three school board seats is likely to draw a small number of voters, Jones said. So if the council moves in that direction, she has asked to reduce the number of polling places to two to limit the burden on the city budget and staff. The estimated cost of a special election, based on prior elections, is $53,000 and includes staffing, printing ballots and public notice.

School board member Adam Burk said in an email Thursday that the board has a plan to make sure work is handled with integrity without spreading board members or staff too thin. But, he said, a special election is warranted, especially for the seat occupied by Irish, whose term would not have been up until November 2023.

“For the at-large seats there will only be a few months left in the term by the time elections occur, and I do think it’s an unfair burden for people to have to run twice in the same year for a seat,” Burk said in an email. “However, I am not aware of an alternative at this time.

“As for the exact timing of a special election, I defer to the city as they incur the costs for the election. I am sure they will clearly communicate when the special election is so that potential candidates and the community have the notice they deserve.”

Councilors stressed the importance of making sure all residents have representation on the school board, and some said they are leaning in favor of holding a special election earlier than June, though two also said they oppose the clerk’s recommendation to reduce the number of polling places.

“We have to evaluate what the charter says about a special election and assess the cost, but in principle, the sooner you can fill a vacancy the better it is for the people who should be represented by that school board member,” said Councilor Mark Dion.

Councilors Andrew Zarro and April Fournier said they support having a special election but believe people should still have access to their regular polling sites, even in a smaller election.

“While I respect the clerk’s opinion that turnout would be small, we owe it to the voters to create consistent accessibility to their polling places and should not assume that filling three school board spots … would be any less important (therefore less polling place availability) than any other race,” Fournier said in a text message.

Councilor Tae Chong said that while the school board should also have a say in whether it wants a special election, as a councilor he believes it would be better to hold an election sooner rather than later.

“It would be nice to have nine voices on the school budget,” Chong said. “That’s the big decision, and not having that voice during those deliberations would be a loss for the community.”

Councilor Pious Ali said he also favors holding a special election as soon as possible. “The school board has a heavy workload, so putting that on the shoulders of six instead of nine is something we need to look into, and I will favor a special election,” Ali said.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier said the council should do whatever is in the best interest of the board.

“June 2022 will be here before we know it, and I think it’s important to allow ample time for individuals to decide whether or not they’d be interested in running for the open seats,” Pelletier said in an email.

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