Portland voters have a chance to play a decisive role in the future of their schools and close votes on school policy as the city holds special elections for three seats on its school board in June.
One seat in District Five for a two-year-term and two at-large seats for six-month terms will be up for grabs in a special election on June 14. Nomination papers became available on Feb. 7, with five candidates already taking out papers for the at-large seats, though one has withdrawn.
The new members will join the board as it continues a year-long drive toward equity in the district, especially for students of color, ESL students and those with disabilities, and continues to address myriad effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.
The Portland school board shrunk from nine to six members last year after Jeff Irish resigned in October and two of its members, Roberto Rodriguez and Anna Trevorrow, won election to the city council in November. It’s been operating with the smaller board since.
Irish had disagreed with the board’s review of a letter slamming newly elected progressives in the city written by an assistant principal within the district.
His resignation, as well as the decision by former board member Sarah Thompson to not seek reelection, came amid concern from them that the school board was shutting out those who didn’t fight for progressive policies.
School Board Chair Emily Figdor said that she is looking forward to the new attitudes and strengths that come with the new members. However, she does not believe the election of three new members will change the district’s focus on its signature issue of achieving equity — providing all students of different backgrounds equal opportunity to succeed in Portland.
“There’s a lot of shared understanding and agreement of how we can fundamentally improve public education in Portland,” Figdor said. “We kind of all have our oars in the water and are paddling in the same direction.”
Figdor said she regretted that the school board’s work had become “highly politicized” amid races for three city council seats last November.
“I welcome different perspectives on the board,” Figdor said, noting that she had helped Irish write amendments that she herself disagreed with.
Though many of the board’s votes are done in consensus, it does occasionally see close votes on important matters. In September, for instance, the board voted 5-4 to reject a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for district staff.
The ideal candidates for school board would be those who are passionate about public education, want to help students from marginalized backgrounds and can communicate effectively with other members, said school board member Abusana “Micky” Bondo, who is tied with Figdor as the longest-serving member of the board.
Bondo said that while school board members were on the same page on many issues, it was important that differences be communicated with respect.
“It’s really good to keep a great relationship among us,” Bondo said. “We only see each other once or twice a month.”
Three fewer members have meant more work for the six remaining members, Figdor said, including a consolidation of committee assignments. It also means the possibility of a 3-3 tie vote. However, that has not occurred.
This year, the board hopes to expand pre-K within the district and address the needs of ESL students. It has also sent several recommendations to the city’s charter commission that it hopes gets approved, including taking out the requirement that the city council approve the school board’s budget before it goes to voters.
It remains unclear what the pandemic will look like when the school board members take office over the summer, a time where Maine has seen fewer cases than the colder months. However, it remains likely that the pandemic will continue to be on the minds of the school board and parents amid a pandemic that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
Amid a nationwide push to get rid of mask requirements amid drops in coronavirus cases across the country, Figdor said she could imagine a future where students learn maskless.
However, in terms of lifting protocols like masks, “we’re not there yet,” she said, noting the district continues to see new COVID cases.