Activists square off for Portland School Board seat

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PORTLAND — Two co-founders of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools are competing for the District 2 seat on the School Board being vacated by Holly Seeliger.

Emily Figdor and Jeanne Swanton each say they have the skills and experience that are needed on the board, especially following the contentious school budget approval process last spring.

Figdor is still on the board of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, the grassroots organization that played a key role in rallying support for a $64 million capital improvement bond designed to substantially renovate four of the city’s elementary schools in November 2017.

Figdor said if she’s elected to the School Board she will give up her position with the group, which spent a lot of time last spring advocating for passage of Superintendent Xavier Botana’s recommended school budget of $113.4 million.

After a process that involved negotiation between the City Council’s Finance Committee and the School Board, residents ended up approving a $110.6 million school budget June 12.

Swanton resigned her position with Protect Our Neighborhood Schools nearly a year ago, after successful passage of the capital bond.

There are two other open seats on the School Board this fall, but both are uncontested. Incumbent Sarah Thompson, 48, is running for her fifth term on the board as an at-large representative.

Abusana Bondo, 52, is running for the District 1 seat being vacated by Jenna Vendil.

Bondo is a political newcomer and said she’s running because she hopes to bring “diverse voices and expertise … to strengthen our school system.”

Thompson, a Portland Public Schools alumna, said she is running again because “I’m committed to improving the quality of our public school system.”

Emily Figdor

“I’m running because our schools are at a crossroads, especially with shifts in state funding and we need a real champion for kids,” Figdor said. “I can strengthen our school system in key ways.”

Figdor said she supports universal pre-K, calling the program “a game changer” that’s “incredibly powerful in getting kids ready both socially and academically.”

Figdor also wants to see the School Board fully fund the district’s new strategic plan, called Portland Promise, which sets specific goals around achievement and equity.

She said the best way to build support for school spending is by educating both the City Council and residents around the needs.

During the budget season this past spring, Figdor said, “I really felt like the City Council and its Finance Committee were operating in a vacuum. All of the cuts they suggested impacted on the ability to move the Portland Promise forward.”

While Figdor strongly supports a $64 million capital improvement bond to upgrade four of the city’s elementary schools, which was approved by voters last fall, she’s not in favor of spending money on a new Enrollment and Facility Study Commission.

Approved by the School Board at its Sept. 25 meeting, the goal of the commission is to review current and projected enrollment and school programming needs to determine if there are any efficiencies that could save money.

The commission will report back to the School Board by the end of the year and its recommendations could include closing schools or redistricting students.

Figdor said the $20,000 price tag for the enrollment and facilities study is “tough to swallow when the schools are losing teachers. I don’t believe there will be any silver bullet for saving money in terms of the data and we don’t have too many schools,” she said.

Overall, she said, “I believe deeply in the power of public education to transform lives.” Figdor said residents should vote for her because “policymaking is my bread and butter and I also want to ensure the public has a strong voice” in all school matters.

Jeanne Swanton

Swanton is running for School Board because she would like things to be less divisive between the board and the City Council and said she’s forged the relationships that would help in creating “respect and collaboration.”

“We all need to work together,” she said in terms of funding the schools. Swanton also believes her background in finance would be an asset when it comes to creating the budget.

“I’m a passionate advocate and fan of the Portland Public Schools,” she said. And, “I really like the progress (the schools) are making under the Portland Promise.”

Swanton believes that many of the challenges the School Department faces, particularly when it comes to funding, could be solved “by better communication. You can’t get buy-in when people don’t know what’s going on.”

“There needs to be an open door between the schools and the council and people need to be heard and be involved” in the decision-making, Swanton said.

She supports universal pre-K and said there’s “no choice” when it comes to expanding the program to all students across the city.

Like Figdor, Swanton is not especially supportive of the new Enrollment and Facility Study Commission. However, she’s willing to “investigate the numbers” and wants the school district to “be smart” when it comes to how money is spent.

Swanton recognizes that people can both support education and be concerned about their tax bills.

“People are happy with our schools and the education and opportunities provided, but they want the costs managed. They’re not against education, but worry about how to pay for it.”

Swanton said voters should support her candidacy because “I’m extremely passionate and experienced.”

This story has been updated to correct the amount being spent on the enrollment and facilities study.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Age: 43

Residence: 21 Cushman St., Portland

Family: Married, two children

Occupation: Campaign director with MoveOn

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and master’s in public health from Columbia University

Experience: Co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, co-chairwoman of the Reiche Elementary School PTO and member of the Building Committee overseeing the renovation of four Portland elementary schools

Website, social media: www.EmilyforSchoolBoard.comfacebook.com/champion4portlandkids

Age: 50:

Residence: 69 Thomas St., Portland

Family: Married, two children

Occupation: Bookkeeper, project manager for Crunch Consulting

Education: Bachelor’s degree from New York University, master’s in international finance from Fordham University

Experience: Co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, former co-chair, treasurer of the Reiche School PTO, volunteer at King Middle School, candidate for Portland School Board in 2012

Website, social media: www.swantonforschoolboard.orgfacebook.com/swantonforschoolboard.org

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