Advocate for Somali women takes on Portland School Board incumbent

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PORTLAND — Voters on Nov. 8 will choose between two at-large candidates for the School Board. Candidates for the District 4 and District 5 seats are unopposed in their races.

Incumbent Elizabeth Holton is challenged by Josephine Okot for the three-year at-large term.

Incumbent Justin Costa was elected in 2008 and is unopposed for a second term representing District 4, the North Deering neighborhood.

Incumbent Marnie Morrione was elected in 2008 and is also unopposed for a second term representing District 5, the Stevens Avenue and Riverside neighborhoods.

Elizabeth Holton

Holton, 44, grew up in England and has lived in Portland for 15 years. She lives in the East Deering neighborhood and has three children: one just graduated from Deering High School, one attends Portland High School and one is at Lyman Moore Middle School.

She was elected to the at-large seat in 2008 and is seeking her second term.

Holton said she is not a financially oriented person, but that she’s very concerned about the shrinking school budget.

“It severely limits how the district can deliver education to the children,” she said.

She said she did not think the schools could continue to make cuts without there being an adverse impact on student education.

“Unfortunately, at this point, the burden is going to be more and more on the taxpayers of Portland,” she said.

Holton said she thinks the first priority of the School Department’s Comprehensive Plan should be increasing the graduation rate. The second priority should be improving facilities.

“The elementary school facilities have been neglected for too long,” she said.

Holton said she supports a unified curriculum, so if a student moves from one school to another, the lessons will not substantially change. She said she would support some discussion of the process by which curriculum changes are approved, but cautioned she is not the one who should be choosing programs.

“I don’t feel I’m qualified to have the curriculum come before me and make an educated decision. I would rather have the administration and the teaching staff make those decisions,” she said.

The taxpayers are getting a very good value with the current teacher contract, Holton said, adding that she believes the union’s willingness to add five days to the school year this year was proof of “the dedication of the Portland teaching staff.”

Josephine Okot

Okot, 29, lives in the Back Cove neighborhood and has two children: a 2-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son who attends the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School. She moved to Maine with her family in 1995 from a refugee camp in Uganda, although her family is originally from Sudan.

She is a graduate of Portland High School and later graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in social work. She currently works for the United Somali Women of Maine.

Okot said she thinks the district’s budget is large enough to support the schools, but that she would like to see wasteful spending cut.

“The school spends so much money on buses, for example,” she said, adding that the district should share buses between the middle and high schools. She said students should use the city’s public bus system to cut back on the number of school buses needed to transport students.

She said she did not know about the School Department’s proposed Comprehensive Plan and did not answer when asked what she thinks the district’s long-term goals should be.

She said she would like to see English language learners put into mainstream classes, and that taking French classes helped her learn English faster. She said current ELL classes are focused too much on grammar and not enough on speaking skills.

Okot said she wants the district to work harder on dealing with bullying.

“We need to work together to make sure every kid is safe so we can focus on education,” she said.

She said she would like to see mentoring programs encouraged throughout the district.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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