Diversity question raised as South Portland appoints Tipton to School Board

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Elyse Tipton will fill the vacant District 5 seat on the School Board, after a Town Council vote that reflected concerns about diversifying the all-white board.

Tipton was one of three candidates vetted by the City Council to replace Tappan Fitzgerald, who resigned last month with two years left in his term. Her one-year appointment was approved Monday, Oct. 17.

The other two candidates for the District 5 seat were Ryan Edwards, who was born and raised in South Portland, and Bruce Bennett, who is a native of Burundi.

Tipton is the communications and marketing director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, and has a background in development and communication work with nonprofits, including the Center for Grieving Children.

She said her professional experience will allow her to bring a strong skill set to the position, including being budget conscious and the “ability to listen to divergent opinions.”

“I strongly believe that education and investing in our young people is the way that we launch them,” she said. “It’s also the way we widen the circle of prosperity.”

Councilors voted 5-2 to appoint Tipton, with Councilors Brad Fox and Linda Cohen opposed. Mayor Tom Blake said he was “incredibly impressed” with the slate of candidates.

Edwards, of Pennsylvania Avenue and an employee with Aetna Life Insurance, said he “always felt it was my calling” to serve on the board. He has two children in the school system.

“For me, the most wonderful thing you can do in a community is give back,” he told councilors. 

Bennett, of Red Oak Drive, is an office assistant at the Department of Health and Human Services. He speaks five languages, including French and Swahili, and has experience working closely with refugee families and children in Burundi and Tanzania.

He told councilors Monday night that he was a “product of a good education,” and he wants to help create those opportunities for students in South Portland. 

He also said he hoped to increase the board’s minority representation.

“We have to educate ourselves in what the community wants,” Bennett said. “One of those (wants) is why I’m here today. We need to have people in education represent the minority kids.”

When the candidates were asked by Councilor Eben Rose if they had any suggestions for how the city “can better serve its increasingly diverse school population,” Tipton suggested the district increase room for cultural competency, by helping the majority population “learn about and understand some of the experiences of the children we call ‘new Mainers,’ or English Language Learners.” 

“They come here, and they have issues that other children certainly do not have, yet they are expected to thrive in the same classrooms,” she said. “It’s the education and understanding of what the kids have experienced and finding … additional supports for the kids because of the issues they bring.”

Bennett suggested appointing someone to the School Board who looks like them. 

“The connection between the board and the community is to have minorities represented on the School Board,” he said. 

Councilor Brad Fox, who has tried in the last several months to present diverse candidates to fill vacancies on city boards and committees – including a failed attempt to appoint Deqa Dhalac to the Civil Service Commission – on Monday said “If we want to increase diversity then we need to increase diversity.”

Fox said it’s important for students “to see people who look like themselves represented in the halls of power in this city.”

“I think it’s very important to the community and it makes a statement,” he said. “In no way (does) it negate the qualifications of the others who’ve applied for the position.”

Councilor Claude Morgan said Tipton “stood out” as a candidate, and he had a “fondness for folks in the communication business.”

Mayor Tom Blake said he found Tipton to be “extremely well-prepared (and) very articulate,” with a “very diverse background.”

Before the vote, Rose said the appointment was difficult because it was easier for him to feel like he understood the experiences of some candidates better than others. 

“This is the real challenge with diversity,” he said. “… I think we really have to push ourselves to be outside of our little world and our little sphere. In bulk, we end up with a lot of sameness.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA


South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.