Election 2015: 1st-time candidate challenges Portland School Board chairwoman

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PORTLAND — The race for an at-large seat on the School Board pits a political newcomer against a three-term incumbent.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson, 45, is a systems administrator at Maine Medical Center.

Paul Okot, 27, owns International Resource Center, a language service and interpreting business in Portland. He is seeking his first term as an elected official.

Sarah Thompson

Thompson, of 83 Starbird Road, is seeking her fourth term on the board, and has been chairwoman since 2013.

Thompson said the historical perspective of the board is important. Because she has that historical perspective, she believes she is an asset to the board.

Thompson said the transition to using the METRO system for high school students has gone very well, as she has heard no negative feedback. She said the change has helped broaden the students’ access to the city and has given them more freedom.

“It can be scary for some, but at the same time we’re a very safe city,” she said.

Thompson said it would be important to keep the METRO conversation open, especially during winter. She has heard concerns from some parents about a lack of sidewalks in some areas and how fast the city can keep up with plowing. Thompson said as part of that, the board will eventually have discussions about late starts on snow days.

“Anything we can do to keep the kids in school and keep education going at all times,” she said. “Gaining knowledge at all times is good.”

Thompson said new start and end times for district schools “scratched the surface,” but a bigger conversation with surrounding communities needs to happen. She said collaborating with surrounding cities would be beneficial, especially for after school activities like sports, which were often cited during conversations about changing the times.

Thompson said she would like to continue the conversation about later start times for high school students, as research shows sleep deprivation affects student achievement at higher levels.

“We can’t just do it in a silo,” she said. “We have to have an in-depth conversation.”

Thompson said one challenge facing the district involves facilities.

While replacing the Fred. P Hall Elementary School at 23 Orono Road has been an ongoing discussion, as well as renovating the other elementary schools, Thompson said the rest of the city’s schools have various needs, too.

Thompson said she believes “our needs far exceed any kind of referendum we could do,” because when budgets have been tight over the years, maintenance gets deferred.

“After so long it catches up with you, and I believe it’s catching up quick,” she said.

Thompson said another challenge facing the district isnew management personnel.

The most notable change came at the top, when former Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk left his post to become superintendent of a much larger school district in Lexington, Kentucky. A search is underway for his replacement, and Jeanne Crocker was named Caulk’s interim replacement.

“We have a lot of new staff members in both the central office and in the schools,” Thompson said. “Change is good, but with change comes a lot of learning.”

Thompson said her experience on the board and as a lifelong resident of Portland qualified her for reelection, adding that it was important to “continue the great work” done by the board.

“It’s very important we have that historical connection, but also have a connection to future work,” she said. “I’ve proven myself with the hard work I’ve put in, and hopefully people have seen that.”

Paul Okot

Okot, of 50 Illsley St., said he is running because he felt it was the right time to get involved. He was also inspired by his sister, Josephine Okot, who is running for the District 1 School Board seat. Their family is originally from Sudan, and immigrated to Maine from Uganda in 1995.

Okot said he wants to increase literacy and support programs for students. He said it’s important for students to be able to make smart decisions and know about personal finances, regardless of whether they go to college. He also wants to see more support for students struggling in school. Okot said wants a program to keep students in the same classroom, and not separate struggling or troubled students from the rest of the class.

“I feel there should be a better solution,” he said. “So everybody is getting the same quality education.”

Okot said the switch for high school students to take METRO buses is a challenge, especially for students who were already reluctant about going to school. He said this new system is additional barrier.

“The school buses are more a structured way of transporting kids into school,” he said. “You get more kids that way to attend school.”

As for the new start and end times for city schools, Okot said he generally supported it because it suits parents by lining up with business and work hours. However, Okot said he would like the schools be consistent across the board, where start and end times now vary across the district.

Okot said he has not been closely following the discussion about replacing the Hall school but, as he understands it, the issue is a safety concern about whether a school passes city codes. He said if replacing a school is necessary, helps increase student performance, and doesn’t take away from investing in other programs, than he will support it.

Okot said he would like to see a school budget that does more to support troubled students as well as help all students compete in a global market.

“Globalization is making it much harder to compete and making the world very competitive,” he said. “I think an increase in budget to support students to be successful in learning is always a good investment.”

Okot said he is coming in as a new face, and he hopes that will help inspire more young people to get involved. He said what sets him apart from others is that the  challenges facing the schools are still fresh in his mind.

“Education is very important, just being self-aware, because there’s so much you can get from education, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go off and work for a big corporation,” Okot said. “Even if you head out traveling, it will just make you a better person overall.”

Election Day is Nov. 3. Polls will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sarah ThompsonPaul Okot

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.