Election 2015: Vendil in a race, Seeliger uncontested for Portland School Board

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PORTLAND — The incumbent is challenged by a former candidate in the School Board District 1 election.

Incumbent Jenna Vendil, 31, is a government relations assistant for the Maine Education Association. She has been on the board since 2009.

Josephine Okot, 33, is a social worker who unsuccessfully ran for an at-large seat on the board in 2011.

District 1 covers the city’s East End on the Peninsula to High Street, and the Back Cove neighborhood east of Forest Avenue to Dartmouth Street.

In District 2, incumbent Holly Seeliger is running unopposed. District 2 covers the city’s West End of the Peninsula, and the neighborhood west of Forest Avenue, bounded by Dartmouth Street and Deering Avenue.

Seeliger, 29, of 303 Brackett St., is running unopposed for her second term on the board. She was first elected in 2012.

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

Jenna Vendil

Vendil, of 38 Vesper St., is seeking her third term on the board. She said she is running again because of the “unprecedented amount of changes” that have occurred in district leadership and “to the policies and procedures and how we run our school district.”

Vendil said she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to run again, but was convinced when former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk left to take a superintendent’s job in Kentucky. She said her experience and service to Portland families would be useful to the board.

“I’m running because I’ve spent the last six years serving District 1 families and I’d like the opportunity to continue to advocate and fight for our parents, our students, bring strong representation with the changes that are going on in the district,” she said.

Vendil said she sees three immediate needs and an overarching global perspective facing the district.

The first need is finding the right person to fill the void left by Caulk. The second is working with the city and state to ensure there is funding allocated to replace the city’s elementary school facilities. And the third is the need to continue supporting educational leaders at each school.

She said the global challenge is keeping middle-class families in Portland and supporting neighborhood schools, especially in the face of enrollment projections trending down while the cost of living rises.

“(Parents are) not sure if they can be able to stay, and it’s not because of the programs, it’s not because of the schools itself, it’s simply about affordability,” she said. “I think that’s something we have to think about as a city.”

Vendil said the need to replace the city’s elementary schools has been outlined by the School Board, and the issue is finding the funding. The board has discussed at length replacing the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School, but members have also acknowledged other facility needs across the district.

Vendil said the possibility of combining elementary schools, like Hall and Longfellow, was a missed opportunity for discussion. The Maine Department of Education suggested combining the two schools, as both are on the state’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List, but Longfellow is much lower on the list than Hall.

“It’s not a very popular thing to talk about, but if we continue to see shifts in enrollment − and also funding challenges with elementary facilities at the state and city level − it would be irresponsible of us to not have that conversation proactively with our community,” she said.

Vendil said feedback about high school students transitioning to METRO buses has been mixed, but by and large the responses she’s heard have been positive. She said it’s a work in progress, but it’s something that will help build students’ mobility and flexibility in getting to school, work, internships and gaining independence.

Vendil said she wished the transition to new daily start and end times for schools had gone smoother, but applauded the teachers and administrators who ensured coverage in the buildings when students were picked up and dropped off.

In June, Vendil was arrested for operating under the influence on the Interstate 295 Connector in Scarborough. She pleaded not guilty to the charge in July.

Vendil said her situation has been difficult because of how public it is, but accepts the  scrutiny and acknowledges that questions will be asked. She said she has taken the time to reflect on and re-evaluate her actions, and hopes to be part of a community dialogue about high-risk behaviors once her case is resolved.

Vendil said as a product of public schools, she knows education “can be a difference-maker to change lives and create opportunities.” While she was in high school her family lost their home and she contemplated dropping out, she said. But thanks to intervention by teachers and a social worker, she and her mother found housing, and she graduated with a full scholarship to Bates College.

“My experience shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the rule,” Vendil said.

Josephine Okot

Okot, of 34 Danforth St., said she is running on a similar platform to her 2011 campaign. She wants more mentoring programs and teacher aid in classrooms, and wants to take a stance against bullying.

“I know when I was in high school it was happening, when I was in middle school it was happening, it still is happening to a lot of people I know, even my own child was being bullied at the school,” said Okot, who immigrated to Maine from Uganda in 1995. Her family is originally from Sudan.

She said a stronger, one-on-one mentoring program would be beneficial for international students and students falling behind academically. She said she was not sure if this is a product of lack of support from the schools or at home.

“I feel the public schools should have more support for the students, especially student-for-student where English is not their first language, so we can support them so they can be prepared to go on to college like other students,” Okot said.

Okot said she supports high school students taking the METRO buses to and from school, saying it’s a good opportunity for them to get out of their comfort zones and gain independence.

Okot said she also supports the plan to replace Hall Elementary School. She said she would have also supported a larger school that combined Hall and Longfellow, which was discussed briefly by the board last spring.

“I think it is time for them to change the school and make it better for the students,” she said.

She said the new start and end times in the schools, enacted in to provide 20 additional minutes per day, is a great idea. She said like switching to a new job, it just takes time to adjust.

While Okot said she did not follow last year’s budget discussions closely, she did say she has concerns with technology spending, specifically on iPads for students.

She said these were “actually costing (students) the ability to learn,” because less emphasis is being placed on aspects like reading and writing, and students could just as easily use the devices to play video games. She said the money would be better spent on teacher aid and other materials to help prepare students for college.

Okot said what sets her apart from others is, “I’m not a politician, I’m a mom with two kids, and I believe all children’s education is important.”

She said when she came to Maine as a refugee, she did not know any English, but wanted to get an education. She said she can bring change to the board with a different perspective.

“I have different culture and I see a different point of view from different people,” she said. “I don’t just focus on one thing.”

Okot’s brother Paul is also running for School Board, challenging incumbent Chairwoman Sarah Thompson for an at-large seat.

Okot said Vendil’s OUI charge did not play into her decision to run.

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

VendilJosephine OkotSeeliger

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.