6 candidates seek 2 Portland School Board seats
PORTLAND — Six candidates are vying for two at-large seats on the School Board.
Members Kate Snyder and Jaimey Caron are stepping down after spending six years each on the board. Caron and Snyder were elected for the first time in 2007. Both have chaired the panel. Both are also parents of school-aged children.
The field of candidates has a wide range of backgrounds. All but one of them have never held a publicly elected office, although three have mounted recent unsuccessful election campaigns.
Two candidates tout their experience as parents as primary qualifications and motivation for their candidacies.
Pious Ali has made a name for himself by connecting with members of the immigrant/refugee community and helping them integrate into the United States.
Now, he wants to help immigrants connect with Portland's educational opportunities, he said.
"I want to show them that this is a country that will give you opportunity, and you do whatever you want to do, if you take the right path," he said. "If you go to school, you become involved in your community, you give back to your community, you can do whatever you want to do."
Ali, 44, who is endorsed by the Portland Education Association (the teachers union), was born in Ghana, moved to New York in 2000, and to Portland in 2002.
He attended high school in Nsawam, Ghana, where he graduated in 1989. Afterward, he took a photojournalism course at the Ghana Institute of Technology in Accra, the nation's capital, and worked as a photographer for Ghana's English-language weekly newspaper People & Places, and freelanced elsewhere. (Ghana, a former British colony, is an English-speaking country.)
Ali chose to live in Portland because of its art community. Also, the city's smallness reminded him of home.
"It's intimate," he said. "You meet people all the time."
Ali has two school-aged children: a son at Casco Bay High School and a daughter at Lyseth Elementary School.
Ali works as a full-time temporary counselor for the city's Refugee Services. He is also the founder and executive director of Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, director and co-founder of the King Fellows and has been involved in several different organizations including Seeds of Peace, Preble Street’s Lighthouse Shelter, Volunteers of America and more.
Nonetheless, Ali has no political experience and has never sought an elected position. He said he chose to get into this race because the timing felt right.
"There's time for everything," he said. "... I've been approached in the past to run, but I've always said, 'I'm not interested in politics.' I tell people that in my life everything is either something that I've stumbled on or something that I feel is a calling. In the past year or so, there's more of an influx in immigrants and refugee kids in schools. I see the kids in the schools and I see the teachers struggling to engage them."
Approximately 30 percent of Portland students come from refugee or immigrant communities, a population Ali is familiar with.
"I run out of concern and compassion," he said. "I think there needs to be someone who understands all the major issues."
Ali said his goal is to steer the School Board toward broader engagement with the community. Currently, the board meets at Casco Bay High School, far removed from the peninsula and many other city neighborhoods. As a result, many people feel disengaged from the process, particularly families without transportation, Ali said.
"The school board needs to come to the people," he said.
Ali said he would like to see the School Board hold Town Hall-style meetings on a Saturday every quarter, in a different neighborhood. Those meetings would be heavily promoted with the goal of gathering ideas and demonstrating how tax dollars are utilized, he said.
"I'm not expecting every parent to go there, but the number of parents who participate in education will double or triple," he said. "If you're a parent who gets out of work at 5 o'clock, what you want to do is feed your kids and put them to bed. You may not have the time or flexibility to go to the school board meeting."
Ali said the idea has been well received by several sitting members of the board.
"Win or lose, I'm going to continue this conversation to get the immigrant/refugee community involved," he said.
Deborah Brewer said she wants parents of school-aged children to feel like they're represented by the School Board.
Brewer, 44, has three children evenly distributed in city schools: one at Lyseth Elementary School, one at Lyman Moore Middle School, and one at Portland High School.
"I have a vested interest in this for the next 10 years, and I feel like parents need representation and involvement on the board," Brewer said. "What I've seen in the past is that the School Board gets used as a springboard to further people into Portland politics or state politics. That's totally not me."
For 22 years, Brewer has been a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center, with the majority of her time spent in labor and delivery. She also also works as a clinical adjunct at the University of New England, teaching nursing in a practical setting. Brewer was born and raised in Portland, graduated from Deering High School in 1987, and earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Maine.
Brewer said the planned departure of Caron and Snyder spurred her to become a candidate. "I just thought there needs to be parent involvement, so I went down and withdrew papers," she said.
Sitting board member Sarah Thompson has endorsed Brewer.
Brewer said the board will have a lot on its plate – upcoming teacher contract negotiations, building renovations, the possibility of redistricting, and managing the district's $100 million budget – but she would like to see it dedicate time toward the district's non-English-speaking students, something she observed during regular volunteer work at the schools last year.
"We have a huge non-English-speaking population that we have to get ready for school, and make sure their needs are met as well. Those needs have to be met, but you can't forget about the needs of everyone else who's always been here," she said.
"Last year, kids would come in throughout the year not speaking any English, and I'd just think how hard that must be for the child – trying to get used to a new school, trying to learn math, reading and writing in English all at once – and how hard it is for the teacher to try to help that child and all the other kids who need to be pushed along," Brewer said.
One possible solution, she said, is to solicit student volunteers. At Lyman Morse Middle School, for instance, students are required to perform 20 hours of community service every year. Some of those volunteer hours could be used to tutor students in English. It would benefit the immigrant community and the tutors as well, she said.
"I think it teaches compassion," Brewer said.
Brewer has never held elected office, but she has served as a member of the Parent Teacher Association for 10 years, and served as a grade representative for the PTA for one year. She also served on board for Portland schools' Family Living program.
Ralph Carmona wants to engage with "the arrival culture," he said.
"The immigrants coming in, I resonate with them immediately, because they know where I'm coming from," he said. "But I go beyond that. I don't just talk about where they're coming from – the genocides and the wars in Sudan and Somalia and so forth – but also where they are going forward."
Carmona, 62, was born in Los Angeles. He moved to Portland, where his wife grew up, four years ago. He has five adult children.
Carmona ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011. He initially took out nomination papers this year to run for City Council, but withdrew and instead decided to run for the School Board when Caron and Snyder announced they were not running.
Carmona has never held public office, but he has three degrees in political science – a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California, and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he said he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the politics of urban schools.
In 1969, Carmona graduated from Garfield High School, the Los Angeles school that was depicted in the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver."
"I went to one of the worst public schools in America," he said. "It had a 62 percent dropout rate."
Carmona said he was on the wrong track as a child. He was gang member at age 7 and read only five books – four of which were biographies of baseball players – during his public school career.
The fifth book, however, changed his life.
It was Robert Conot's "Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness," a nonfiction examination of the Watts riots.
"It was an epiphany for me," Carmona said. "In the epilogue, he's talking about this emerging population of Mexican-Americans that are going to be just as volatile, and I thought, 'That's who I am.'"
Today, Carmona said he sees parallels in Portland, where 30 percent of students coming from immigrant or refugee communities.
"It's like where the Hispanics were in the 1960s and '70s. There was fragmentation like there is here among Africans, but also there's a unity in being part of America," he said. "I understand that. When I start talking about it, they say, 'Wow, this guy knows what he's talking about.'"
Carmona said he wants to make sure the new arrivals are well integrated into the schools, that the students receive the right training for the workforce and that there are opportunities to join the workforce after graduation.
For 30 years, Carmona served as an executive in energy and financial services, including at Bank of America. He has also taught for 30 years at community colleges, including Southern Maine Community College, where he teaches sociology and contemporary world problems. Last fall, Carmona taught international relations at Casco Bay High School.
Carmona has also served on the University of California Board of Regents.
"I've been on the board side, and I've been on the staff side," he said. "I have the practical experience. I'm a policy wonk."
While Carmona has not held any publicly elected offices, he serves on several boards, including the city's Parks Commission, and the Mayor's Initiative for Healthy Sustainable Food Systems. He also serves at the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization.
Carmona's wife, Vana, said it's a mystery where her husband gets his energy.
"He does not let grass grow under his feet," she said. "He's always been that way."
Gene Landry has four children, three of whom attend city schools. Like Brewer, Landry said he was driven to run by the departure of Caron and Snyder.
"Now seemed like a really good time, if you look at the makeup of the board and who is stepping down," he said. "The possibility exists that on the other side of Nov. 5, you've got a School Board that has only three members with kids in the school system. And for me, I felt like parents have a lot at stake in the schools."
Two of Landry's children attend Ocean Avenue Elementary, one is at Casco Bay High School, and a fourth child is a senior at Bates College.
Landry, 55, has never run for public office and said he has no plans to seek another office in the future.
"My motivation is to have the absolute best school system that we can possibly have. I have no aspirations to serve in another elected office. None," he said.
Landry is endorsed by several sitting members of the School Board, including Snyder, Marnie Morionne, Sarah Holmes and Sarah Thompson.
Landry was born in New Bedford, Mass. A former television news reporter, he holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern Maine. He is self employed as a video producer, focusing on corporate videos.
Landry's father was a career U.S. Navy officer, so his family moved often. He attended three high schools – in Quantico, Va., Newport, R.I., and San Diego – but always returned to a summer home in the Ocean Park community in Old Orchard Beach.
"Maine was always that home that we could come back to," he said. "It was always a permanent fixture."
Landry said parents of school-aged children are the best candidates for the School Board, but many can't do it for the very same reason they're qualified.
"They're coaching Little League. They're coaching football. They're engaged in other activities with their kids. They're fully engaged professionally," he said.
Landry said the key to participating is shifting priorities, something he has done in the past. He has been an active volunteer at the schools for about 20 years, he said, including field trips, managing charity auctions, volunteering in the classroom and offering computer support.
"If you look at all those activities, I have really been dedicating a certain portion of time to the school system, and I'll just have to shift some of that time to work on the board," he said.
Landry said there's little room to steer the board toward any pet projects, because the board's duties are largely mandated by the state and much of the time is dedicated toward managing the schools' $100 million budget.
Nonetheless, there are a few areas Landry said he would like to explore: improving test scores and increasing students' readiness for college or the workforce. He hopes to help facilitate connections between the schools, business community and colleges, he said.
"These kids are graduating and going on. We want to make sure that when they do go on, they're ready to go on; that they can successfully manage themselves in a freshman class without feeling that they were unprepared; or they can go into business," he said. "We want them to feel that they have the tools to graduate."
Landry said he is also interested in alleviating budget pressure by looking at consolidation of administrative positions.
"Not consolidation of schools, but a consolidation of back office," he said.
All school districts in Maine have departments in human resources, finance, information technologies and more, he noted.
"Can you share any of these resources? If so, can you share them in a way that reduces your overhead?," Landry said. "If you can reduce overhead costs that means potentially more money can go into the classroom."
Landry said the diversity within Portland's public schools is their greatest strength.
"The more diverse your student body is, the more vibrant the learning process is. The two go hand in hand. Portland has the most diverse student body in all of Maine. We're really fortunate," he said. "It creates challenges, because we have dozens of languages spoken in our schools, but I'll accept the challenges because of the benefit they provide."
Fred Miller entered the race shortly after he received his most recent tax bill.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
This year, Miller said, he will see a $180 increase in property taxes. He said he has heard from people all over the city who were hit with bigger increases.
"I think the schools are a mess. I think they have created a tax burden for the citizens of Portland," he said. "I think they can do things far more efficiently. And I'm not talking about cutting services."
Miller, 71, has never held an elected office. Last November, he ran as a Republican in state House District 117, but lost by a large margin to Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland.
Miller has three adult children, and two grandchildren who attend school in Shapleigh.
Miller said the district's greatest challenge is its immigrant population.
"These people are coming mostly from Africa. They have no knowledge of English. They're putting the kids into school for the first time and these kids don't know English," he said.
Miller said there could be an inexpensive solution to teaching students English.
"How do these immigrants get to America from Africa? Catholic Charities, right? Catholic Charities are doing what they feel they have to to honor their Christian base. No problem there. Welcome to America," he said. "(Catholic Charities) provide(s) rent, they provide furniture, they provide clothing. You're not going to take someone from Africa and put them through a Maine winter without dressing them properly. They're doing all these things, they're getting them EBT cards, whatever.
"But they're leaving the burden on the citizens of Portland to educate these guys, right? And I say, 'OK, Catholic Charities, you're doing a great job so far, but why stop at 90 percent?' They've got the volunteers. I would almost be willing to bet that there are people in the organization that speak Arabic that could help these people, young and old, learn English. If you want to get these people involved in their city, how can you do it if you don't get the language situation under control?"
If elected to the School Board, Miller said he would work behind the scenes to encourage Catholic Charities to teach English to immigrant students.
"I would try to do a major selling job, and I think I can pull it off," he said. "I'd be working behind the scenes and say, 'Hey, guys, why don't you at least give it a shot. If you can't, you can't, but don't say you can't until you try.'"
Miller is a part-time radio personaility who spins oldies, big-band music, classic country and some "songs of faith" for a Christian-owned, non-commercial radio station. He also works in sales for the station to drum up underwriting dollars.
Miller has a long career in TV and radio and has also worked as a substitute teacher in special education since 1993. He has also taught typing and computers at two community colleges.
Another way to increase revenue for the schools is to be more active in seeking grants, he said.
"Grants are incredibly important. You can get money to help people learn the language, and become acclimated to Portland and America without the taxpayers paying a dime," he said.
Most of all, however, Miller said he is upset that so many ed techs were cut from the schools. One of his neighbors sold their home and moved to Scarborough because they had difficulty finding appropriate services for their autistic son, an outcome that Miller blames on the loss of ed techs.
"A lot of ed techs took the axe. Ed techs do the grunt work in special education. They do the heavy lifting," he said. "You've got to do (budget cuts) smarter. You've got to say, 'What are the alternatives? If we have to cut this, what are our other choices? Have we looked at them?'"
Anna Trevorrow believes Portland's public schools can be used to attract families to move to the city, if the curriculum is tweaked and the schools are equalized in terms of programs, teacher-student ratios and more.
Trevorrow said she feels the city is losing too many families to school systems in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth or Yarmouth. Within the city, families are also moving to neighborhoods based on individual school reputations, she said.
"We need to draw families into the district," Trevorrow said. "We do that by getting our schools on the same page with a curriculum at a universal level. Right now, we're seeing parents moving across town to get their kids into the 'right school, the right classroom, with the right teacher.' It's perfectly within the purview of the School board to set a direction for the schools in that area, particularly curriculum."
Trevorrow, 31, is originally from Monmouth. She attended secondary school at Evergreen Sudbury School, a nontraditional, self-directed school in Hallowell, then earned an English degree from the University of Southern Maine.
She works as an aide for three unenrolled legislators in Augusta. She is also the founding member and director of Green Initiatives Education Fund, a nonprofit group "dedicated to a just and sustainable future," according to her website.
Trevorrow ran unsuccessfully for School Board in 2008; her live-in partner Anthony Zeli ran unsuccessfully a year later.
In 2009, Trevorrow served as chairwoman of the Maine Green Independent Party. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, as a Green Independent candidate.
Trevorrow worked for seven years as a banker, and said she hopes to someday serve on the School Board's finance committee.
Trevorrow has no children, but said she developed a passion for education from her parents, who are both public school teachers.
"When you grow up that way, you're taught that education is the most important thing in the world that no one can take away from you," she said.
In 2009, Trevorrow was elected to the Charter Commission. She said that experience, combined with her work as a legislative aide, gives her an edge over her competitors, especially since the board is losing two longtime members.
"I'm probably the best candidate to step in and fill that role," she said. "I know my way around the city, and I'm the only one running with government experience. I have the dedication to education, but I also have the experience to hit the ground running."
Leveling the playing field between Portland's many schools is Trevorrow's main goal.
"If we can embrace that, and we can do that, then we have something to market to parents, to families, so they have a reason to come to Portland, to move to Portland, and that would equal out the tax base," she said.
Trevorrow has been endorsed by the Maine League of Young Voters.
Portland voters can cast their ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 11 polling stations, which are listed on the city's website. Absentee ballots can be requested from the city clerk's office before 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 31, and must be returned by mail, fax or hand-delivery by the time the polls close on Nov. 5.