PORTLAND — Over the objections of the grassroots group that promoted passage of a $64 million bond to fix four of the city’s elementary schools, City Councilor Belinda Ray was named to the project’s Advisory Building Committee.
In a 5-2 vote Jan. 16, with members Marnie Morrione and Holly Seeliger absent, the School Board supported the nomination of Ray as one of two city councilors on the committee. The other is Councilor Justin Costa.
School Board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow nominated Costa and Ray from a group of five submitted to her by the City Council. That list also included Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Nick Mavodones, along with Mayor Ethan Strimling.
There were no objections to Costa joining the committee. He’s a former School Board member and was in office when discussions first began about how to best address the capital needs at the four elementary schools.
During the School Board meeting, Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, said the group’s board unanimously opposed the appointment of Ray to the building committee because “she’s lost our trust.”
“That’s serious,” Figdor said, “because we need to have confidence in the people making the decisions. We need to have confidence that they have public backing, which, unfortunately, is not the case.”
“We haven’t seen any evidence that Councilor Ray is behind this project. In fact, she’s been critical,” Figdor said, adding that last fall, before the November referendum, Ray called the borrowing measure “a bad idea for many, many reasons.”
“Why give (her) an opportunity to shape these projects when there are lots of people who care deeply. We should invest in them,” Figdor said.
She wasn’t the only one to speak against Ray’s appointment.
Several other residents also spoke in opposition, as did School Board members Tim Atkinson and Sarah Thompson. In addition, in a written statement read into the record, Morrione, who was out of the country, also protested the idea.
Only former City Council candidate Joey Brunelle spoke in favor of Ray during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Brunelle called the concerns expressed by Protect Our Neighborhood Schools “hyperbolic rhetoric” and said “part of being in a democracy is working with people have had different opinions.”
He also called Ray trustworthy, saying she has “a clear sense of right and wrong.”
In defending her choice of Ray, Trevorrow said she didn’t pay attention to the political stances taken on the bond question, but instead made her nominations “based on skills and experience.”
She said Ray has “a fine attention to detail and really does her homework.” Trevorrow also said that Ray “works well with others” and “would bring value” to the committee.
Given a chance to speak to the board before the vote on her appointment, Ray said she is a teacher and “education is incredibly important to me. I do value education and believe I can be an asset.”
She admitted being opposed to the four-school bond for Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools, but said it wasn’t because she didn’t believe in the need to fix the buildings.
“I was concerned about the funding mechanism (only),” she said. “I just wanted to make sure we made the best use of the dollars available. I never opposed improvements to the schools. The funding decision’s been made and now I want to ensure the project is well done.”
But during the public comment period, resident John Thibodeau questioned Ray’s selection and said he felt that throughout she’s “obstructed the process and not acted in good faith.”
He also questioned the absence of Seeliger, and said he’d heard that prior to the meeting she was feeling pressured to support Ray or risk losing her position as head of the School Board’s Policy Committee.
In a statement from the School Department Monday, Superintendent Xavier Botana said Trevorrow and Seeliger have “a different recollection of what was said in a phone conversation prior to the meeting.”
“While their recollections may differ, they both agree that the issue is in the past and that they do not wish to discuss this matter further,” the statement said.
“I am comfortable, having consulted with legal counsel, that given both members’ wish to put this matter to rest, there are no legal or policy issues that need to be addressed, and there is no need for further consideration by the board so, the matter is closed,” the statement concluded.
Speaking in support of Ray’s appointment, School Board members Laurie Davis and Roberto Rodriguez both said they welcome a diversity of opinion. Rodriguez also pointed out “it’s not possible for (one) individual to derail the process.”
In addition to Costa and Ray, the building committee will also consist of three School Board members and six at-large members of the public. Botana said the School Board is expected to make those final appointments at its Feb. 6 meeting.
Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray