PORTLAND — Two of the three races for School Board are contested on Nov. 6.
Incumbent Sarah Thompson, an administrator at Maine Medical Center, is unopposed for her third term as an at-large board member.
In District 1, which covers the city’s East End to High Street, incumbent Jenna Vendil, seeking a second term, is challenged by Thomas Kelley. Two newcomers, Holly Seeliger and Jeanne Swanton, are competing for the District 2 (West End) seat being vacated by Ed Bryan.
Neither candidate in the District 1 race is a stranger to the Maine political arena.
Vendil, 28, is the 1st Congressional District field director for the Maine Democratic party and won her seat in 2009. Kelley, 26, works as a staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe in Portland and is running for office for the first time.
Kelley said he would like to see Portland become one of the “leading examples” of how schools should be run in the state, instead of being below state averages on graduation rates.
“I know when I got out of high school, I wanted to go to a good college and get a decent job, and (high) schools really are the start to the solution of problems, whether economic or political,” Kelley said. “I’d like to not only see kids graduating at higher rates, but going on at higher rates to post-secondary education.”
Vendil said she is running for re-election because the district is at a critical point to galvanize the community and complete the work that the board has done over the last several years.
“We need to ensure that every student has the opportunity to pursue their passions and be successful in the classroom and the community,” she said. “(We need to be) making sure we have strong educational programs in academics, making sure we have rigorous and relevant opportunities outside the classroom to make sure students are engaged and learning through experiences that can connect to jobs and potential career paths.”
Both candidates support the School Board’s recent adoption of a sustainability policy.
“I think it is something we have needed for a while,” Kelley said.
Vendil agreed, and said that the policy is a great example of parents, school communities and the board working together.
They also agreed that communication would have made a recent fire at Hall Elementary School easier for everyone to deal with, and that the school needs to be replaced.
Kelley said while he understands that the fire was not the easiest circumstance for administrators, there must be better and faster communication between the administration and parents. Vendil said communication should be improved as a whole, not just in a crisis situation.
“The level of communication happened to the best extent that it could, but I always think there is room for improvement around communication,” she said.
Kelley said he feels graduation rates in Portland could be improved with more involvement from volunteer organizations through local colleges.
“I’d like to see USM, MECA and SMCC have community programs like (the Portland Mentoring Alliance), so that not only are kids getting extra attention, especially our immigrant population, but there’s more evidence of a bridge between high school and college,” he said.
Vendil said she believes support programs starting with high school freshmen and continuing through senior year would help students, including those who are at risk for dropping out, better determine their paths after graduation. She added that she hopes to see more funding go toward these types of programs.
Holly Seeliger, 26, works at the Real School on Mackworth Island in an alternative education program. Jeanne Swanton, 45, is a stay-at-home mom and school volunteer.
In addition to her job at the Real School, Seeliger is a burlesque dancer and has performed across the city. She said that while she has received attention for this part of her life, she thinks that it has been handled very appropriately.
“I feel like it wasn’t scandalous,” she said. “I had a fear when I first had the desire to run about whether people would accept me, but I had to be honest and people will feel however they want to feel about (my dancing).”
Seeliger said she is running for the board because she wants to do her part to keep students in Maine and to help develop policies that allow schools to provide students with the skills to be able to succeed in the jobs available.
Swanton said her experience as co-chairwoman and treasurer of the Reiche Elementary School PTO makes her a good choice for the board.
“I feel like I really know the struggles that are facing the schools, teachers, students and parents,” she said.
Like their District 1 counterparts, both candidates support the adoption of the district’s sustainability policy.
Swanton said she is happy to see the work piloted at Reiche going district wide.
Seeliger said the adoption of the policy fits in to her platform, because she supports farm-to-table initiatives.
“I think we need to do more to teach kids the value of recylcing,” she said. “I want to teach kids where their food comes from, how to recycle their trash and how it affects the world. I want every school to have a program or place where they can have (a community garden).”
Both candidtes said the fire at Hall Elementary School is a sign that the building needs a serious overhaul, but that it is not the only school in Portland in need of major renovations.
“It makes it even more obvious that we need to be repairing our infrastructure,” Seeliger said.
Swanton said the school was never meant to house students for 60 years.
“It’s not a surprise that it is falling apart,” she said, “but we have a bunch of other schools that are like that.”
Both candidates said experiential learning is a key to improving graduation rates in the city.
“I think getting kids involved in experiential learning and doing service projects in the community, giving kids time outside of (school) … (is crucial),” Seeliger said.
Swanton agreed, but also said “at-risk” students need to be identified earlier than high school, that moving them toward a graduation path needs to begin in elementary school. She added that the solution is to get parents and the community involved.
Thompson, 42, said she decided to seek re-election because she wants to ensure that the School Department continues moving in the direction it has been over the past few years.
“When I started back in 2006 we were in crisis mode and we have come so far in six years, it’s hard to walk away,” she said. “We turned the district around financially and leadership wise and now we’re on a great path and I want to continue that work.”
She said she feels the board works very well together and she is excited about the prospect of starting a new term.