PORTLAND, Maine — The race for an open at-large seat on the Portland school board features a pair of familiar faces: a candidate who ran unsuccessfully for the board last year and a former state representative.
The seat has been vacant since Elizabeth Brooks stepped down in January, and the board decided not to hold a special election.
John Eder, 45, of Commercial Street, said he got into the Portland Board of Public Education race because school policy has been important to him since he was “almost failed by the school system.”
“I was a high school dropout, and it was through some creative, supportive people that I was able to graduate on time, whereas I might have not returned to school,” Eder said. “That’s the kind of creativity that I want to apply to keeping kids in high school here in Portland.”
He said if not for these creative solutions, including internships and volunteering, he might not otherwise have turned his life around.
Eder said kids who drop out of high school are essentially being “relegated to an underclass” and will cost the state a lot of money because of the social services they will require. He said a high school dropout has essentially “checked out of society,” since it is nearly impossible to get any kind of job without a high school diploma.
“We’re not just building kids who can regurgitate information and perform well on tests,” Eder said. “We’re making the next citizens in our schools in Portland, and that’s a concern to all of us.”
Eder, a former state representative who more recently was a co-founder of Friends of Congress Square Park — the group that helped reverse the city’s plan to sell part of the downtown plaza — said he has an ambitious “but very doable” plan for the school board, one he said he will still push for even if he loses the election.
He said one major thing he’s concerned about is “losing economic diversity,” because of “middle-class flight” out of the schools and competition from charter schools. He said, “We have to bring our schools into the 21st century and make them competitive,” otherwise the students will leave.
“It’s a tragedy our schools are getting hollowed out,” Eder said.
He said his first goal is to improve marketing and promotion of Portland Public Schools as a viable option for students from throughout greater Portland. He said too often he has seen families move to towns like Falmouth, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth because of perceptions those places have better schools.
“I would like to see us put together a bond package to expand Casco Bay High School and start bringing in hundreds of students from around the greater Portland area and beyond,” Eder said. “And to also promote our schools like Reiche School, in a way that emphasizes the intrinsic values that are not immediately available [from test scores].”
He said these intrinsic values, which include learning foreign languages and interacting with different cultures, will help kids learn empathy, so that they will be better suited for a “global world that we’re clearly moving into.”
Eder said he wants to ensure kids get credit if they demonstrate proficiency in their first language, if English is their second language. A related concern he sees in the school system is a “lack of diversity in the teaching staff” that doesn’t “reflect the diversity and changing demographics of the student body.”
Eder was a two-term member of the state House of Representatives, until he was defeated by now City Councilor Jon Hinck in 2006. At the time he was the highest-ranking elected member of the Green Party in the United States. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011.
Eder said that because of his background he has a skill set that people can “get behind” if they want to see Portland schools made competitive.
“The challenges are not small,” he said, “so we have to think big at this point.”
Gene Landry, 56, of Bay View Avenue, said he has always been involved with and active in public education, especially with his own kids in the schools.
“I’m a parent with kids in the schools, I’ve been a volunteer in the schools, and I’m passionate about public education,” Landry said. “Our schools are a key backbone to the strength of our community, they always are.”
He said his decision to run for the at-large seat was about numbers. When he ran last year, there were six candidates for two seats. Despite the fact he lives in District 4, Landry said he decided to run for the at-large seat since he didn’t want to crowd the ballot. And since there are no party affiliations in school board elections, he said name recognition is difficult.
He said he doesn’t see the school board as being different than parents volunteering. It’s just more of a commitment.
“Really, what you’re asking a school board member to do is, ‘We need to pitch in and contribute in a way that ensures the kids are getting the best possible education, with the money that’s been allocated,’ that’s really your job,” he said. “That’s the best you can hope for. So we expect that you do your homework, we expect that you show up for meetings prepared and we expect that you make a contribution.”
Landry said he thinks people believe that someone running for school board has a platform or a set of issues he or she campaigns on. He said he sees it more as an effort to pitch in than to be a politician.
“It’s not all that glamorous, it’s not high profile. I think the misconception was that you show up with an agenda and you’re going to champion that agenda,” Landry said.
Landry is a former television reporter and currently an independent producer and owner of Persistence Media, which he said has been in business for approximately 10 years.
He said Portland schools have their challenges, particularly the budget.
“You’re never going to have an unlimited budget,” Landry said. “The board has the obligation of trying to manage those resources, given the fact that you’re going to inevitably have challenges, with the fact that you don’t have an unlimited budget.”
He said he and his family consciously settled in Portland for its unique environment and the school system.
“I see school board, to some extent, as being no different than the parent who volunteers to be the director of their school’s fundraiser,” Landry said. “In the sense that each of us really give back something.”
He said the main difference is that being on the school board is a much bigger commitment of time.
“But it really is very similar in the sense that we all have to contribute to a school to really make it a strong community,” Landry said. “And the school board is really just an extension of that.”
He said some issues the board faces, like infrastructure and the movement towards proficiency-based learning, are slightly different than what volunteers typically deal with, and never stop coming.
“What you want out of your school board members is reasonable, considerate, committed people who are going to invest themselves into that process, take some component of it, and try to make our schools better,” Landry said. “And that’s no different than if I volunteered for the school auction. It’s just school auction doesn’t demand as much of my time as potentially the school board would.”
Election Day is Nov. 4.