Candidates vying for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor's seat kicked off debate season Wednesday at a forum hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Education Association.
The six candidates were quizzed on several subjects, but mostly discussed school district funding with the standing-room-only-audience filling Froso's in Soldotna.
Gary Superman, a former assembly member and Nikiski resident, started the discussion.
"I am honest with people, I am open to people, I am open to dialogue and I am open to being educated and I am open to discussion," he said. "I am willing to work with all groups - that's the way I come to the process of making a decision."
Superman said his honesty is what separates him from the other candidates. His qualifications, he contends, are numerous.
"I'm intimately familiar with the budget process, the school district's budget process and all the functions throughout the borough," he said.
Superman said eight of the nine years he served on the assembly he supported funding the school district to the cap. Future funding, he said, would be a matter of "can we afford it or not?"
"That really underscores the idea that I am going to make some tough decisions," he said. "I think there are some tough decisions to make in the next three years. Are they budgetary in nature? I think they are. Will they have some impact on the school district? It depends on what our economy is going to do and fortunately I see our economy taking a step forward right now."
Nikiski resident Tim O'Brien spoke next and said he was strongly encouraged by residents to run for the position.
"I do not want to be a career politician," he said. "I'm a saw mill owner, I'm a lodge owner and what I think we need to focus on is putting land in the private sector. We can use 40 percent of the money for education and we have land ... so we need to put it up for sale. We can use that."
O'Brien said the school district and community both need to get on a "180 degree path" and use local resources to improve children's futures.
"I think that we need to put some time and some value into our children," he said. "I think we have kind of lost the goal and the direction."
O'Brien also argued that funding for the school district could be improved by utilizing the area's resources.
"Funding to the cap would be very easy," he said. "We have tunnel vision now - we do not need to raise our taxes, we need to gain infrastructure. We have jobs now, we have the hydropower ... we have got geothermal ... we have got the ferry system, we have got all kinds of communities coming into play. What we need to do is for some reason we are stuck on a few goals and we don't have to be."
Former state legislator and borough mayor Mike Navarre said above all, he is good at budgeting.
"I spent two years as chair of the House Finance Committee and it was the first time that funding for education had been increased for five years," he said. "...And it was funded to the cap and beyond when I was mayor. I've been a strong advocate for education, I'm a good consensus builder, a good team builder and a good problem solver."
However, Navarre said it would be a balancing act to fund the school district to the cap. That, he said, depends on revenue levels.
"The simple way to answer this would be to say ‘Yes,' but that would not be accurate," he said of funding to the cap. "The only thing I can say is ‘Maybe.'"
"It is part of the overall budget picture for the borough," Navarre continued. "Currently we are deficit spending in this borough, which means that revenues are less than expenditures and of course the biggest expense is for education."
However, Navarre said he would fall back heavily on his public office tenure and involvement in, and knowledge of the school system if elected mayor.
"I have 15 years in public office," he said. "I have a record of strong support for public education, so I urge you to take a look at my record and judge me based on my record. I'll listen, I'll work together with you and I'll be a problem solver."
Kasilof resident Debbie Brown said education has been "her life" and said many of the other women in her family were teachers.
"I don't do this for political reasons - education has been my life and I am very much sold on it," she said.
"I do understand what we are supposed to be doing in this business and I care very deeply about it," she said. "...We all in this economy will do the very best we can to get the product, the outcome that we must have."
Brown said she would "go to bat" for education funding despite the borough's "revenue-in problem."
"I will say, ‘Yes,' that I would like to support, I intend to support, if we can afford it, funding to the state cap, but not beyond like we have done in the past because I believe the economy is putting hardships on people," she said. "...I'm going to support this, but I am going to need all of you to support development, so that we can improve the revenue inside of this equation that we know exists."
Above all, Brown said she is good at building relationships.
"I really have put in years, whether it is as an individual, whether it is as a parent, as a community service person and in public service," she said. "So my record stands and I think you'll be very proud of what I do."
Former mayor Dale Bagley said during the six years he was in charge of the borough he was "always an advocate for the school district."
"I definitely understand a lot of the problems that the teachers have in the area," he said. "... I definitely understand the funding challenges and I look forward to serving as mayor again."
Bagley was also asked about funding the district to the cap.
"If needed, then yes we'll fund to the cap, but if not, I would not be advocating that every year, no matter what we would fund to the cap," he said. "It would depend on the money that is coming in."
Soldotna resident Fred Sturman said there will likely need to be "a lot of work" done to the school district.
"I think you guys need to really work hard on combining some of these schools and start cutting back," he said. "I know it is going to be hard - people are going to scream and harp, but don't forget, we don't have 900 kids in school today that we had 10 years ago and the money is not here today that we had 10 years ago."
Sturman said he would fall back on his experience in the private sector if elected.
"I don't have a lot of the qualifications that some of these people have other than I have basically managed money all of my life," he said. "I've run several businesses here in town that had large money spent per hour and we have always managed to come out and make a profit."
When asked about funding the district to the cap, Sturman said it is always easiest to "say, ‘Yes,' when you are spending somebody else's money."
"We are going to have to do more with less in the very near future," he said.