1. What is the most important role of a school member and why do you want the job?
Liz Downing: Board members have three official roles: hire the superintendent, approve policy, and approve the budget. We have 8 sub-districts, the same as the Borough Assembly, but, we serve the entire district. Yet we bring a community perspective to the table. It is important for us to know our communities and our district, to know how decisions are made, and to be able to influence decisions so we can represent community interests in the process.
I am excited to continue to support the students, families, teachers, and staff as we implement our latest strategic plan. I bring over 30 years of education experience with policies, budgets, and advocating for legislative support. My Board experience has provided a deep understanding of issues and steps to solutions critical for moving our district forward. I have enjoyed great support from local educators and families and will continue to work to earn this support over this next term.
Mike Illg: The most important role of a school board member is to collectively provide comprehensive direction to the school district’s overall operations, goals and objectives that are reflective of local community needs/input while encompassing the purpose of the school district as a whole. This is surely a challenging task considering there are 43 different schools throughout the Kenai Peninsula each with their own unique political, social and demographical needs and influences. It is my belief that the ideal school board representative should be very aware and active in their respective community to adequately represent and advocate for their educational and operational needs on all governmental levels. With my personal and professional involvement in Homer, I believe that I can best represent many important segments of our community: students, staff, parents and community members at large.
2. What tops your school district to-do list? Why?
Downing: My school district to-do list is the same as it is for everyone in the district as we work together to further our strategic plan. The plan is coming close to completion as we receive input from individual school site councils. As a Board member, I feel it is critical to keep our key goals in mind as we make each decision. Priorities include: implementing strategies for student engagement that will lead to higher graduation rates; encouraging on-going teacher collaboration and professional development; offering greater opportunities for parent/family engagement in our schools; and advocating for pre-K funding. These are just some of the efforts focusing on academic success, organizational excellence, and community/family engagement that will continue to strengthen our already strong school district.
Illg: Some of the guiding principles of our school district include the beliefs that education is the accepted responsibility of the entire community and that learning becomes a lifelong process. It is my opinion that we need to improve communication and collaborations between the local stakeholders as they all have vested interest in each other’s operations and services, especially so in the Homer area with the physical distance of centralized authority being 6o miles away. Possible ideas for communication improvements could include recruiting diverse members for the local school site councils and expanding the scope of their advisory authority, have staff/students attend local municipal meetings to give updates of current and future happenings or host public information sessions with all local school principals at one location for a community meet and greet event. Ideally, these improved connections will enhance the overall educational experience and services for the students.
3. According to a recent report by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin state and local communities could lose $2.7 billion in federal funding for programs like Title I, special educational state grants and Head Start if the automatic cuts written into the Budget Control Act go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. How prepared is the district to handle cuts to these and other programs and how will you determine where to cut the budget, if necessary?
Downing: If the Budget Control Act goes into effect on January 1, several things are likely, or at least possible, to occur before there is an impact on our district’s budget. First, note that education funding will not be impacted this fiscal year so there will be no immediate reductions in our budget. Second, we may elect Federal legislators who support education and will pass an education budget before FY’14. Third, our State Legislature may provide a safety net until Federal funds are released or in lieu of them. Fourth, our Borough Assembly has a Fund Balance that may be appropriated — again hopefully as a temporary measure.
Failing all of the above, the administration would make recommendations for adjustments to services to maximize the resources and provide for basic support to our students. The Board would then review the recommendations and scrutinize the balance of the budget for additional funding as needed.
Illg: It is my understanding that these cuts are actually reductions in funding and not complete elimination of these programs. While this does not lessen the concern, the potential reductions may create inevitable negative impacts on the low-income demographics within our communities that these important programs serve. I am a big supporter for the Head Start programs and understand the crucial roles schools have for low-income communities. Possible ideas and solutions could include the use of qualified volunteers; create partnership with local social service entities and to seek alternative funding to assist with closing the financial gap. Hopefully the federal government will reevaluate the consequences of these reductions. If the reductions are enforced, then it will limit the amount of services available and the school district will have to make the qualifying variables stricter for the limited available participation.
4. Last year, the school district pointed out it could save $526,605 in transportation costs by going to a two-tier busing system on the southern Kenai Peninsula. That system is in place in other parts of the school district. That would mean changing start times at some schools. Should the system be implemented on the southern peninsula? Why?
Downing: Our State Legislature provides a separate transportation subsidy that cannot be used for any other purpose. This funding was inadequate to cover the cost under the previous contract of the 7,000 miles per day that First Student buses carry our students. Two things have happened since then. First, the Legislature provided full funding covering costs until FY’16. Second, we negotiated a new contract with First Student that includes fuel costs, reducing the uncertainty of our costs.
Discussions last year brought many issues to light. The Board will review transportation throughout the district over the next year or so and will work with our communities as changes are needed. Personally, I want us to be as cost-effective and responsible as possible while balancing the needs of our diverse communities. What works in Seward or the Central Peninsula does not always make sense for our communities on the Southern Peninsula.
Illg: While this is identified as a substantial savings for the school district, I believe more research needs to be reviewed before changing the local school start and closing times. I would like to identify whether there is a connection between the later school start times and student achievement. Our school district consistently scores highest in the state in proficient test scores in language arts and math. There could be some correlation considering more than half of all schools in our district start after 8:30 a.m. This may have an influence for the overall success and productivity for students, staff and parents. Fortunately, the Legislature has agreed to allocate funds for the increase in school costs and changed the funding formula for this expense. This is not a pressing issue right now and school times will not be changed anytime soon but the funding formula will be reviewed again in 2016.
5. What is the school district’s greatest strength? What is the school district’s greatest weakness? What would you do to build on the strength and fix the weakness?
Downing: KPBSD has tremendously talented and dedicated teachers and administrators. Our greatest weakness (as in most organizations) is in communicating that quality. We need to counter the distorted national opinion of education, brought on by No Child Left Behind. As a mother of a KPBSD student, I see the breadth and depth of the work he does, the high expectations of our teachers, and the quality of our schools from facilities to school culture. We have great kids influenced by their families, community, and their education. The Board and the District have made communication a high priority with progress through procedures, blogs, and electronic communication. We will continue to build on these strengths and, with our community’s input, further improve multiple channels of communication so those with kids in schools, and those who live in our communities, can gain a better understanding and appreciation of just what a great school system we have.
Illg: I believe the school district’s greatest strength lies within the dedicated and knowledgeable employees that continue to deliver the best possible education available. Education is highly valued in the Kenai Peninsula Borough most notably in the Homer area. Nintey-six percent of Homer residents are high school graduates or higher, compared to 85 percent in this category nationwide. Thirty-four percent of Homer residents have earned bachelor’s degrees or higher compared to 28 percent nationwide (2010 Census data). Consequently, there are high expectations in the quality and delivery of public educational services and it shows. The school district’s biggest weakness or challenge is the physical distance of local schools from the school district leaders, which limits the number of face-to-face interactions and intimate local awareness. There is a lot of information and personal connections that may be missed when communicating primarily through emails and phone calls.