Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer took time during a Thursday visit to give fellow Rotarians a legislative update.
"Rotary has been a part of my life for a long time. My father was very active Rotarian. ... Growing up as a kid, I used to go to all the Christmas parties," she told the Soldotna Rotary Club. "So when Rotary decided to allow women to join back in the 1980s, I said, 'Yes, I want to do this. Dad did it, so I want to do it.'"
She thanked the Soldotna Rotary Club during its luncheon meeting at Mykel's for its community service projects.
"I know in addition to fun fellowship, this is a great way to engage and improve the community you live in," she said.
Ulmer was to speak to the League of Women Voters in Kenai on Thursday night. At noon, though, she addressed the Soldotna Rotary Club on education, rising interest in building a pipeline to bring North Slope natural gas to Lower 48 markets, and elections, which the lieutenant governor oversees.
The hot issue in education is the exit exam, a test of reading, writing and mathematics that, barring changes to the law, all Alaska high school students will have to pass, beginning in 2002, to receive a diploma. In a trial run on high school sophomores, Kenai Peninsula schools performed slightly better-than-average in reading and some were above-average in writing.
"Math wasn't so hot," she said.
Ulmer said there is no doubt that testing and the expectation that graduates will have mastered a certain body of knowledge are appropriate.
"The question, however, is whether we're ready for this test yet, or whether we really need a few more years for schools, teachers, parents and students to have a high-stakes exit exam really determine whether or not they get a diploma," she said.
Some schools have been ready for a long time, she said, but some have not yet adjusted their curricula or trained their teachers to help students to meet the new standards.
"We don't think it's fair to penalize the kids," Ulmer said.
There are also questions about how to apply the exam to special-needs students, she said, and the administration is concerned that some students may drop out of school because they do not believe they will pass the test.
So, Gov. Tony Knowles has introduced legislation to delay use of the exit exam for four years.
Ulmer said the other hot education issue is funding. Following the recommendations of a citizen task force, Knowles has proposed a $24.6 million boost to the school foundation formula, a $10 million increase to the quality schools grant program, an $800,000 appropriation to recruit new teachers by paying off their student loans, $1.2 million to ensure that enrollment growth is fully funded for all school districts.
He has proposed spending $127 million for school construction and maintenance, including a $245,000 grant to replace the septic system at McNeil Canyon Elementary School near Homer, $551,000 to upgrade wall insulation at Kenai Central High School and $398,000 to replace the roof on the Seward Middle School gym.
Ulmer said that given the spike in natural gas prices, the administration is optimistic about prospects for construction of a pipeline to carry North Slope gas to the Lower 48. Knowles will insist that the developers hire Alaska residents and businesses during construction, that they make North Slope gas available to Alaska residents and businesses, and that Alaska gets a fair share of the value of the resource.
The November presidential election put elections in the limelight, she said.
"The Florida fiasco was a wake-up call for many cities and counties and states that there are some problems that need to be fixed in not only the technology, but also the rules and regulations and processes and systems," she said. "The good news is, it's great in Alaska by comparison."
In many states, each county has its own election rules, voting technology and ballot design. But Alaska has a statewide ballot and election rules, she said, and that fosters accountability, accuracy and voter confidence.
Alaska eliminated punch-card ballots three years ago, she said, and hanging chads are not an issue. The Legislature has approved $2 million over three years for Accu-Vote optical scanning machines to count ballots. The scanner reads ballots immediately and rejects any with errors, such as when a voter marks two candidates for a single office.
"It's instantaneous," she said. "The election worker says, 'There's a problem with your ballot. I'm giving you a new one. Please make sure you vote only for one person.'"
People do make errors, she said, but the new system ensures that their votes are not lost.
"We have 431 precincts in Alaska," she said. "About 85 percent of Alaska voters use Accu-Vote. By the next election, it will be 90 percent."
The remainder, mainly residents of small villages, use the same ballots, but they are tabulated by hand.
Ulmer said Alaska's election system does require changes since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a California case that when a political party requests a closed primary election, the state must comply. Previously, California, Alaska and Washington held blanket primaries, where each voter received a ballot containing candidates from all parties.
Last year, though, the Alaska Republican Party requested that only Republicans and undeclared or nonpartisan voters should be allowed to vote in its primary. Ulmer issued emergency regulations to comply with the court ruling. Knowles introduced legislation Thursday to enact a long-term solution.
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