District changes await new board

Posted: Tuesday, August 19, 2003

As election season approaches, the Kenai Peninsula has an opportunity to make some changes to the board that oversees its schools.

However, just how different things will be after the Oct. 7 election remains to be seen.

Last October, voters opted to reappropriate the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education, electing nine members by district rather than seven members at large.

Nearly a year later, though, with all nine district seats up for grabs, the school board election has drawn relatively little attention.

Five of the seven current board members filed to run for open seats on the board, and most of them will run unopposed. A handful of people who have run for the board in the past are back on the ballot. And a couple new faces will enter the election.

Still, there are only 11 people running for the nine seats, and one district the South Peninsula failed to draw a single candidate.

The South Peninsula district encompasses communities such as Anchor Point, Diamond Ridge, Halibut Cove, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Fritz Creek, according to borough clerk Linda Murphy.

She said despite the lack of official candidates, the board position for the district will remain on the ballot as a write-in slot.

"After the election, we'll count all the write-ins, and the person with the most assuming they are eligible will be declared the winner," she said.

"It's possible someone might still mount a write-in campaign."

Current board President Joe Arness, who will not run for another term on the board, agreed.

"Probably, somebody who's interested will get a few people to turn out and write them in," he said.

If a clear winner isn't determined through write-ins, Arness said the board likely will fall back on its policy for filling seats left vacant by resignations.

In such a case, the board calls for applications from eligible residents, holds a public comment period and appoints a member.

But given the new appropriation of the board, he can't be certain of the official procedure, he said.

"I assume when all else failed, somebody would be appointed," he said. "But this is all a new game for us. We've never been in this position."

Arness, who has served on the school board for more than 10 years, said several factors contributed to his decision not to run.

"I don't have kids in school anymore," he said. "That doesn't mean I've lost interest. I take a lot of pride in our schools. But I don't have kids there anymore."

And, he added, the strenuous contract negotiation process last year contributed to his decision not to run. Arness was appointed the district's spokesperson about halfway through the process.

"After that whole drawn-out negotiation process, I sort of became identified by design as the focus on the board side for negativity," he said. "When I agreed to do that, it was with the expectation I would go off the board. I think it will help the healing process."

Finally, he said, "Deb Mullins and I were placed in the position of being the only incumbents in the same district.

"She's got stuff going on. She's supposed to be the president of the state (board of education) next year, and that can't happen if she isn't on a board.

"I think that's important enough to step aside. That's not to say I could beat her if I ran, but rather than set up something like that, I decided to step aside and be a private citizen for a while."

But while Arness had his own reasons for not running for a board seat, he said the lower-than-expected candidate turnout came as a bit of a surprise to him.

"I really expected more regional candidates," he said.

"Seldovia, for example, abso-lutely had to have a seat. They (said they) were treated so shabbily by the board of education, and they can't even generate interest."

Seldovia is one of the communities in the South Peninsula district, and one that voted strongly in favor of the reapportionment of the board.

On a boroughwide basis, last year's vote to revamp the board was fairly close, with 56 percent of voters opting for the redesign and about 44 percent in favor of leaving the board at status quo.

In smaller, outlying communities especially those in the south peninsula the vote was not so close, though. Seldovia, for example, voted 72 percent to 28 percent in favor of electing board members by district. In Fritz Creek, the vote was 69 percent to 31 percent, and in Anchor Point, it was 60 percent to 40 percent.

Regardless of what happens with the South Peninsula district, though, Arness said he doesn't think the districting of the school board will make much impact this year, at least.

"I don't think it will (change much) in the next 12 months," he said. "Over time, I don't know. I hope not. I hope it will continue to function as it has. I feel it functions reasonably well.

"I still think we have the finest superintendent and administrative team in the state. And that's 75, 80 percent of the district's operations.

"By and large, the district is in good shape."

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