Candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's school board met Tuesday for their first forum, a cordial affair hosted by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.
The five candidates expressed similar views on the strengths of the borough school district and concerns for its finances. They differed in their backgrounds and priorities.
Incumbent Susan Larned of Soldotna is facing challengers Al Poindexter of Anchor Point and Faron Owen of Kenai for Seat D. Gene Dyson of Soldotna and Joe Arness of Nikiski are competing for Seat E.
All school board seats are for three years and are elected at-large by peninsula voters.
After introducing themselves, the candidates answered questions from the audience. Following is a summary of their remarks in the order given:
n Susan Larned: The owner and teacher at a Montessori preschool in Soldotna, Larned has lived in Alaska for 16 years, raised five children and is a veteran of six years on the school board.
"It has not all been easy," she said. "There have been some really hard times on the school board. We've had lots of financial problems that we have worked on and continue to work on."
She stressed the approach of educating the "whole child" with art, music, athletics and vocational education as well as academics. Beginning education in preschool is also important, she said.
Challenges like the new Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam make this an important time for the board, she said.
n Al Poindexter: Poindexter described himself as a lifelong resident of Southcentral Alaska, born in Seward and educated in a variety of peninsula schools before attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He taught for 20 years, then retired six years ago from Homer High School. Since, he has run a greenhouse and substituted at schools.
"Our district, I believe, has been a leader in education, at least in the '80s and early '90s," he said. "I think we are slipping, and a large part of that is because of financial difficulties, not getting the Legislature to appropriate enough money."
Vocational education is one of the district's weakest areas and needs improvement, he said.
"I think we can improve that, even with our financial restraints," he said.
n Faron Owen: Owen, director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, has lived in Alaska for two years. Interest in the future education for his young children and a desire to be involved in the community, rather than dissatisfaction, inspired his choice to run, he said.
He cited the trend toward home schooling and other changes as raising concerns, however, about the district.
"I think there are some strong questions we need to ask," he said. "What is the dissatisfaction with the public schools?"
Owen agreed with the other candidates that education must cover diverse subjects to serve children well.
"We need to look within the budget, maybe to find some creative ways to finance those things," he said.
His travels have exposed him to a variety of school districts and new ideas. One concept that impressed him was partnerships between business and schools to pay for programs.
"I think there are some things we can look at 'outside of the box,' try a little different thinking, work with the Legislature to increase the funding."
He urged finding ways to inflation proof school funding.
"Otherwise it's only going to get worse."
n Gene Dyson: Dyson, who has run for school board before, called himself a "career candidate."
He pointed to families leaving the public schools and cuts in advanced placement high school courses as two causes for concern. Getting more regular, as opposed to special education, teachers into classrooms would be his priority, he said.
Dyson recommended setting up an "independent, blue-chip panel" to examine district finances and recommend ways to maximize spending efficiencies rather than tackling the problems piecemeal.
"We do need new blood in our system," he said.
n Joe Arness: Arness said although he is not on the school board now, he served nine years before stepping down a year ago. He decided not to run then because of concern about term limits and a desire to try something different, he said.
"I discovered that I missed it a lot more than I thought I would," he said. "I am a guy who likes to be involved."
He praised the district as the finest in the state.
"I feel like I have been a part of that for the last nine years, putting that school district together. We have a great superintendent, a good, solid board and a great community.
"We have some people who are opting for another choice. I don't feel threatened by that."
Arness cited his record of nine years and said he was proud to run on it.
Question: What would each candidate say as to how voters should remember them?
Faron Owen: "I have five children, ... and I want to make sure they get the best education they could have on the peninsula."
Susan Larned: "I want you to remember that I am interested in the whole child, and also that I am a good listener and a good team player, and I love working on the board."
Gene Dyson: "I have two grandchildren in the system, and I am a firm believer that we should try for the moon instead of for mediocrity."
Al Poindexter: I, too, believe in the whole child, except that the college-bound student is going to make it in spite of us. It is the other forgotten half that I am concerned about, and I think we can do a better job with their programming."
Joe Arness: "We really have no idea today what the questions are going to be tomorrow. I just encourage you to remember that I have 15 years of public service in this borough."
Question: What opportunities and options do you see in partnerships between business and schools?
Faron Owen: Traveling in Louisiana, he saw examples of individual schools working with businesses for things like athletics and Internet connectivity. He noted that the Kenai district purchased about $700,000 of computers from Dell and questioned the wisdom of going that route rather than buying from area vendors.
"I think as a school board, we've got to step forward first and say, 'We want to work with you, now you come back and work with us.'"
Gene Dyson: In the past 10 years, the district has lagged with vocational education. As a nation, we have begun importing technical people, he said.
"Somewhere along the way, we are going to have to change our priorities, come in with a strong voc-ed system," he said. "We need to make sure our people are trained when they come out into the business world."
Susan Larned: "This is a real good idea, and we are doing it."
She pointed to some examples in Soldotna schools, such as a partnership with Heritage Place for a certified nursing assistant program, students running the concession stand at the Soldotna Sports Center and students working at Safeway.
Joe Arness: Students can get school credit for working at jobs, he said.
A few years ago, the district began collecting a list of business people who could share expertise with classes, he said.
"I know some of that occurs; I don't know how much of it occurs," he said.
Al Poindexter: Schools ask businesses for help but are missing from community events. As former president of the Anchor Point Chamber of Commerce and organizing the town's Snow Rondy winter carnival, he was disappointed by the school people's absence, he said.
"They are not getting involved in the community. Our schools need to be more involved in community events. I also see a lot of people footing athletics, because you can sit on a bench and watch. We need to put vocational education out in the arena where folks can watch what is going on.
"And talking of Dell, there is no reason we can't go to outside corporations to ask for support," he said.
Question: How would the candidates find the time to commit to school board business?
Joe Arness: He described himself as a self-employed entrepreneur.
"Which is a fancy term for someone who will do anything to not have a real job," he said. "I operate a hotel in Kenai; I commercial fish in the summer -- the same thing I did when I was on the board before."
Al Poindexter: "I own and operate a greenhouse. I am busy in April and May. And the rest of the time I am trying to figure out what I am going to do next, so I have a lot of time."
Gene Dyson: "I had the privilege of retiring as the head custodian of Soldotna Elementary. I am on the hospital service area board. The only thing that might tie me up is harvesting my carrots and potatoes. But basically, my time is free."
Susan Larned: "One thing that did surprise me when I was elected to the board before is that it took a lot more time than I realized."
She said the heavy load of committee work, reading and meetings that run late into the evening.
"One advantage of owning your own business is you can schedule your own time," she said.
Faron Owen: He noted that he is the only candidate with a regular day job.
"It is definitely a time commitment. It is time away from my family more than time away from work. It was a family decision. We sat down and talked about it," he said.
"It is that important."
Question: If you wrote to the Legislature seeking money for education, what two things would be your top priorities for funding?
Faron Owen: He chose changing the foundation formula (used to calculate state school funding) to accommodate inflation.
"When the formula stays fixed at the state level, it also ties our hands at the borough level with what we can do," he said.
Susan Larned: "I would like to see more money to hire more teachers for the early elementary years," she said.
Small class sizes, especially for kindergarten through second grade would be her top priority to give students a solid foundation, she said.
Gene Dyson: "I would look into the cap (which limits how much money the borough can contribute to schools). What would happen if we didn't have a cap?"
He would like to assure that more teachers become available for classroom teaching, and he questioned everyone's assumption that more money would improve schooling.
"More money won't solve all our problems, I think."
Al Poindexter: He advocated, first, inflation proofing or completely overhauling the foundation formula and, second, funding vocational education as a "core area." Technology is more than computers, and schools should offer more in that area, he said.
Joe Arness: His first priority from the Legislature would be to alter the foundation formula to cope with inflation. His second would be a separate mechanism for funding maintenance and repairs.
Question: What do the candidates think of the proposed 10 mill tax cap that will be on the fall ballot?
Joe Arness: He said he opposed it because the peninsula has its own tax cap and the initiative reflects an Anchorage problem.
Al Poindexter: He said he opposed the cap because of its potential damage to school funding.
Gene Dyson: He said has been researching the matter, which is complex, and has not yet decided how he will vote on it.
Susan Larned: She said she opposed the cap. The district is working on a contingency plan in case it passes and affects statewide school funding, she said.
Faron Owen: He said he opposed the proposed cap as the imposition of an Anchorage problem on the rest of the state.
Question: How could the peninsula's school board address the problem of other districts that collect state education funding but have few or even no students?
Joe Arness: The Kenai Peninsula school board could do little about it, except working with legislators for change, he said.
Gene Dyson: He noted that the district has its own small bush schools that have tried to seek more funds.
Joe Arness: Replying to Dyson, he said that schools such as Tyonek have the same needs as remote Bush schools but changes in the foundation formula have not significantly changed the district's funding for them.
Susan Larned: "We have been trying for years to get this to happen," she said.
Peninsula board members have been able to raise awareness of the issue through the statewide organization of school board members with the hope that the attitude will "trickle down" and ease change.
Faron Owen: He doubted there was a direct effect the peninsula could have on other districts.
"But we could also work with the Legislature for some autonomy for the district, so to speak, so we don't have Galena school district coming in here and taking 800 of our students and things like that," he said. "That is an immediate thing we could work toward."
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