Money was the question of the day Wednesday, as two candidates for a seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District met in a debate before the Kenai Chamber of Commerce.
Incumbent Sammy Crawford and seven-time candidate Gene Dyson, who are running for Seat 1, Kalifornsky, in the board's only contested race this election season, fielded questions on funding for regular instruction teachers, vocational education and the state's retirement plans for public employees.
Crawford, who has sat on the school board for six years, explained many of the budgetary challenges the school district faces year after year from a lack of adequate funding for education at the state level to rising health insurance costs to the growing contributions school districts (as well as cities, boroughs and the state) must make to the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) programs.
"About 70 percent of our funding comes from the state. This year we saw the largest increase in history: an $82 million increase," Crawford said. "That was for the whole state. It meant $4.6 million in this district. After PERS and TRS and raises we gave employees, we ended up with about $6 more per student.
"Even though that's a nice chunk of change from the state, since 1986, funding has declined. It's an extremely important question, and it has been how we spend a huge amount of our time."
Dyson agreed that the budget will be a central issue for whoever is elected to the school board. However, he said he believes the time spent on the question needs to be handled by people with new ideas.
"Somebody has to bite the bullet," he said. "We can't keep saying we don't have enough money when we spent $90 million a year.
"I have heard, 'We have a bare bones budget' for years, but I haven't seen a solid plan. We need new blood to find out if there is an alternative."
Outside funding conversations, candidates also weighed in on some other educational issues in the district.
Business leaders wanted to know how the school district is preparing students for the work force.
Dyson, a longtime supporter of vocational education in schools, said the district needs to better serve the "average" student through better classroom instruction, more vocational education and "basics" like physical education, which is "a part of growing up."
"We get to the point that we have high-end children and we have low-end children," he said. "We don't have any normal children."
Crawford said she, too, would like to see more opportunities for students to explore their particular interests, but she feels it's more important to prepare all students for life after high school in any venue.
"Every child needs to write well, to read well, to think and to know math," she said. "I think we need to raise the expectations for all students, so they all graduate with a good high school diploma they can use."
In the end, both candidates said their No. 1 priority is better education for students.
"My top priority is getting more teachers in the classroom," Dyson said. "I'm concerned about our most valuable resource: our children."
He said his experience working with city finances, working with children as a custodian at Soldotna Elementary School and following board activities for several years have prepared him for the job of looking out for those youth.
"Remember, this is my seventh year," he said. "I have a lot of experience running for the school board."
Crawford, also concerned with students' education, said she has three priorities for the coming board term: putting highly qualified teachers in front of every class; improving students' writing skills; and making sure children have the best educational materials at hand.
But, while she sees room for improvement in the district, she also lauded the efforts of teachers, staff members, administrators and students.
"We are doing well. We'd like things to be a little different in some ways, but I am proud of the innovative direction we're taking," she said. "We're trying to do things differently and better."
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