Board hopefuls speak in Nikiski

Teacher, support staff contracts, education funding topics at forum

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

Candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education had a chance Tuesday evening to discuss their views at a forum sponsored by the Nikiski Elementary School Parent Teacher Association.

Voters have real choices in the race, as this year's contenders offer distinctive viewpoints and diverse credentials.

Three seats on the seven-member school board are on the ballot in the municipal election Oct. 2. The three incumbents have filed for re-election and face two challengers apiece. Two of the seats are for full, three-year terms, but the third is for one year.

Seven of the nine candidates attended the Nikiski forum.

Each had an opportunity to outline their positions and then answered questions posed informally from the audience. Here is a summary in the order presented:

Sandra Wassilie from Seward was appointed to Seat C eight months ago to replace Mike Chenault, who stepped down from the board to take a seat in the Legislature. She is seeking re-election to serve out the final year of the original term.

Wassilie quipped about having a particular interest in Nikiski schools since buying property in the Gray Cliffs area. She spoke about her Alaska roots and experience working at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTEC) and as a parent volunteer in Seward schools prior to becoming involved with the school board. She has served with other organizations and projects and, since joining the board, worked with legislators to change school funding.

"I think we need to attract and retain teachers of excellence ... and restore adequate funding for education," she said.

Margaret Gilman from Kenai is a newcomer running for Seat C. She grew up in Kenai and taught for 12 years in central peninsula schools. She described herself as a PTA veteran and current stay-at-home mom.

She said she wants the district to do more than help students pass the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam. Smaller classes, attracting and retaining top teachers and keeping schools safe and wholesome are her priorities, she said.

"I want to make sure my children and all the children in the district have the opportunity for that high quality education," she said.

Debra Holle of Kasilof, the other candidate for Seat C, is a former member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the head of the Red Cross office in Soldotna. She has a teaching certificate, has substituted in area schools and was a parent volunteer when her children were at Tustumena Elementary School.

She cited her administrative and budget experience, plus her ties to education, as strengths she would bring to the job.

One priority she listed would be finding ways to pay teachers more for their work.

"I have passionate ideas about how we should move ahead ...," she said. "I do have a heart for the teaching field."

Gene Dyson of Soldotna is running against incumbent Deborah Germano and challenger Linda K. Reynolds for Seat F. Neither of his opponents were able to attend the Nikiski forum.

A retired custodian, Dyson has served as a volunteer on several district committees including the budget committee and has run unsuccessfully for school board before.

He told the Nikiski group that he is particularly concerned about the district losing students to home school and about the upcoming employee contract negotiations. The school board needs to make tough choices and must find ways to attract area parents back into the public schools, he said.

"The main function of a school board member is that children receive a quality education. We work down from there," he said.

Lorraine "Sammy" Crawford, a retired teacher from Kenai, is the incumbent in Seat G and running for her third term. She described herself as active in the community.

She said her goals are to represent the needs of all students and to recruit and keep good teachers. Home schooling is valid, but public school remains essential for most families, she said.

"I really believe in public schools. ... I want to maintain and improve our public schools," she said.

She also cited the size and complexity of the district, warning that school board members need to learn a lot before they become effective.

"I thought, after teaching in the district for 28 years, being on the school board would be a piece of cake. I was amazed," she said.

Barrett Fletcher of Homer is a newcomer to the process challenging Crawford for Seat G. He told the group that, as a parent and school volunteer, he ultimately was disappointed with the education his children were receiving and became a convert to home school and alternative education.

Fletcher criticized the district as too focused on low-performing students at the expense of the bright ones. To solve the problem while keeping costs in check, he favors opening up education options.

He suggested privatizing some school functions, hiring lower-paid aides to free classroom teachers' time for instruction, and allowing families reimbursements for services such as tutoring.

"I am the candidate who really wants to change things," he said.

Michele DeMilta of Soldotna, another newcomer, also is running for Seat G. She described herself as a home-school mom who has serious criticisms of the district.

She expressed concerns that the district's budget is too big, not enough Alaskans get hired for school jobs and that essential services are being cut. She recommended that teachers take standardized tests to keep their jobs, analogous to those required of students. She also suggested that some teachers get paid too much, although she later said she had been given some erroneous information about teacher salaries and would look into the matter further.

"It is definitely time for a change," she said.

The session that followed was a free-wheeling discussion.

What do the candidates think of the two-tier salary schedule for teachers, a controversial point that will come up in contract negotiations in 2002?

Gilman: She has a 19-year-old nephew with a high school diploma who got a job in the oil industry and earns more than degreed, certified teachers. The district needs to look at equity in pay based on training and experience. One way to free up funding for hiking salaries may be to move more district expenses out of the operating budget so they will not be counted within the "capped" portion of the budget.

"The two-tier system I don't believe is fair," she said.

Holle: She opposes the two-tier system, saying it is detrimental to attracting and keeping talented staff. But she favors seeking more money from the state, rather than the borough.

She advocated working with legislators on efforts such as promoting the incorporation of rural areas so more money could come into the education system on a statewide level.

"I would like to work very hard to make that happen," she said.

Wassilie: She said there are additional problems with the current two-tier system because it pays unequally for equal work.

"If push comes to shove, it is probably not legal," she said.

She also noted that many school-related expenses, including food and busing, are already accounted separately from the operating budget, so the potential savings may be less than Gilman thought.

Dyson: He said he had been through union contract negotiations before and has concerns about district personnel issues. For one thing, the district's local hire record could be improved. For another, the state's retirement incentive program, which urged senior teachers into retirement from 1997 through 1999, was a big mistake, he said.

"There were so many good teachers who left," he said.

DeMilta: A two-tier system is unfair, she said, but teachers should not be trying to get more money.

"When you became teachers, you did it for the love of the job. Don't lose sight of that," she said. "Maybe we need to reappropriate some funds or something."

Crawford: Alaska used to be number one in the nation on the teaching pay scale, but in recent years it has dropped. For the district, the only effective way to deal with salary issues is to seek more funding from the Legislature. Current rules pay the Kenai district at about the same rates per student as Anchorage despite the district's expensive, small rural schools.

"There is no question. To keep good employees, you have to pay them," she said.

Fletcher: He agreed the retirement incentive program was a mistake for the quality of education.

He opposes the present two-tier salary schedule, but would favor a different class of less-qualified instructional aides who would earn less than professional, certified teachers. Many people have the attitude and skills to teach without following the traditional teachers' career path. It would be reasonable to offer at least conditional employment to people as a way to bring new ideas into the schools and lower the pupil-to-teacher ratios.

"I especially push the idea of aides," he said.

Support staff workers are unhappy that they receive low pay and only partial benefits. The board candidates were asked to comment on their status.

Fletcher: "I've heard a lot of griping about how custodial staff and borough maintenance don't seem to communicate very well," he said.

Crawford: She reiterated that the district will get what it pays for in staff quality. Often the support staff ends up working one-on-one with some of the neediest children in the schools, she noted.

"We need caring, responsible people," she said.

DeMilta: She said she agreed with Crawford.

"I don't have enough information on the aides and special education, so I can't really comment," she said.

Dyson: The low pay for support staff has been a festering issue for years, he said.

"I believe everyone deserves to make a livelihood," he said. "We've been underpaid for years."

Wassilie: Support staff are vital and need the same high-quality standards as other district employees. They are part of education and have a big impact on children. The district needs to support the support staff and pay for the best people.

"They are just as stressed as the teachers," she said.

Holle: Referring to a questionnaire from the district employees' unions, she said she had listed the welfare of the support staff as one of her top priorities. But she noted that state regulations limit what the district can spend on its support workers. Maybe some could be transferred to the borough payroll.

"I don't want to give anyone false hope. We are required by state law to apply 70 percent of our budget to classroom instruction," she said.

Gilman: Her sister is a district custodian, and she is amazed how much work the schools demand from their support people, she said. The district needs to do what it can for such workers.

She noted that when children go to Sears Elementary, the first person they see is the custodian, who sets the tone for their day.

"We are so fortunate that woman is so committed," she said.

Schools' supply budgets are strapped. What ideas do the candidates have for getting the Legislature to increase school funding?

Gilman: The state lawmakers need to address the area cost differential and forward funding to improve the educational outlook. She said she is eager to work on such state issues.

Holle: She cited Rep. Chenault, R-Nikiski, who was present, as an example of a legislator working with peninsula school officials to address school needs. The job of the school board is to rally citizens to unite and lobby lawmakers.

"It is our responsibility to rattle the cages and say this is what needs to be done," she said.

Wassilie: The school district needs to recapture the funding that inflation has removed over the years. It also needs to work with other districts around the state to reform the funding. Updating the area cost differential and increasing the base allocation are the best avenues to pursue.

She praised the peninsula delegation as "supportive."

Dyson: He was skeptical of what he called broken "promises" from Juneau in the past. He questioned the whole concept of having caps on education funding, suggesting that the borough would be willing to spend more. The system should be changed and, in the meantime, perhaps ways of shifting the cost burdens through "in-kind" contributions could be helpful, he said.

DeMilta: She said she is familiar with politics and grant writing. The district should either "work with or fight with" the legislators to get what it needs, she said.

But she also questioned current spending priorities. She cited the example of Connections, the district's home-school support program, getting new computers each year and passing the used ones to classrooms. It should be the other way around, with the home schoolers getting the hand-me-downs, she said.

Crawford: The state controls the bulk of the district budget, she said. She noted that last year the district spent a lot of time and effort in Juneau and the schools got a "raise" from the state, but less than they had hoped. One unexpected side effect, she noted, was that the state government hired away district employees.

"This year the school board made as a goal that we would lobby the Legislature," she said.

Fletcher: He called the Legislature "short-sighted" to plead poverty in the rich state of Alaska. It is time to move away from cutting and look at what Alaskans need.

In the meantime, the district may be able to do better by scrutinizing its instruction costs and considering competitive sources outside of classrooms.

The school board candidates addressed a League of Women Voters Forum Thursday night. They will speak again at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon, beginning at noon Wednesday at the Old Town Village Restaurant in Kenai. The chamber forum is open to the public.

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