Only a handful of Kenai Peninsula voters will have a decision to make when they visit the polls Oct. 5 to choose school board members.
Seats representing District 1 Kalifornsky, District 6 East Peninsula, and District 9 South Peninsula are up for grabs this year, but only District 1 sports a contested race.
Over the next few days, the Peninsula Clarion will run stories about the propositions and races facing Kenai Peninsula voters in the Oct. 5 election.
Lorraine "Sammy" Crawford, the incumbent, faces longtime candidate Gene Dyson for the District 1 seat, while incumbents Sandra (Sandy) Wassilie of Seward and Edith-Helen (Sunni) Hilts of Seldovia are unopposed.
In District 1, the race likely will come down to voters' perceptions of the candidates' experience. Crawford, a retired teacher, has spent six years on the school board and also is up for a seat on the board of directors for the Association of Alaska School Boards. Dyson, a retired custodian with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, is making his seventh bid for the school board but has never been elected.
Dyson said he believes it is time for a change on the board, and he believes he's the new blood the district needs to make tough decisions.
Crawford says her relationships with other board members and district administration, as well as her longtime experience facing the district's issues, are assets.
The key issue in the race is the district budget, which has started every year in the red for nearly a decade. Despite last year's unprecedented increase in the state's education funding formula, rising health care, retirement and salary costs have kept the district from realizing any real gains financially.
Dyson said the problem is a matter of long-term planning, indicating that the board faces the same issues year after year without coming up with a lasting solution.
Crawford, however, has pointed out that the school district cannot levy its own taxes and must work with financial issues beyond its control. For example, she said the $400-plus per-student increase from the Legislature last year translated into only $6 per student for actual instructional expenses. The rest went to the Public Employees' Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System, increased health care costs, contractual obligations and energy expenses.
Both Crawford and Dyson say adding classroom teachers is crucial to education in the school district though just how that will happen remains to be seen.
For Crawford, it's a matter of patience, planning and cooperation. She said she plans to continue working to educate the Legislature on the importance of funding for schools and monitoring the district's expenses to make sure money is being spent where it is of most benefit to students.
"I think six years of experience have shown I will work to build a consensus, listen to others and try to find a way to do business that works for as many students as possible," she said. "Today's reality is that we have a lot of outside costs, (like) insurance and fuel, that are out of our control. We need to work within our parameters and do the very best we can to provide the best quality education for all of our students."
Dyson said the answer is in fresh faces and no-nonsense decision making. He wants to see more regular-instruction teachers, more focus on vocational education and more certainty for the survival of cocurricular programs. He said without a change in board leadership the district will remain in financial crisis. If elected, he said he would depend on district experts to come up with solutions then expect the board to forgo politics in order to make tough decisions.
In other parts of the borough, Wassilie and Hilts likely will be reelected to their seats for three-year terms. Both joined the school board last year, after it was revamped for representation by region, rather than boroughwide seats. Wassilie sat on the board for a few months in 2002 and ran unopposed last year. Hilts was elected last year via a write-in campaign after no one ran for the seat representing the villages of the south peninsula area.
In the past year, Hilts has been a voice for the small schools of the district, bringing to light issues that village schools face, such as shortages of resources, few course offerings and sometimes unreliable technology. She also has been called the "optimist" on the board, often offering bright vignettes from her experiences visiting area schools.
Wassilie also brings a previously quiet voice to the board, sharing experiences from the Seward area. Though she doesn't speak out often and can be counted on to avoid "pet issues," she has consistently voted for local choice in operating Alaska schools and to temper fiscal responsibility with the need to serve students educationally.
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