School board candidates square off at League forum

Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Voters got another chance to check out school board candidates at Thursday's forum the League of Women Voters held at the Borough Building in Soldotna. Eight of the nine candidates attended and about 30 people were in the audience.

Three Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education seats will be on the Tuesday municipal ballot, to be elected at large by borough residents.

Two of the seats, F and G, are available for standard, three-year terms. The third, Seat C, will be for one year.

Incumbent Sandra Wassilie of Seward, appointed at the beginning of the year to fill the seat vacated by Mike Chenault, faces challengers Margaret Gilman of Kenai and Debra Holle of Kasilof for Seat C. In the race for Seat F, incumbent Deborah Germano of Homer faces Gene Dyson and Linda K. Reynolds, both of Soldotna. In the race for Seat G, Barrett Fletcher of Homer and Michele DeMilta of Soldotna are challenging incumbent Lorraine "Sammy" Crawford of Kenai.

All the candidates attended except Reynolds.

Each candidate was given one minute to speak, introducing themselves, answering questions from moderator Sue Caswell and ending with an opportunity to respond to questions from the audience.


Wassilie: She described herself as a lifelong Alaskan experienced with many boards and organizations, including parent organizations with the Seward schools and a career at the Alaska Vocational Technical Institute. She is running because her community values having representation and would like her to be on the board, she said.

Gilman: After growing up in the central peninsula and receiving an education out of state, she returned to teach and is now a stay-at-home mom eager to invest her free time in improving education, she said. Her priorities are to limit class sizes, provide competitive salaries for staff and keep schools safe and drug-free for children.

Holle: She described her background as a longtime peninsula resident who has a teaching degree, substitutes in the schools and has served on the borough's planning commission and assembly. That background gives her a perspective and expertise to work on budget issues in particular, she said.

Dyson: The retired head custodian from Soldotna Elementary School, he has remained involved with district affairs, including serving as a volunteer on the budget committee. He has in-depth experience and concerns, he said.

Germano: She has spent 13 years in the area and six years on the school board. The issues are still the same, such as inadequate funding and reforms to meet new state standards, she said, and she praised the district as having "some good things going on."

Crawford: She described her service on the board since 1998 as "a privilege and an honor." A retired teacher, she said she is a staunch supporter of the public school system who wants to work on areas where peninsula schools need improvement.

Fletcher: "I am the candidate who wants to see significant changes," he said.

Fletcher, a home-school parent, said his agenda is to promote cooperation between the district and educational alternatives, diversification and district funding for more choices for parents.

DeMilta: She said she has lived on the peninsula for eight years and been active with the Better Business Bureau and the Kenai Peninsula Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She said she believes strongly that the district needs major changes to increase parental influence.

Question: How would you address funding declines as the enrollment decreases?

DeMilta: "They need to reappropriate the funding," she said.

She cited concerns about suggestions for further cuts in student services such as transportation and said combining classes may be one way to respond to fewer students.

Fletcher: "I think enrollment is going to fall," he said.

He would like to see competition introduced for district spending and a mechanism for families to pay for private education providers.

Crawford: She said the district has few financial options and the borough is already paying as much as it legally can.

"Our only other option is to go to the Legislature," she said.

Other ideas she favors pursuing are reconfiguring schools, partnerships with the college and online courses. Community guidance is vital for such choices, she stressed.

Germano: She described the current budget process as starting with staffing formulas and focusing on classrooms. No matter what the finances, her priority is to steer resources to direct instruction, she said.

Dyson: The district has been talking about bare-bones budgets for years. The way to cope is by prioritizing and frankly addressing the home-school challenge. This year, the budget will be particularly critical because of upcoming contract negotiations for employees.

"My job is to make sure we run efficiently," he said.

Holle: People with children are moving away, she said. As a "short-term fix" the district can seek additional borough funding outside the cap. For the long term, she said, she supports some sort of voucher system, but only if it imposes standards.

Gilman: She said she is unwilling to let students just leave the public schools. It is critical for the district to interview every family and learn why they are withdrawing. The issues involve more than just funding, she said.

Wassilie: Inflation and unfunded mandates lead to shortfalls. The state should compensate schools for those. The school board needs to work with legislators to promote reforms to the area cost differential, raising caps on local contributions, raising the basal foundation formula rate and outsourcing some functions, such as nursing.

Question: Do you have an opinion on what is optimal class size?

Dyson: The district keeps talking about smaller class size; it is important to get beyond talking and make smaller classes a reality. They are vital.

Germano: Reports on what is the optimal class size give conflicting answers. The district has focuses on making 18 the size for first grade to give children a firm foundation coming into school. The target is to make that small size standard for at least grades kindergarten through two.

Crawford: Although kindergarten through second grade is the most critical phase, small class sizes are important on all levels. She wants to keep class sizes small.

"As a teacher, you just can't get to those kids (without it)," she said.

Fletcher: Set aside the concept of class size and focus instead on the ratio of students to "caring adults," who could be class aides in an open class of various, even large, size. The optimal ratio would be about 10 students per adult.

DeMilta: She said the district has lots of small classes but problems persist. She said she had heard that the district and Legislature took vouchers away from home-school parents.

"I don't think it's the size of the classroom, it's the problem with the education (system)," she said.

Wassilie: As the district has cut back, it has combined classes. The optimal class size varies, but small groups for kindergarten through grade two are critical.

"It does help to keep classes small to address individual needs," she said.

Gilman: Classes in kindergarten through grade five should have a maximum size of 15, she said. One trade-off in classes is that resource people come in to help special needs students because classes are too varied for teachers to accommodate all the students. Teachers need time for one-on-one instruction.

Holle: Lower class size is a priority, but at present the district has financial problems that get in the way of that. Better funding is the key to keeping certified teachers in front of each class.

Question: What is your opinion of the state's Quality Schools Initiative?

Germano: It has created short-term difficulties, but in the long run will be good for Alaska's students. It is addressing the needs of all, not just the college-bound.

"There is accountability. There is a clear sense of direction," she said.

Dyson: It provides good guidelines, but it bothers him that the reforms dictate to school districts and place so much reliance on testing. The district should have quality education and does not need to test all the time, he said.

Holle: She has been a supporter of the initiative since it began, she said. General standards are a good thing, and the district's curriculum and standards can go to an even higher level.

Gilman: Instead of setting up an exit exam to penalize low-performing students, the state should have set up an honors diploma as an incentive for students to excel. The tests involved would be more useful if students got clear, prompt feedback on how they are doing instead of the long delays. One positive emerging from the reforms is more emphasis on mathematics, she said.

Wassilie: She called the initiative a good start but said she has problems with the current exit exam. Challenges include helping transfer students meet the requirements and clear goals for families. Other factors besides standardized tests should be taken into account.

DeMilta: She said her views go in a different direction. For children to do better, the teachers should be tested more. Teachers should be required to take and pass standardized tests at least every two years.

Fletcher: The Quality Schools Initiative is misnamed. It would be more realistic to call it "the standardized schools initiative," he said. He questioned what is being done for the majority of students who pass the tests without difficulty.

"Let's not forget the balance and variety we need," he said.

Crawford: The initiative is an interesting, bipartisan project dating back to the Hickel administration. It was set up so students can demonstrate their abilities. The tests are only a part of it. She is concerned that the initiative focuses disproportionate attention on a few students. The impetus, she noted, came from the wishes of the business community.

Question: What do you consider to be the major issues facing the school board that you would address?

Holle: Funding and the related foundation formula is the big issue. Other things depend on that. Past experience with the borough and district budget will help her work on that, she said.

Gilman: Coping with the national teacher shortage is her priority. Applications for jobs here are down 30 to 50 percent, she said. The Legislature needs to give the districts money to do what it requires of them.

"In order to get the best teachers in this district, we must pay a competitive wage," she said.

Wassilie: Teacher pay and teacher shortages are the big issues. Getting more state funding is the solution.

"We still have many teachers of excellence and we need to retain them," she said.

Another issue is that high school students in small schools are running out of classes to take because of limited offerings, she said.

DeMilta: An $85 million budget is plenty, and reappropriations are in order. Her other priorities are to involve parents more in decisions and to prove that schools can improve before asking for additional money for the current system.

Fletcher: "Everyone doing education is a potential partner," he said.

His focus would be on encouraging and funding alternatives, and the school board could facilitate that.

Crawford: Funding is the main issue.

"That is very frustrating. Funding is in limbo," she said.

Her other focuses are dealing with the teacher shortage and related pay issues, class size and coping with unfunded mandates.

Germano: Finances are her top priority, also. She cited a state level meeting she attended last weekend where districts brainstormed about needs and the "A+" report Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles commissioned that suggested that Alaska needs to invest far more in education to achieve goals. The district needs a credible plan before it can ask the state for more money, she said.

Dyson: The school board should assure top quality in its schools and work from there. He questioned the efficiency and criticized past cost-cutting measures such as the state's retirement incentive program. There are many issues, but the focus must stay on the kids.

Summary statements:

Crawford: She is running for re-election because of her belief in public service and the public schools, she said. The district is large and complex. A big part of her job is informing others.

Fletcher: "We are all trying to educate our children," he said.

The district must recognize that one size does not fit all and that private education providers deserve funding. He urged those present to give serious consideration to real changes.

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

The district has had too many years of business as usual, she said, and she pledged to listen to people and address their concerns.

Wassilie: She wants to continue working on her core mission of keeping the best teachers, fostering quality and focusing on classroom instruction. She noted that she has a lot of experience working on boards and budgets. She also said that her links with Natives and the eastern peninsula provide needed diversity on the board.

Gilman: As the nation faces a time of crisis, the mission of educating future citizens takes on a new urgency. At the same time, she is at a point in her life when she has the time and energy to contribute, she said.

Holle: She stressed her experience.

"I have a real heart for serving the people," she said.

She added that the board and district could do better in public relations. The board should encourage more people to attend and speak their views at its meetings, she said.

Dyson: He said he is concerned about children, including his grandchildren, who attend peninsula schools. He noted that this is his fourth try for a school board seat.

"Basically, I am not as smooth as some of these people, but I'll go that extra mile," he said. "In the end, we are concerned about children's education."

Germano: She said she wishes Alaskans would come together to solve the state's big issues, including school funding, the way the nation is coming together in a time of crisis.

"I'd like to continue working for the kids of Alaska," she said.

The forum was then opened to questions from the audience.

Question: How much time to you anticipate it would take to do an appropriate job as a school board member?

DeMilta: "As much time as it's going to take," she said, saying she is resolved to persevere to get the job done.

Fletcher: "It's going to take me far too much time," he said. "I anticipate it to be a huge job."

He said that he felt duty-bound to run because no one else was addressing the ideas and issues he believes are important.

Crawford: "It is hours and hours," she said.

As a current board member, she has to make a big time commitment. She gets 20 to 30 e-mails a day plus phone calls, reads journals, researches issues on the Internet and is accosted in public places by people with concerns, she said.

Germano: "It does take an incredible amount of time. ... I could be busy full time in this job," she said.

She added that she wishes she had more time for the board. She has a business and a family and must prioritize carefully.

Dyson: He said he had never been an "8-to-5 kind of guy," but one who stays on a task until it is done. Now retired, he has time to research issues and devote to the board, he said.

Holle: She cited the major time invested during her elected service on the assembly and planning commission, including committee work and reading large packets before meetings.

"I know what is involved," she said.

Gilman: She said she had researched this issue -- by calling Crawford. She expects to devote 15 to 20 hours a week to the board.

"I am willing at this time in my life to do whatever it takes."

Wassilie: Her tasks include more driving time in addition to learning the school board ropes. She compared it to a full-time job.

"Being on the school board is like serving on the board of directors of the biggest business on the Kenai Peninsula," she said. "I have learned a lot. There is a steep learning curve."

Question: Teacher Michael Druce told DeMilta and Fletcher he found their remarks criticizing the district "offensive." He asked them, "Do we do anything right?"

Fletcher: "I was quite impressed by the job the primary schools do with remedial reading," he said.

But he added that the schools have slighted instruction of children who are not at risk of failure.

DeMilta: "There are some wonderful teachers out there," she said.

But the district needs to have a way to deal with bad teachers, she said.

Crawford: Although the question was not directed to her, she was asked, as the other candidate for Seat G, to respond.

"I think there are a lot of positive things that go on," she said, citing community service projects and high Advanced Placement scores as examples.

Question: Would you spend a day or two in elementary, middle and high school settings to see what schools and staff have to do?

DeMilta: She said she would be "more than willing."

Fletcher: He was very involved with his children's elementary school as a parent volunteer, he said.

"I went through a great deal of time trying to improve my local school before abandoning it," he said.

Crawford: Spending days in school is a good idea. She has heard that some members of Congress have paid such visits to school and come away awed by the workload.

Germano: She said she agreed with Crawford. She has spent time in elementary and middle school as a parent.

"It's a pretty incredible job to do every day," she said.

Dyson: "You have to spend at least two weeks in the school to see what transpires there," he said.

Holle: "I have done that," she said.

She said she is willing to continue school visits and they are a good idea for board members.

Gilman: She said she has always been an active parent volunteer and has taught in elementary and middle school. She would be willing to visit high schools, she said.

Wassilie: She said she has visited about 15 schools in the district and noted their great diversity.

She would be willing to spend days at school, but for the greatest value board members should visit as many as possible, she said.

The school board member forum was followed by a session for borough assembly candidates.

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