Education is likely to be a major issue for the next Legislature, and candidates took time Friday to speak at a forum sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula's teachers' and school support staff unions.
In a casual setting, eight of the 10 candidates addressed about 30 people at the Elks Club in Soldotna. The event was sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.
Present were: Democrat Amy Bollenbach and Republican Drew Scalzi, running for House District 7 (Homer area); Democrat Pete Sprague and Republican Ken Lancaster running for House District 8 (Soldotna-Seward area); and incumbent Rep. Hal Smalley, D-Kenai, Republican Mike Chenault and Republican Moderate James Price running for House District 9 (Kenai-Nikiski).
William Bartee, who is running on the Green Party ticket for District E, notified organizers he could not attend due to a schedule conflict. Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, seeking re-election in Senate District E, did not respond to the invitation. Democrat Mike Szyman-ski, former District E senator, who is challenging Ward for his seat, told the group he would be late because of a prior commitment; he attended the second half of the forum.
Questions were given to the candidates, some for all of them and others targeted to specific districts. Then the forum was opened for questions from the floor.
Question: List the three most important educational issues you think the Legislature should address next session.
All the candidates spoke in favor of full funding for education, but varied in details.
n Bollenbach: Calling herself "the education candidate," she said she advocates funding to repair rural schools, upgrade the University of Alaska and raise salaries to attract new teachers.
"I think we have the money in the bank," she said. "Whether we get more revenue or not, I think it is important to invest in children."
n Scalzi said he favors enough funding for deferred maintenance, bolstering the university and two-year forward funding.
"My slate is mainly going to be developing a long-term fiscal plan," he said.
n Sprague said full funding for kindergarten through grade 12 should be done by adjusting the funding foundation formula. University funding and deferred maintenance are other priorities. The longer Alaskans wait to address maintenance, the more it will cost, he said.
n Lancaster: "First we need to get our budget in line," he said.
He said he favors revisions to update Senate Bill 36, which determined school funding, and development of university lands to increase revenue for the institution. Maintenance and repair also are his priorities.
n Smalley listed grade K-12 funding, the university, vocational education and major maintenance projects as his priorities. He said he would look at ways to "inflation-proof" the funding. He praised new programs such as Smart Start and the Quality Schools Initiative.
n Chenault said vocational education is important. He said he favors adjusting the foundation formula, working on deferred maintenance needs and helping the university.
n Price: "I believe the primary issue that we have to be concerned with is the budget. We need to concentrate on the constitutional mandates of transportation, public safety and education," he said.
Focusing on priorities and accountability would improve the funding, including backing away from other areas of expenditure.
n Szymanski: "If we don't address school maintenance and school construction we are going to be in real trouble," he said.
Dealing with the new high school graduation qualifying exam and raising school funding are other priorities.
"I think we have short-changed education," he said.
Question (addressed to District 7 candidates): Quality teachers are the top factor predicting student success. Would you support a 5 percent raise in teacher pay to retain and attract top teachers for Alaska's schools?
n Scalzi: No.
The issue would have to be analyzed before the Legislature could make such a move. He acknowledged that state salaries are falling, saying perhaps a raise bigger than 5 percent would be appropriate.
n Bollenbach: Yes.
"The average salary of teachers in Alaska has fallen in the last 20 years from near the top to somewhere in the middle," she said.
She expressed concern that current situations make it difficult for the state's smallest schools to offer top notch education.
Question (addressed to District 8 candidates): Last year, the Legislature reduced school funding by $19.1 million. Would you work to restore that?
n Lancaster: First, there needs to be justification, he said, and he would study the issue.
"If it can be proved to me where that money is needed, I would be willing to look at putting it back in there."
n Sprague: He noted that the state did restore $7 million toward coping with the high school exit exam and that part of the decrease was due to decreased enrollment. He said he advocates addressing underlying issues such as families leaving Alaska and withdrawing students from public schools.
Question (addressed to District 9 candidates): How would you ensure that all students in Alaska become computer literate?
n Chenault: "Technology will be the way of the future," he said.
He praised the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board as a model for moving computers into schools. The Legislature could look at similar plans and funding arrangements, he said.
n Price: "I believe technology is very important in education," he said.
He said he would foster partnerships with the private sector to encourage technical literacy and sees full funding for education as the first step toward the goal.
n Smalley said this is one of many categories where the Kenai Peninsula has led the state.
Perhaps the state should consider making basic computer education part of the curriculum and a graduation requirement. It could also play a role paying for necessary hardware and software statewide. Industry partnerships would be a good idea, he said.
Question (addressed to District 7 candidates): To support school safety, would you support and fund conflict-resolution training, in-school suspensions and more counselors?
n Bollenbach: "We need to do something to change the bullying and victimization in the public schools," she said. "There is a loss of confidence in the public schools, and I don't think that's your fault."
Unfunded mandates have placed unfair burdens on educators, she said.
Conflict resolution is a great program, and she favors it, but it is a lower priority than small class sizes, she said.
n Scalzi: No.
He cited his work supporting peninsula schools as a member of the borough assembly and advocates local control over statewide mandates for education programs.
"What works here on the Kenai Peninsula may not work in the Juneau district. What works in Kenai may not work in Seldovia," he said. "That is why I think it is very important that we maintain local control in all these issues."
Question (addressed to District 8 candidates): If elected, would you support a bill to mandate small class sizes?
n Sprague: Yes.
He said he would support lower pupil-teacher ratios to enhance student performance.
n Lancaster: "I, too, would support lower class size," he said.
But it is most appropriate to make those decisions on the level of the local school board and money could be an issue, he said.
Question (addressed to District 9 candidates): If the property tax cap passes in November, how would you make up for the multimillion dollar shortfall as it pertains to schools?
n Price broke ranks with the other candidates to take a stand favoring the tax cap, acknowledging it was an "unpopular" stance.
He said there are "more appropriate" sources of revenue, such as sales taxes, which could be used to adequately fund schools. Scare tactics have distorted the issue, and passage of the measure will not gut school funding, he said.
n Smalley said he opposes the tax cap initiative, but that the Legislature would be limited in what it could do in response. Increasing municipal revenue sharing or "community dividend" programs could help offset the drop, he said.
n Chenault also said he opposes the tax cap initiative.
"Local control is considerably better than state control," he said.
Question from the audience for all the candidates: Describe, from your perception, a typical first-grade student with respect to the child's background and readiness.
n Price: Children should come to school from a good home with food and clothing, prepared to learn. We should encourage that, he said.
n Chenault: "A pure bundle of energy," he said, adding that children do well here and are sponges who absorb whatever is set before them.
n Smalley said all children in a class would be different. Most would be eager to please, some would be hungry. They need direction, he said.
n Lancaster said children need one-on-one instruction and discipline.
"We need smaller class sizes at the elementary level to deal with these students," he said.
n Sprague acknowledged that he was at a disadvantage answering because he is not a parent. As a legislator, he would try to assure that first-graders receive the tools they need to succeed, he said.
n Bollenbach: First-graders are cute, eager and wriggly, she said, but "sometimes disturbed or needy."
She estimated that about 20 percent of youngsters come into school burdened with problems and spoke about the role of teachers in fostering a chance to break cycles of social problems and help children succeed.
"Alaska, unfortunately, is one of the states with the most difficulties," she said.
n Scalzi: Calling the question "interesting," he spoke of seeing the big new world through young eyes.
n Szymanski said small children are impressionable and need stimulating, positive experiences best delivered through small class sizes.
Question: Several years ago there was an unsuccessful move to put an education endowment on the ballot. Would you support an education endowment?
n Szymanski said he voted against an education endowment when it was suggested by then-Gov. Steve Cowper. Now, he said, he regrets that vote. Perhaps such an endowment could be phased in. But it needs to be a public priority to succeed, he said.
n Lancaster said the proposed gas pipeline could provide Alaska with a new revenue boost making such an endowment feasible.
"If we can figure out a way to fund it and endow it, I think we should do it," he said.
n Smalley: "If there is a will, I bet we could find a way," he said.
Such an endowment could allow forward funding of schools and offer unique ways to solve problems, he said.
n Sprague said he would support it, but funding is an issue. He said he advocates studying possible revenue and other funding to endow it.
n Bollenbach said if funding could be found, it would be a "terrific" idea. An independent source of school support would protect education from partisan politics, she said.
n Scalzi: "I think it's great in concept."
He said he would like to forward-fund schools and everything else on a two-year cycle.
n Price: He said he would support the endowment in theory.
"Unfortunately, I don't think we are going to have the excess revenue to do it," he said.
n Chenault: "It's hard to say right now, but I would be in favor of looking at it," he said.
Question (for District 8 candidates): What is your stand on the property tax cap ballot initiative?
Both Lancaster and Sprague said they were definitely opposed to the tax cap proposal, calling it an Anchorage problem that could hurt the rest of the state.
Question (for Senate District E candidates): Would you block school vouchers in Alaska?
Szymanski: I am opposed to vouchers," he said, expressing regret that his opponent was not on hand to debate the issue.
"They can be very destructive to an education system."
Question: One way to encourage teachers to work in Alaska is to reduce their student loan debt. Would you support that?
All candidates present spoke in favor of the concept.
Question: Alaska is one of the few states where kindergarten is optional. Do you support making kindergarten mandatory?
Scalzi, Lancaster, Szymanski, Chenault, Smalley and Price said no. They praised kindergarten, but preferred to leave the decision to local school boards. Smalley noted it could complicate more important efforts to increase the education funding foundation formula.
Bollenbach and Sprague said they would be willing to mandate it if money were available, based on evidence about kindergarten's advantages.
n Price said he is one of the first six candidates from the new Republican Moderate Party. The group, he said, favors closing the state budget gap by increasing compensation from resources and decreasing spending by restricting government functions to those mandated in the constitution.
"I believe that we have too much special interest influence and I'd like to get back to basics, uphold the constitution and serve my constituents," he said.
n Chenault cited his 33 years in the district and experience on the school board, saying he has ideas about budget and education issues.
"I would be willing to fight for the interests in our district," he said.
n Smalley thanked people for voting for him two years ago. He cited his record as showing concern for the peninsula and the state. He said he wants to continue working for jobs, economic development, a balanced budget, a long-range fiscal plan, education, safety and a healthy community.
n Lancaster said he urged people, especially parents, to reach out to legislators to tell them what they need. Education needs to expand to serve students of all types and to play a role in overall economic development, he said.
n Szymanski was succinct about his reasons for running.
"I was inspired by my opponent, Jerry Ward," he said.
He said he would be a senator constituents could be proud of and would work cooperatively to turn things in Juneau in a more positive direction. He urged the audience to encourage others to go to the polls.
n Sprague: "I am making education a key part of my campaign," he said, citing his support for education votes on the borough assembly.
The super majority of Republicans in Juneau means "business as usual" in Juneau. It is time to elect Democrats to make a change, he said.
n Bollenbach called her opponent, Scalzi, "an intelligent guy," but said that he is not a good candidate for education. She said that the Alaska Republican Party is moving backward in education with moves such as endorsing "creation science."
"I think this election is critical," she said.
n Scalzi said he has lived in the Homer area for more than 20 years, worked as a commercial fisher and done a stint as a parent volunteer in kindergarten and first-grade classes.
He said the way to increase the education formula is to increase revenue and put the state's fiscal house in order.
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