School board debate raises tough questions

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2001

The Kenai Peninsula may have its own version of the state's rural-urban divide.

The reapportionment committee looking into potential changes for electing the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education has turned up a host of thorny issues.

Participants from outlying parts of the borough disagree with those from the central peninsula about how fairly the current system serves their communities.

The committee took up the issue at a contentious Thursday meeting that attracted audience members from across the peninsula.

"After this last election, we are once again without a school board representative," Dave DeRuwe, a member of the Seward schools' site council, told the committee members.

"We feel disenfranchised in Seward."

He and others from the eastern peninsula community said that only one school board member has been elected from their area since the borough was incorporated in 1964, and that until Seward resident Sandra Wassilie was appointed to the board in January, it had been four years since a board member had attended a site council meeting in that town. Wassilie was defeated in the Oct. 2 municipal election because of a strong, central peninsula showing for Margaret Gilman, despite Wassilie's receiving nearly 90 percent of the vote in Seward.

Other participants from Homer and Ninilchik echoed that concern about the central peninsula's power, and former committee member Milli Martin, who represents the south peninsula on the borough assembly, pointed out that the city of Seldovia has officially endorsed districting the school board, as well.

The committee is asking whether school board seats should continue to be elected at large, as they have been, or assigned to geographic districts, as the borough assembly is. The committee is wrestling with what options, if any, to put on the fall 2002 ballot, when peninsula voters will ultimately answer the question.

Even the committee's consideration of the issue is controversial.

Borough assembly president Tim Navarre appointed the committee in April to look at redistricting the assembly in the wake of the 2000 census, as required by federal law. The U.S. Constitution requires election districts be adjusted after each count so representatives serve equal numbers of constituents.

Navarre told the group he thought the reapportionment process was supposed to include the school board and boroughwide planning commission. Now he realizes that since the school board is elected at large, meaning all voters in the borough get to vote on all seats, it can never be malapportioned. The committee agreed to postpone the school board issue until after the 2001 municipal election.

School board member Joe Arness said the borough assembly and its committee erred in initiating the review process. The school board wanted to consider the issue itself first.

"I would respectfully ask you to refer that question to us as a board," he said. "... My objection is that we were never asked."

Arness also expressed concern that some committee members are unfamiliar with the school district and might be hearing misinformation. He expressed frustration, noting that at a recent school board meeting in Seward, only four community members attended.

Committee co-chair Betty Glick asked the committee whether it wanted to drop the matter or proceed with the discussion. The committee voted 7-3 to continue, although members pointed out that ultimately they may advise the borough assembly not to put any changes on the ballot.

However, most said the matter deserved public discussion and voter input.

"Whatever I am in favor of or opposed to, I think the public should have a voice," said committee member Norm Blakeley.

Participants brought up a number of concerns related to the board's representation and to the nuts and bolts of setting up districting.

Borough Clerk Linda Murphy said that districts, if different from those on the borough assembly, would cause confusion at the polls.

School board president Dr. Nels Anderson contrasted the board's role in setting policy for the district as a whole with the assembly's role of making decisions with localized impacts such as land classifications. People coming onto the board as advocates for particular areas or schools would threaten unity and fairness the board now fosters, he said.

"I honestly believe we have the best board in the state in terms of how we get along," he said.

Wassilie countered that districting could avoid that pitfall and deliver better communications.

"I think most people look at the mission and serve the greater good," she said.

She added that communities outside the central peninsula need representatives who can attend local meetings, know people on a first-name basis and bring them back information about what is going on at a districtwide level to improve public understanding of how the school district works.

Committee member John Kistler raised the issue of costs. Adding new members to the seven-member board to match the nine-member assembly would cost the district money, which would take out of the already-strapped classroom budgets, he warned.

"Believe me, the budgets for schools are that tight," he said.

Kistler suggested having a seven-member board with members from geographic districts but elected at large. His motion failed for lack of a second.

Others on the committee took offense at the wording of a memo from Superintendent Donna Peterson that said that during discussions among school board members and school administrators, people said, "Finding quality board members willing to service could be an issue."

Committee member Marion Nelson said, "I think some of these comments are a bit insulting."

At one point, the meeting turned testy with Arness accusing some present of taking "potshots" at the school board and district.

Navarre countered that the committee never intended to discuss the district, and Glick said she would not tolerate personal attacks.

Ideas for continuing the investigation into options for the school board elections included polling the public, involving high school students in the discussion and holding community meetings on the issue in Seward and Homer early in 2002.

Critics of the current at-large elections also focused on a comment in a June memo former school board president Deborah Germano sent to the assembly in response to the reapportioning committee.

"The adage 'If it isn't broke, don't fix it' comes to mind," she wrote.

Seward residents present said that central peninsula people may think the system is fine, but others see the situation differently.

"If it ain't broke, it might be a little bit bent," said borough assembly member Ron Long. "This suggests to me it needs to be talked about."

DeRuwe went further.

"I think the people in Seward definitely feel it is broken," he said. "Somebody is out of touch."

The next meeting of the reapportionment committee will be at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Borough Building in Soldotna.

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