Two School Board Seats are up for grabs during the April 1 Municipal election. Three candidates are running for Seat C and two are running for Seat D.
The Anchorage School District is under pressure. Rising energy and healthcare costs for employees, along with no increase in per student funding from the legislature over the past four consecutive years, are taking their toll and forcing school board members to make tough decisions.
Last year the board cut $25 million from the district’s approximately $800 million budget. This year they cut $23 million more.
Whoever is elected to the board will inevitably face a battle for state funding and more tough budget decisions in the years ahead.
Running for Seat C is the incumbent, Pat Higgins who has held the seat for six years. He says he’s improved lots of things since he’s been on the board.
“We’ve made a lot of changes that I’ve been very successful in,” Higgins said. “A lot of directives that included changes in the way we do budgeting, expansion of career technology, measuring academic outcomes in the school, changing everyday math was popular one – all came from directives that I did.”
Higgins says since he was elected graduation rates have gone up and the dropout rate has gone down, but he says keeping those numbers going in the right direction will be hard to accomplish unless the base student allocation, or BSA – the per student funding the district gets from the state – goes up.
Higgins has a background in management, works or an insurance company and has lived in Alaska for about 30 years. His opponent is criticizing him for taking a job outside of Alaska – he worked in the Marshall Islands in 2012.
Higgins defends the decision and says he attended School Board meetings telephonically and fulfilled his responsibilities.
Liz Ross is challenging Higgins. She works part time for the Air National Guard as an emergency manager. She’s lived in Eagle River for eight years. Ross says her budgeting experience could help the board.
“I have a lot of years doing budgeting and planning and I think I could bring a great deal of experience to it,” Ross said. “I want make sure that the classroom sizes don’t continually increase and we get rid of teachers. I think that students and teachers need to be the number one priority when it comes to the School Board.”
Ross says the most pressing issues for the School Board are funding and budgeting. She agrees with Higgins that the BSA needs to be increased significantly.
Dean Williams is also running for Seat C. Williams says his work with youth for the state of Alaska for more than 30 years has prepared him for the job of School Board member.
“My entire juvenile justice and department of law career have sort of prepared me for a school board seat,” Williams said. “I think the school board needs somebody with strong fiscal sensibilities.”
“I led a large organization like McLaughlin Youth Center. I made strategic cuts in that organization. I maximized every dollar.”
In addition to managing McLaughlin, Williams also spearheaded a program called “Step Up,” that gives troubled kids one more opportunity to graduate and move into successful employment. He says a modest increase in the base student allocation is needed. However, he believes the board can find more efficiencies.
Running for Seat D is incumbent Kameron Perez-Verdia. He was appointed to the School Board last year to replace Gretchen Guess who resigned. Perez-Verdia has worked as CEO of a consulting company that helped rural school districts improve education. Now, he is the Senior Director of Education for United Way where he is working on their 90 percent by 2020 campaign to improve graduation rates. He says the board, the state and the community need to address money.
“There are a variety of key things that we need to be talking about, whether it’s how much we’re spending on capital, how we’re investing in our schools,” Perez-Verdia said. “So that conversation is very important, but the other conversation is to make sure that we’re investing an adequate and sustainable amount of resources in our schools.”
“And we’ve been experiencing flat funding for several years now and that’s making it very difficult for us to deliver the kind of quality education that I think our kids deserve.”
Perez-Verdia says the BSA must be increased.
Don Smith is challenging Perez-Verdia for Seat D. He says he’s running for school board again because he wants to make sure schools stay strong in Anchorage. He’s running on his experience and, he says, his reputation as a fiscal conservative.
“I bring an experience factor to the public arena that is different from most people in politics. I have no agenda,” Smith said. “This is a big business and it needs some people to step up and ask as some questions and demand some things to happen and I’ve done that.”
Smith says the BSA should be raised modestly. Smith served on the School Board from 2010 to 2013. He’s also been a member of State Legislature and the Anchorage Assembly.