For two school board seats, the decision is already made.
Two candidates in the election for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education are running uncontested. Current board president Joe Arness, running for the Nikiski seat, has a total of 23 successive years in public service and Penny Vadla, running for the Soldotna seat, collectively has 11 under her belt.
Vadla, a self-described busy body, and Arness, who said not much fires him up until asked about big issues, have worked with each other on the school board for the past six years, and have outlined similar goals they hope to accomplish in their next terms.
Arness, a commercial fisherman and real estate broker, said he feels his long history with the school district will be an asset during the transition as Superintendent Steve Atwater leaves his position. Determining who replaces Atwater is one of his biggest concerns.
Atwater has always been honest about his aspirations to move on from the district, so it was not a surprise when he announced his new job as University of Alaska Associate Vice President for K-12 Outreach, Arness said.
“He was doing a good job here,” Arness said. “I wish him well. In my opinion we have a very solid district, and I want to see that continue. I want to see us continue to be, in my opinion, the flagship district in the state of Alaska.”
Vadla, who has served on the Board of Education and Parks and Recreation Board for the City of Soldotna, said she has seen Atwater make some amazing strides for the district, including a very clear strategic plan. She said she has known people come from out of state just because they knew their children would be attending a strong school system.
“I have a strong conviction that we are doing the right things,” Vadla said. “Dr. Atwater has been a strong leader, I stayed because wanted to help maintain what has been put in place.”
Vadla said she also sees the school district as fiscally responsible despite this year’s $4.5 million deficit. She said part of being accountable and financially viable is having a good superintendent.
Vadla said she believes it is the state’s responsibility to fund education. It is always nice to know what funding will be available before a budget is built, so the board knows what money will be available when they request it, she said.
While the deficit this year was large, Vadla said any good business keeps a reserve, and that has been there for the board to tap into.
Moving forward, Arness said continued low funding will result in decreasing the amount of spending, which compromises a well functioning school system. He said the plan is to lobby legislative as best the board can. He added the borough has the ability to fund the board more than they already do.
His goal is to provide the school district with services, and if the money isn’t there then those services will start to look very different.
“It is an unfortunate system that we are asked to budget,” Arness said. “The numbers haven’t balanced in last three years. It forces us to reduce expenditures.”
Arness said his role is to provide an element of common sense in running the school district. He said he adds a “man on the street” viewpoint to policy development.
“I have always said ‘elect common sense and you hire brain,’” Arness said.
Vadla, a professor Kenai Peninsula College, said with her background as an educator, the board has a variety of voices and viewpoints that only increase the quality of the discussion and make stronger decisions. She said she continues to learn how to better do her job on the board.
Throughout the years, she has come to define the board’s position as maintaining a budget that supports the abilities of the district, Vadla said. The KPBSD is the “state leader” in education, she said.
Vadla said she has concerns with the board being able to facilitate the maintenance of innovative instruction strategies in the district. She said she hopes the board can help create performance-based district-wide teaching strategy.
Vadla said it is very important to consistently research and listen to what the public has to say about the way the school district is being run. She said there has to be a clear set of goals that ultimately support the students.
“Bottom line it is about the kids,” Vadla said.
Arness said he hopes the board and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will develop a more collaborative relationship. He said he want to see more cooperation between the two bodies.
Overall, both Vadla and Arness said they believe the district is using educational tools responsibly and addressing budgeting issues well. The two said improvements the school district has made and is making is measurable in the quality of the current and graduated students.
“I think our community should be really proud of us,” Arness said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan firstname.lastname@example.org.