In the upcoming municipal elections, there are four seats open on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Board of Education. Current school board member Jason Tauriainen is running unopposed for reelection to the District 3 Seat, which represents Nikiski. Tauriainen spoke with the Clarion about his candidacy ahead of the election. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to run for reelection to the school board?
Tauriainen: I still have kids that are in school, and there’s a few things that I would still like to do that didn’t quite get done because of a lot of things on our plate. Extended contract negotiations, dealing with COVID-19, the plan to mitigate and to have school during COVID-19 dominated a lot of our meetings. Personally, I’ve been passionate about the four-day school week for a long time. It’s one of the reasons I initially ran to be on the board. It’s a discussion we’re hoping to start having pretty soon and I’d love to have community and teacher and student input with that as the board begins to look at it as a possibility.
What would be your biggest priority as a school board member going into 2021?
Tauriainen: The No. 1 priority is making sure we keep our kids in school during this response to the COVID virus, and that we understand the risks that are involved, that we have approved treatments, and the numbers have trended down for deaths as case counts have trended up.
I’m a first responder medical provider so I work a lot with doctors and do a lot of studying on this, but our treatments have improved so survivability has gone up and we’ve just seen deaths flatline, if you look at the numbers across the country.
Of course, Alaska has hardly been affected at all. It’s important that our kids are in school. There’s social and economic damage that we’re doing by not being in school, and there’s a lack of equal educational opportunities by not being in school. That’s a much greater threat to children than the virus is, and anything I can do to help encourage that process is my primary concern as of now.
How do you feel the district has handled the start of the school year, and is there anything you feel should be changed or addressed going forward?
Tauriainen: I was overall pleasantly surprised by the Smart Start plan, but I did not understand the math on how they were going to calculate the numbers for students on when we would move into different categories.
I did initially say that I felt those numbers were too low, and then when we actually saw the math play out over the next couple weeks, I definitely had some strong concerns.
The state also had concerns, because the initial numbers were based on long-term health care facilities and not schools. They asked a health care committee to be formed, and I would like to see a little bit more transparency in why the decisions are being made to move from green to yellow to red, and how much the health care committee has to say on that decision-making compared to just the numbers.
I’ve also been critical of a mask mandate. I feel like it should have been something that was encouraged, and that we educate on why masks are important, and then people make that choice for themselves, especially at the green level at a minimum.
The district has seen a shift to home-schooling and implemented more remote learning into the curriculum because of the pandemic. How do you see those changes impacting the district in the long term?
Tauriainen: This is my personal opinion, but I’m not a big fan of the remote side of it. I think that teachers have done their best to make it possible for parents that are concerned about the virus to do remote learning and still be connected to their schools, and I think home-school is a choice that every family needs to decide if they want to do.
Some families are doing it not because they want to, but it’s better than the option schools getting shut down all the time, and they just don’t want to deal with that so they’re choosing to home-school even though their preference would be to have their kids in the building.
I think as we see things go back to normal we’re going to see a big return to the schools. But I do think it’s possible that we may see a shift in enrollment to Connections and other programs that are available from other districts in the state. I encourage parents to keep their money local and enroll in Connections if home-school is their choice. But I do think we’ll see a return to our schools because our schools are community hubs, like here in Nikiski. It’s part of the fabric of our community and it’s something that’s needed. We need to make sure that we protect that.
Teacher retention was also an issue for the school district even before the pandemic, and now the demand for substitutes and faculty is higher than ever. How can the district ensure that it can hire and retain the staff that it needs?
Tauriainen: Of course our big concerns are gonna be our counts. It looks like we might get some relief financially on that, but it’s still up in the air and remains to be seen.
So part of the issue is just making sure that we’re advocating to keep our funding up for this year and to be able to keep and maintain staffing levels. As far as recruiting teachers in the future, I think we have a really good pay scale actually, and benefits are very comparable to other places. We have a very desirable place to live for some people, but for some people it’s not, and you can’t change that.
Continuing to make KPBSD a place that builds good relationships, and trying to have a good trust level between administration and teaching staff, is something that I’m always pushing for. We need to let our teachers teach and try not to meddle with that as much as we can. Teachers that can teach the way they’re gifted to teach are passionate about it, and they give that passion to their kids and the kids learn. I just want to try to recognize what teachers’ gifts are and allow them to teach, and build that culture of supporting educators in what makes them the best they can be.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org.