Talk of education dominated public comment at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.
Employees of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have been negotiating a contract with the district for more than a year and educators across the district are getting more vocal about the issue. Across the peninsula, teachers and employees are uniting by wearing the color red and marching to and from their home and schools to show solidarity.
At Tuesday’s assembly meeting, Nikiski High School teacher, Jesse Bjorkman, used his public comment time to address the importance of borough educators.
“Educators across this peninsula go into their classrooms and go into the learning environments of hundreds of students on this peninsula and they provide an excellent education to students every day,” Bjorkman said. “What we do as educators on the Kenai Peninsula is nothing short of incredible.”
Bjorkman addressed a recent decline in morale among educators in the district.
“Unfortunately, this year, I’ve seen a drop in morale — a precipitous drop,” Bjorkman said. “Never before have I seen a drop in staff morale where I’ve seen so many teachers talk about quitting, talk about leaving the profession and going somewhere else. We need to decide what type of schools we want. What type of priorities we want as a borough. (The assembly’s) part in that, in large part, is to decide how we’ll fund those schools. We face a significant amount of challenges in that department right now. I urge you all to really consider your priorities. Consider what they are and consider what you’ll do, because the consequences will be immediate and they will be rather severe.”
Assembly President Wayne Ogle asked what has been the demotivator among borough teachers. Bjorkman said it’s a multi-pronged issue, including an unfriendly culture surrounding the profession, better-paying jobs outside of Alaska and a tough road toward retirement.
“Probably the biggest thing that drives young educators like me, or younger, to consider doing something else is that teaching in Alaska, as well as some other things, provides a pretty tough road for retirement,” Bjorkman said. “That’s a significant struggle for a lot of folks when they start making plans for what do I do with the rest of my life? How do I provide for a future for my kids? If the school district recognizes the problem that they have they would be wise to mitigate that problem.”
School board member Debbie Cary of Ninilchik also spoke in support of finding a way to fund education.
“I know that times are tough and that the struggles are real and that throwing money at a problem isn’t the only answer, but educating children… they are our future,” Cary said. “They are the ones that are going to be sitting where you’re right now. Should we educate our children if it costs extra money? Yeah… So I’m asking that as we move forward, we find a way to fund education.”
Cary told the assembly a story about a fundraiser started by students at the school in Ninilchik to help children who were coming to school hungry. She said in the first year of the fundraiser, the school raised more than $7,000 to send sack lunches home to students in need every Friday. She said this year the school raised more than $9,000.
“So yeah, communities can pull together and help out,” Cary said.
Carrie Henson told the assembly that she’s worried about a trend to privatize education at the state level.
“I think a lot of us are terrified at what’s coming out of the state right now and can’t believe that it’s happening,” Henson said. “I know it’s part of a movement to privatize education, which would create education for the rich, education for the religious, and the poor are not going to be educated and that is going to destroy our society.”
She said the pursuit of happiness begins with an education, and that the success of society relies on an educated population.
“Privatizing education is a horrible idea and so is the idea that the sole purpose of education is to produce consumers,” Henson said. “Education should be about producing a civilized society that works together for the common good, the environment and the conscious creatures in it. Education is not a business. It is the very foundation of human flourishing. We need innovators and problem solvers. We need empathy and consideration for each other. The pursuit of happiness is a basic human right. It should not be for sale.”
After public comment ended, several assembly members thanked members of the public for speaking out about issues in education.
Assembly member Willy Dunne said providing education is one of the most important things the borough does.
“It’s been coming to light — the difficulties education is facing with funding — but we need to remember that the kids deserve this,” Dunne said. “We deserve it as a society. It makes us a better community to be well educated.”
In his closing remarks, assembly member Hal Smalley encouraged members of the assembly to visit the schools, teachers and students in their district.
“Go into these buildings that are in your communities, and in your district, and talk to these teachers and talk with students. Get a little bit of a better perspective as to what’s going on and what’s happening in the school,” Smalley said.