Four seats on the school board ballot in October

Some Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students will be braving the halls of high school for the first time this year, or greeting a new teacher in the classroom each morning, but others will be falling back into the familiarity of their school routine this week.

Behind the scenes, the Board of Education is facing a similar situation. Two members, Penny Vadla and Mike Illg, will retain their seats, running unopposed, and Debbie Cary is the only candidate running for the seat of board member Bill Holt, who is stepping down. Long-time board member and current Board of Education President Joe Arness is running against another new name, Jason Tauriainen, a business owner and volunteer Nikiski Firefighter who has worked as both a support staff member and a custodian at Nikiski Middle-High School, for the District 3 seat representing the Nikiski area.

All the seats are for three-year terms except for Illg’s, which will be a one-year term.

Although Tauriainen would be a new face to the board, he is familiar with the school district.

“I have worked in the classroom and have worked in the support staff,” Tauriainen said. “I know what the building needs to stay clean. We need perspective on what we need staffing-wise in the building to maintain quality buildings.”

Tauriainen said his experience gives him this perspective.

“Over the years, the district has bought various different programs, like new curriculum mappers. … So far, none of the teachers understand why it was purchased or what it is for,” Tauriainen said. “You spend millions on things like that when we’ve cut the custodial staff at least a half-time in every building.”

A point of contention in budget talks earlier this year was the reduction of custodial hours versus the reduction of custodial positions in order to save about $500,000. In the FY18 budget budget, maintenance and custodian expenses were decreased by 5.31 percent by leaving open positions empty.

Arness has held his seat on the board for a total of about 18 years.

“I’ve been on the board nine years now, on this shift, and was previously on for nine years as well,” Arness said.

Throughout these years of service, he has served as a proud supporter of stronger schools, community and parent involvement and a fiscally responsible operation of the district, he said in his candidate statement.

Arness cites his dedication to the school district, saying he is a “real believer” in the district, but hopes to continue conversations about health care and its impact on budget. In 2016, Arness spearheaded a Health Care Costs Review Committee to investigate the school district’s employee health care spending, which cost the district over $23 million in FY17.

In July, Arness also penned a letter from the Board of Education to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly urging the borough to pursue a different billing structure with the Central Peninsula Hospital while the borough was discussing the hospital’s new operating contract.

“I’m kind of fairly deeply involved in the conversation that has been started about health care costs and what we can do to lower those, and I want to continue those conversations,” Arness said. “As far as specific plans, I think the district is running well. I think it is running smoothly and I don’t think there is any need for the board to be meddling in that.”

District 7 will be saying goodbye to current Board of Education member and board clerk Bill Holt. Holt has not filed for re-election and, instead, Debbie Cary will be running on the ballot unopposed.

“(The board) needs a new voice and a different perspective,” Cary, of Ninilchik, said. “We need to integrate change as far as how we deliver and diversity education so that we are teaching students, community, parents and staff how to teach students the way they learn today.”

This past year, Cary was often vocal at school board meetings about her concerns with staffing losses at Ninilchik School due to decreasing enrollment.

Cary said she is also concerned about the growing cost of health care and is hoping to address the issue head on.

“We need to figure out a way to address the issue and stop using (it) as a crutch,” Cary said. “Are we actually increasing the funds we spend on students or are we increasing the funds that we spend on health care and retirement?”

In District 4, Vadla of Soldotna will retain her seat for another three years.

Vadla has worked in education for over 40 years and has been on the board for nine years, which gives her “firsthand knowledge of the underpinnings of the school district,” Vadla said in her candidate statement.

“I look forward to serving you for another three years as KPBSD continues to focus on transforming education by focusing on preparing the ‘whole student’ through innovative educational practices,” Vadla said.

In Homer, District 8 Board of Education representative Illg will retain his seat for another year.

“My philosophy is simple: healthy minds and healthy bodies equates to success in the classroom and ultimately success in life. All kids deserve this opportunity,” Illg said in his candidate statement.

Illg began serving on the board after being appointed to fill a vacant seat in October 2016, and was on the Homer High Site Council for four years prior to that.

He hopes to focus on finding a sustainable revenue source and the health and well being of the district’s students.

“We all need to be a part of the solution to ensure we continue to provide the best possible educational opportunity as the children are depending upon us to get it right the first time,” Illg said.

Polls will open on Oct. 3 at 7 a.m. The last day to register to vote is Sept. 3.

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.

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