The race for the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education District 7 Central seat is between incumbent Bill Holt and newcomer Damon Yerly.
Yerly said he was drawn to the race by a desire to heighten the level of fiscal accountability within the board. He is running for public office for the second time, having run for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last fall.
“When you are running a deficit you shouldn’t be buying stuff,” Yerly said. “I am saying I need to kick the board in the butt but move it in the right direction.”
His role on the board will focus on the bigger picture, which is maintaining a viable source of education for his two children, students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Yerly said. With the looming potential for bigger state budget cuts to education, he said he is prepared to make tough decisions.
Yerly’s background is in running small accounting companies, and has been a commercial driver but is currently unemployed. He has spent significant time in his son’s classrooms, directly witnessing the consequences of the board’s decisions.
Both Yerly and Holt are Kasilof residents, and have an overlap of mutual friends, Yerly said. He has only heard good things about his opponent, whom he met for the first time during this year’s campaign season.
Yerly has been an Alaskan resident for 15 years. Holt has lived in Alaska for 35. In the past Holt has worked as a commercial fisherman, board member of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, an is currently the Tsalteshi Trails Association as maintenance director.
Holt, a two-term board veteran, said the reconfiguration of local schools, moving to a new process of teacher evaluation and the upcoming challenge of picking a new superintendent make it hard to walk away.
“I don’t see a dead end with this position,” Holt said. “These are all things we have been working on for four or five years and I just want to see them continue to move forward.”
Holt said he honestly wished the board did not have to go through the process choosing KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater’s successor.
“Replacing Dr. Atwater is going to be very tough,” Holt said. “He was very passionate about education and very passionate about organizing the district.”
Yerly said upon hearing Atwater accepted the University of Alaska Associate Vice President for K-12 Outreach on August 5, he knew he wanted to be involved in determining a good candidate to fill the vacant position. He said he believes the board already has a short list, but either way he wouldn’t end up seeing it just as a member of the public.
“I like Atwater. He had some weird ideas but overall he was a good guy and did good things for the schools,” Yerly said.
Holt said his biggest concern is identifying a candidate willing to help the board move in the direction it is already going. He said with the KPBSD teachers, staff and students already on board with the current set up, it would be incredibly frustrating to hire someone who is going to shake that up.
“Change is good but difficult,” Holt said.
Holt said he is well aware of the challenges either candidate will face in the next term. Both candidates are concerned about maintaining individualistic teaching in the classroom.
At the beginning of 2014, the Department of Education and Early Child Development announced a five-year contract with Achievement & Assessment Institute of Kansas, which will develop and carry out assessments for Alaska’s public schools for grades 3-10. The assessments will be computer and online-based, with the first phase being carried out in the spring of 2015.
The role of the board will be to help teachers and administrators enter into these new assessments without adapting by “teaching to the test.”
Yerly said test-focused growth is already an existing problem in the school district. He said his own school experience included too much testing, and he didn’t want that to be his children’s problem.
“I would sit in the corner and watch what is being written on the board,” Yerly said. “I didn’t get to ask questions. I was just taught how to test.”
As a frequent classroom volunteer, Yerly said students need more individual focus. They need encouragement to get their parents more involved in their education, he said.
“Differentiation and individual teaching is the only way I think it works,” Yerly said.
In the school district differentiation, a instructing style based on tailoring curriculum to each student’s learning style, is already a focus, Holt said.
The school district implemented differentiated instruction into their curriculum three years ago as part of the 2012-2017 Kenai Peninsula School District Strategic Plan.
Good teachers incorporate differentiation with their students, Holt said. River City Academy is a performance-based school that moves students ahead at their own pace, he said. Soldotna Montessori Charter School has three grades in each classroom and spends time each day in small working groups that affords the teacher a great amount of time teaching individual students, he said. Seward High School is working on a blended education model.
“The students are not just bundles of accumulated test scores that all move at the same pace with the same talents and interests,” Holt said. “We need to recognize their diversity and relate to them as individuals.”
“We actually have a great school district. We hire phenomenal teachers,” Yerly said. “I think the district could just do better. We could save a little money.”
Yerly said he is not the type of guy to just sit around and complain. If he sees a problem he wants to get up and do something about it.
From his perspective, the school district has adopted a “policy of shiny and new.” He said when the district, is running a deficit they shouldn’t be buying new computers.
Bottom line, the district shouldn’t be cutting teachers, he said.
Holt said with the state funding levels to education being so inadequate, the ability to avoid these cuts is not so simple.
“We either need to figure out a way to increase funding but make pretty drastic cuts,” Holt said. “It’s not that the sky is falling but we might have to make some pretty difficult decisions.”
Holt said the school district is doing very well. The drop out rates are decreasing, students are doing well in their standard assessments. Overall the school district is recognized as a high functioning district, and one of the top in the state.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at email@example.com.