From left: Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education candidates Patti Truesdell, Virgil Gattenby, Virginia Morgan, Ryan Culbertson and Zen Kelly participate in a candidate forum at the Soldotna Public Library on Monday, Sept. 20, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education candidates Patti Truesdell, Virgil Gattenby, Virginia Morgan, Ryan Culbertson and Zen Kelly participate in a candidate forum at the Soldotna Public Library on Monday, Sept. 20, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

School board hopefuls talk education at forum

Among topics discussed include bond proposition, teacher retention and federal funding

People looking to take an active role in guiding the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gathered Monday in Soldotna for a forum that featured candidates running for the Board of Education.

The forum was the fourth of nine forums being hosted by The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters. Over the course of roughly an hour, candidates fielded questions from moderators Sabine Poux, news director at KDLL, and Ashlyn O’Hara, government and education reporter at The Peninsula Clarion.

Zen Kelly is running unopposed for reelection to the school board’s District 9 seat, which includes Homer and other southern peninsula communities. Kelly has served on the board since 2016 and as board president since 2020. He is the owner of a business consulting and accounting firm and also served on school site councils for 10 years.

Virgil Gattenby is running against incumbent Patti Truesdell for the board’s District 1 seat, which includes the Kalifornsky area. Truesdell, who has served on the school board since 2019, is a retired KPBSD teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Alaska system. Gattenby, who owns Alaska Music Lessons, is a 1984 graduate of Soldotna High School and has previously served as a U.S. Army officer and as a supervisor for Kenai 911 Dispatch.

Ryan Culbertson is running against incumbent Virginia Morgan for the board’s District 6 seat, which includes Seward and the eastern Kenai Peninsula. Morgan, who has served on the board since 2019, holds bachelor’s degrees in music and elementary education and is a former elementary and middle school teacher who also volunteers at the Cooper Landing Community Library. Culbertson, who has two children attending KPBSD schools, said Monday that he’s spent the last 20 years in law enforcement in Florida and has been in Alaska for about a year and a half.

All candidates said they support the $65.5 million bond package that will be considered by borough voters next month, with the exception of Culbertson, who said he has not read the bond and therefore could not say whether he supports it or not.

The bond package would pay for some of the school district’s biggest capital priorities, such as new high school tracks and the relocation of the district office. It would chip away at more than $420 million worth of maintenance needed at KPBSD’s 42 schools. The estimated cost of the bond to borough voters would be about $45 for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

“That is a worthwhile assessment for our communities to make in the infrastructure that provides an avenue for us to educate children,” Kelly said. “These schools are also not just educational, they are community centers. We all use them as community members, and we need to invest in them.”

Candidates diverged on the best way to attract new staff to the district amid nationwide shortages. Morgan said changes to Alaska’s retirement and pension system need to be implemented at the state level, while Kelly emphasized the importance of having a competitive salary and benefits package that aligns with other districts in the state. Gattenby said the district needs to learn how to do “more with less” and Culbertson said teachers should always feel supported by the school board.

Truesdell said there’s been a decline in the number of people applying for the district’s teaching positions over the last 25 years and said that teachers generally needed to be treated with respect.

“We don’t treat our teachers with enough respect and we don’t offer enough benefits,” Truesdell said. “We need to do better on everything (other candidates) said. We need to treat our teachers better.”

When asked about how KPBSD could be better supporting the staff who already work for the district, Gattenby said the district should be exploring new sources of revenue as a way to reduce the burden on staff.

“We should be looking at new sources of revenue,” Gattenby said. “If we’re able to get new sources of revenue, we can hire more teachers. More teachers means less student load per teacher, which means they don’t have to work nearly as hard.”

All candidates agreed that it is important that the district spend and manage federal COVID-19 money responsibly. The district has received three rounds of federal money — totalling about $31.3 million — through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds.

About $4 million of that, per federal guidelines, must be used to help students who fell behind academically during the pandemic. The district used about $9 million to save teaching positions that may have otherwise been cut. An additional $7.6 million was used to offset a budget deficit for the same amount in the current fiscal year.

Incumbent school board candidates said they trust the borough’s finance department to ensure the district is in a good financial position and that the borough has been able to build up savings with the federal relief, while challengers said the district should not be using one-time grant funds for recurring expenses and proactively seek grant opportunities.

“I feel very comfortable in the decisions that were made to spend the ESSER funds on maintaining our current staffing, because I think it 100% is the best way to address learning loss, and that was what that money was intended for,” Morgan said. “But in the process of doing that, as was stated earlier, we are building up our savings again, which will help to mitigate that cliff that is coming.”

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland has said he is ready to see the district get back to its high expectations of staff and students in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kelly said that requires intervention and remediation for students while Truesdell said it requires more support for teachers.

Culbertson said that student success must be a partnership between schools and a student’s family and requires participation from both.

“Children are resilient,” Culbertson said. “If you set the standard for them, and you set it high, they’ll reach for it, they’ll go for it. Have a structure in the classroom where they know what the standard is, and they know how they can get there, how they can achieve it.”

Election day is Oct. 4 and in-person absentee voting began Sept. 19. Monday’s full board of education candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page and on KDLL’s website at kdll.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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