School board seats sought by incumbents

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Wednesday, August 26, 2015 10:41pm
  • News

Three incumbents are running unopposed for the three Board of Education seats up for election in 2015.

Liz Downing, representing Homer since 2005, Marty Anderson, representing Sterling and Funny River since 2003, and Tim Navarre, representing Kenai since 2009, have already signed up for the next three-year term. The municipal election is Oct. 6.

The trio independently cited the state’s fiscal crisis, or the “money, money, money,” as Downing said, and consequential need for experienced bodies who know how to advocate for education as their main reasons to reapply.

Navarre said he planned to step down at the end of his current term, but then the price of oil plummeted.

“There’s a lot of things happening with the state and funding to education,” Navarre said. “I have a pretty good relationship with how legislation works and working with legislators to help find solutions for our state and long-term funding for our district.”

In recent years the Kenai Peninsula School District has been running a deficit, meaning the fund balance has been tapped to cover costs, Navarre said. One solution is finding areas in the school district’s budget where spending can be reduced. Another is requesting forward funding from the state, he said. During the 2015 legislative session, Gov. Bill Walker eliminated the one-time funding allocation, previously promised to Alaska’s school districts. Navarre said it would be better to do away with the notion of one-time funding altogether, and advocate for at least two years of forward funding from the state, so school districts can plan accordingly.

This spring, the board unanimously agreed to renew all existing non-tenured teaching positions. Navarre said, with no forward funding from the state, the school district doesn’t know how much money will be available for staff salaries. It is unfair to keep people waiting to hear whether they will have a job, and in the interim, while the board is deciding who to keep on, they may accept positions elsewhere, he said.

Anderson also cited the state’s thinning budget as the drive behind his reapplication.

“More than any other time that I have been on the board, we are facing a financial crisis,” Anderson said.

The member seated longest on the board, Anderson believes the pending union negotiations between the school district and the Kenai Peninsula Education and Kenai Peninsula Education Support associations, recent changes to federal health care policy and impending budget issues are the most significant tasks ahead.

The KPEA and KPESA negotiating teams are requesting bumps to district employees’ benefits and salaries, which is a challenge to sign off on when the state is handing over less funding, Anderson said.

The previous three-year contracts for the two unions ended on July 1, but new contracts have not yet been ratified. An impasse was mutually declared between the three entities on April 15, after two months of negotiations, and no date for mediation has been set.

Implementing the Affordable Care Act brought up the costs of providing health care by nearly $3 million, straining the school district’s operating budget even further, Anderson said.

“There are complexities requiring folks that don’t need a year-and-a-half to two years to get up to speed,” Anderson said.

Downing said she is staying on to continue facilitating the improvement on the disconnect between school district employees, community members and state legislators. She has been working on the district’s Legislative Committee since its inception, and believes having bodies on the board who know and have strong relationships with officials at the state level is essential this year.

“I like to be an optimist but the situation is pretty dire,” Downing said. “I think we are going to have to be creative and work together to make sure we protect our classrooms.”

Anderson and Navarre said they consider their roles on the board as moderators between school district administrators and the public, supervisors of policy and monitors of use of available and relevant funds.

“Without a doubt the school board’s biggest responsibility is the budget, but that encompasses all aspects of what that budget means, and how to provide a quality education at the end of the day,” Navarre said.

Anderson said the job also entails hiring a superintendent best suited for the position. The mutual decision between current board members to hire Sean Dusek is one of the prouder moments he has experienced throughout his career on the board. The applicant must have an understanding of the district and the ability to carry out the business side of running a school district, he said.

“That’s not always an easy thing to do,” Anderson said. “The one we have now fulfills every essence of those requirements.”

Navarre said he reached out to people he thought might be effective on the board, and encouraged them to apply, including for his own seat. There were no takers, so he signed up for another three-year commitment. He said, when no new candidates are contesting incumbents, it is a general indicator that the public is comfortable with how a governing body is being run.

Downing said working in the school district requires creativity, and the board is team that can work together to best address the diversity of schools operating in rural villages, urban settings and distance learning programs.

Board members must be advocates for students, employees and parents, Anderson said. The community has to feel like their children are in a safe place and receiving a quality education, he said.

“It is better, the more the community is involved,” Anderson said. “We (the board) have had a good interactions with the community, but there can always be more.”

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