Homer High School students participate in Kenai Peninsula Borough mayoral forum in the Homer High School Mariner Theater, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Emilie Springer/Homer News)

Homer High School students participate in Kenai Peninsula Borough mayoral forum in the Homer High School Mariner Theater, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Emilie Springer/Homer News)

Students quiz mayoral candidates in high school forum

The event was organized by students in coordination with local voting advocacy groups Kenai Peninsula Votes and the League of Women Voters

Homer High School students moderated a Kenai Peninsula Borough mayoral candidate forum Thursday, featuring Soldotna City Council members Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings and David Carey, former Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche and Kenai business owner Zachary Hamilton.

The event, which was organized by students in coordination with local voting advocacy groups Kenai Peninsula Votes and the League of Women Voters, featured 15 questions written and submitted by the students.

Teacher Lucas Parsley said questions were developed with students through the school’s social studies department, which covers federalism and national, state, borough and local politics through its Alaska history, United States history and world government classes.

“We asked students to identify the top priorities for each of the candidates and each student had to draft a question to ask each candidate,” he said.

Originally there were about 200 questions and then each teacher narrowed that down to the top five questions. Former Homer assembly member Willy Dunne also looked at them and provided feedback, Parsley said.

“Finally, I worked with a group of students to trim those down to the top 15,” he said.

When the Thursday event started, student questions were projected on a screen behind the candidates and the student who submitted the question came up to the stage to present the question. If the student composer didn’t want to be onstage, he or she chose an advocate to ask the question on behalf. Prior to questions, an opening slide provided audience expectations: personal devices should be left in the classrooms, no feet on chairs, and be respectful.

Each candidate provided a brief opening introduction before the start of student questions. Candidate response to questions was organized by rotation. There was also a “lightning round” of questions where each candidate responded simply by holding up a “yes” or “no” sign.

Student questions came from all grade levels and covered a diversity of topics.

For example, students asked how, if elected, candidates would support at-risk and minority community members, how they would address student safety concerns and how they would gain the trust of the borough community.

Other topics discussed included village internet service, the candidates’ intentions to place emphasis on trade employment opportunities in the K-12 system, opportunities to boost the local economy post-pandemic, and how to help village communities in the district.

Prior to the start of the event, Parsley introduced some of the students key to the inspiration of the forum.

Senior Lliam Boss-Harmon told the audience the forum was an outgrowth of a civic engagement club begun at the beginning of the year.

“We decided that to get more people involved we needed to do something a little more organized,” Boss-Harmon said of the club.

“Our original group just had maybe five or 10 kids and sometimes we had some political leaders give a talk and that got a little more of an audience. It just progressed from there.”

The civic engagement club worked in coordination with Alex Koplin of Kenai Peninsula Votes and the League of Women Voters.

“I wanted to give our fall meetings a little more structure and legitimacy with a student organization,” Parsley said. “Talking with Alex, we decided to start a youth chapter with the League of Women Voters from the Kenai Peninsula. It’s called ‘Youth Vote’ and that really took off in December,” Parsley said.

The Youth Vote program received background support from Alaska 2020 teacher of the year Amy Gallaway at the West Valley High School in Fairbanks, who provided suggestions to Parsley on how to get the Homer program running, such as creating a candidate forum.

The February borough election lined up well with that recommendation.

“Gallaway has been doing this for several years and provided me with several templates for her structure of it and that was really helpful,” Parsley said.

In general, Parsley and Koplin were pleased with how the event went.

“The kids were really pretty responsive to some of the things the candidates mentioned. Some of their answers to the questions were incredible: David Carey talked about a personal disability; Hamilton talked about experience in an orphanage. It got their attention and they could relate,” Koplin said.

To follow up on the event, the high school will hold a mock election on Tuesday during the Feb. 14 election. Students will receive sample ballots, votes will be tallied and results announced.

Emilie Springer can be reached at emilie.springer@homernews.com.

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