Nikiski Middle/High School student Maggie Grenier testifies in favor of a base student allocation increase before the Alaska Senate Education Committee on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot)
Nikiski Middle/High School student Maggie Grenier testifies in favor of a base student allocation increase before the Alaska Senate Education Committee on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot)

Nikiski Middle/High School student Maggie Grenier testifies in favor of a base student allocation increase before the Alaska Senate Education Committee on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot) Nikiski Middle/High School student Maggie Grenier testifies in favor of a base student allocation increase before the Alaska Senate Education Committee on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot)

Students report mixed responses from lawmakers in education discussions

Delegates from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District lobbied the Alaska Legislature for more state funding and other education priorities

JUNEAU — Delegates sent to Juneau by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to lobby the Alaska Legislature for more state funding and other education priorities voiced mixed thoughts when reporting on the trip to the school board last week.

Some members of KPBSD’s six-person cohort said their advocacy was met with resistance by some peninsula lawmakers, particularly when it came to school funding. That’s been a top issue in Juneau this session, and KPBSD is one of several districts that have called on the state to increase the amount of money the state gives school districts per student, called the base student allocation.

The group was sent as part of the Association of Alaska School Boards’ annual legislative fly-in, which aims to help school board members understand the legislative process and learn more about issues affecting education in Alaska. AASB has a stated mission of advocating for children by helping school boards provide quality education through local governance.

Representing the district during this year’s fly-in were school board members Penny Vadla and Patti Truesdell; along with River City Academy Principal Shea Nash; his son Jeren; Jannell Grenier; and her daughter Maggie. Jeren Nash is the student body president at Soldotna High School. Maggie Grenier is a student at Nikiski Middle/High School and serves as the student representative to the KPBSD school board.

Grenier and Nash participated in AASB’s Youth Advocacy Institute, which allows high school students to accompany their school board members to Juneau and learn advocacy skills and how the Legislature works. AASB’s webpage on the institute says students participate in mock testimony and advocate with their school board members in the state Capitol.

Grenier told school board members during a debrief of the fly-in last week that she was proud of KPBSD’s Juneau delegation. She said her main takeaway was the importance of finding common ground with lawmakers who she disagrees with.

“It was a lot of how we approach legislators and the argument we want to take for them to listen to us — and not just listen, but actually hear what we’re saying and take that into consideration,” she said.

Nash, who said he talked to about 20 lawmakers while in Juneau, said he found state politics “incredibly riveting” and enjoyed connecting with other student advocates from around the state.

“It was really nice to be surrounded by students who do want to make a change,” he said.

When asked by board members whether they felt like the lawmakers they met with were receptive to their comments, Grenier and Nash reported different experiences.

Grenier said she felt like her message was heard, but it was sometimes difficult to tell when someone was listening versus shaking her hand and nodding. She reported a productive conversation with Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, who she said appeared to be receptive to her thoughts.

“Just those words of him saying, ‘You changed my perspective,’ was exactly what we needed to hear,” she said. “I think that was the theme we took — even if some legislators weren’t listening to us, they did hear our words and at least gained our perspective. It was one more voice into the crowd.”

Nash reported less-than-productive conversations with Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer.

“He is a very firm believer that education is just reading, writing and arithmetic,” Nash said of Carpenter. “I tried to inquire a bit further and then he told me, ‘You’re listening to respond, you need to listen to understand.’ I was a little put off by that, to be honest.”

Nash said he and Vance disagreed on what services a school should provide. She said it’s a parent’s job to make sure a student is thriving and succeeding, while Nash said schools should be a safe space for students who don’t have a stable household.

“When I began to question what she thought could be a better way to go about bringing a sense of community to our kids, she got into my face and she said ‘I have authority over you,’ and that was a little nerve-wracking,” Nash said.

Vadla and Truesdell both said they were upset by Nash’s interactions with Vance and Carpenter.

“We were having a really good conversation, or trying to,” Vadla said of Nash’s meeting with Carpenter. “I think student voices are as important as our voices — I actually think they’re more important — and so that disrespect really bothered me.”

Of Vance, Truesdell said she was “shocked” that a lawmaker would push back against the idea of schools as safe spaces for students who are struggling with their mental health.

“At the exact moment that Ms. Vance interrupted him, Jeren was saying that the suicide rate for kids in Alaska is like the highest in the nation,” Truesdell said. “He was making some kind of statement about the need for more counseling, more help for kids that are struggling and she cut him off.”

Both Carpenter and Vance told the Clarion last week that they were happy to see students engaging with the legislative progress, but said they have different opinions about Alaska’s public schools than the students they’ve heard from. Both also suggested that students are repeating what the adults around them say.

Vance said last Tuesday that she does not want to cast shade over students or board members who voice opinions that are different from hers, but that she remembers her meeting with Nash differently than he does. She said Nash made an emotional appeal for a BSA increase and that she maintained that schools’ primary focus should be academics.

“The interaction described is definitely not how I remember the course of the conversation,” Vance said via email. “It is unfortunate that students are used as a political tool to lobby legislators for more funding based on emotionalism.”

Carpenter said he felt like he and Nash weren’t connecting during the conversation and that the message Nash was conveying was one he “consistently hears from the education union.”

“We were having a conversation where we were just kind of responding to each other and we were talking past each other,” Carpenter said. “I said, ‘We need to pause for a second. Let’s just listen to each other and hear me — understand what I’m saying before you respond.’”

School Board President Zen Kelly told Grenier and Nash during last week’s meeting that they are experts regarding what goes on in KPBSD schools and that lawmakers should honor that expertise.

“The information that you have to give our legislative delegation, including our local legislators, in my opinion, means that they should listen to you,” he said. “You’re here, they are not. They’ve hardly stepped foot in our buildings and so you are the experts. You have a lot to say and you deserve the respect that they should have given you.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has until Thursday to decide whether he will sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature a comprehensive education package approved by lawmakers in February. The bill includes $174.6 million in new state funding for K-12 schools, about an 11% boost in the per-student funding formula for school districts.

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

This reporting from the State Capitol was made possible by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Legislative Reporter Exchange. Alaska news outlets, please contact Erin Thompson at editor@peninsulaclarion.com to republish this story.

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