Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Opinion: A governor should solve crises, not create them

Across Alaska we’re losing teachers and courses, and closing schools

  • By Les Gara and Jessica Cook
  • Tuesday, October 18, 2022 5:42pm
  • Opinion

By Les Gara and Jessica Cook

In this election for governor you can elect the candidates with the strongest record on education, on women’s choice, and on addressing real mental health problems that harm children and families. Under Gov. Mike Dunleavy we’re facing the worst school, mental health and child care crises in Alaska history.

Across Alaska we’re losing teachers and courses, and closing schools. Alaska has an unprecedented inability to retain teachers, nurses and counselors because of constantly lagging education support. Educators, mental health counselors, police, and other professionals are leaving for better pay and benefits in the Lower 48.

I’m proud to have an accomplished education leader, Jessica Cook, as a running mate when we need her most. Jessica and I want a state people believe in again. 20,000 more Alaskans have left this state than moved here under Gov. Dunleavy, because they see no commitment to education for their children, or the jobs people want.

Fishing communities have been hit particularly hard as this governor has appointed partisan fisheries managers instead of ones who’ll follow science, protect all fishermen, and protect our fisheries. He’s supported the massive Pebble Mine, a toxic threat to the world’s greatest salmon runs.

In the new ranked choice voting system, we’ve said all along that we’ll rank Bill Walker second on our ballots. We thank him for recently starting to urge his supporters also to rank us second. Our common ground is that we know it’s time for a change. Ranking two candidates in this race in order of your preference is crucial to defeating a governor who’s ignored crisis after crisis, letting all of them get worse.

We’ll fix the worst public education crisis in state history. When I started as a legislator, I saw a prior decade of school cuts. In 2004 I began pushing legislation to do what school officials, educators and parents now say we need. We need to keep education support up with rising annual inflation costs, every year, not just in election years.

I’ve pushed to return an affordable pension to teachers, police and the other key employees Alaska can’t hire or retain. Teachers, police and others are leaving to the Lower 48, where they get a pension and better pay. We’re simply not competitive anymore.

As governor, I’ll lead by pushing solutions that are 20 years overdue, and that no other candidate ever once proposed when in office.

Gov. Dunleavy has done the exact opposite of what’s needed. He started his term attacking our students with an attempted state record $280 million education funding slash. That would have laid off 2,800 teachers, counselors, nurses and educators we don’t have enough of.

Then he went to court in 2019 to block the last multiyear education funding increase in state history, which I helped spearhead my last year as a legislator.

Today educators, parents and community leaders are calling for the policies I’ve always supported, and will pass as governor.

Build a trained Alaska workforce instead of exporting our workers

People are leaving Alaska because they see no commitment to public education, and no economy with the jobs they and their children want. One-third of our young people are moving away. That’s an economic disaster.

We have to educate and train Alaskans for the jobs we need. We should reinstate loan forgiveness for jobs where we have a great shortage, like teaching, mental health counseling and child care. We should work with the University and our rural and urban job training centers to train Alaskans for the jobs needed in communities where they live, and that they know best.

As someone who grew up in foster homes, I believe money should never be a barrier to success. We should offer financial aid to those who can’t afford higher education and job training. Gov. Dunleavy tried emptying our scholarship fund.

This governor has kept us poor, making Alaskans fight over the crumbs. I’d end the $1.2 billion in unjustifiable oil company subsidies he voted for as state senator, and that I voted against. I appreciate our oil jobs. But we should be equal partners with industry, not junior partners.

With fair revenue we can afford a stronger, funded PFD, without robbing from schools, a Marine Highway I’ve always fought to support, and fix the problems this Governor says we can’t afford to solve.

Gov. Dunleavy would rather keep fighting culture wars than solve problems. He promises a constitutional amendment to take away a woman’s right to choose. I’ll fix problems, like an affordable housing crisis he’s ignored, not grab your privacy rights.

With your vote, we can support the schools, police, workforce and community projects needed to build an Alaska people believe in again.

Les Gara is former member of the Alaska House of Representatives, and former Alaska assistant attorney general on the Exxon Valdez oil spill civil prosecution. He and his wife, Kelly, live in Anchorage, and lived in Fairbanks before that.

Jessica Cook is a 22-year public school teacher, and former vice president of both our statewide and Anchorage Education Associations. She was raised in Eagle River and lives in Palmer with her husband Ed, an Air Force Veteran.

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