Five candidates vying for seats on Ketchikan’s school board answered questions at KRBD’s forum last night. The candidates distinguished themselves by their backgrounds, their various approaches to the school budget and their thoughts on native representation in the school system.
Four candidates, Leslie Becker, Hilary Kvasnikoff, Paul Robbins, Jr. and Kathleen Yarr are competing for a 1-year term on the board. Bridget Mattson is running uncontested for a 3-year term.
There are four people running for a one-year term. A three-year term is uncontested. The first candidate to speak was Paul Robbins, Jr. He says at school board meetings he’s watched, most of the testimony comes from a handful of faculty that speak up for what’s important to them.
“And that’s fantastic,” Robbins said. “We do need teachers speaking at these, but we also need parents and business owners and just the rest of the community in there.”
Robbins works for the U.S. Forest Service employee in charge of public affairs for the Tongass National Forest. He pitched himself as qualified to fix that problem.
“I’ve spent my entire career in public relations. I have a master’s degree in strategic public relations. It’s what I do for the Forest Service,” Robbins said. “I think I can help in this manner.”
Hilary Kvasnikoff works for the Ketchikan Indian Community, a federally recognized tribal government.
“There is 33% of the school district that are indigenous kids, they are native kids, and they need a lot more support,” Kvasnikoff said.
As a young parent, she says she has a unique perspective among the candidates. She focused on two main points: increasing transparency and engaging with Ketchikan’s indigenous community.
Incumbent Leslie Becker is seeking re-election. She says her experience makes her effective.
“What I offer is the opportunity to be a productive member to the team on day one for the remaining one-year term, which is a very short period of time,” Becker said.
Challenger Kathleen Yarr quickly angled herself as the anti-establishment candidate seeking reform. She’s a former educator who has also held positions at KIC and now works with the Ketchikan Youth Court.
“I had four kids go through the school district. I wasn’t too impressed,” Yarr said.
Yarr said she’d like to see less resources invested outside the classroom teaching core subjects.
“We’re already administratively top heavy. we should pay our teachers more,” Yarr said.
Yarr also pointed to the fact that about a third of the district’s students are Alaska Natives. But she complained that Alaska Natives are underrepresented in the faculty.
“Honestly, I don’t know that number,” Yarr said. “It’s disgusting.”
That theme resurfaced when the candidates were asked how they would address representation for Alaska Natives in staff and curriculum.
“There are endless resources within this community not only KIC for our tribal, but we’ve got Tlingit and Haida, we’ve got the Sealaska Corporation,” Kvasnikoff answered.
She also pointed to successful outreach from school staffers. She sees that as part of the path forward.
“Working with parents, just seeing where they’re at, with their schoolwork, home life,” Kvasnikoff said. “And I really think that that just motivates them to maybe want to be more involved.”
Bridget Mattson is running unopposed. At the forum she pointed to the efforts of the school board’s Native Education Committee. She said she’d also like to see partnerships with native peoples.
“We are fortunate to live in a community where there are so many people who have so many talents and skills and are willing to share,” Mattson said.
Becker says she wouldn’t support imposing quotas to try and enforce more representation on the faculty.
“I am not interested in any percentage for any particular ethnicity,” Becker said. “I’m interested in the best teachers to be able to serve this community.”
Yarr strongly disagreed.
“Well, I think that’s a way to maintain the status quo,” Yarr quipped.
Robbins tried to find middle ground between Becker and Yarr. He said he finds hiring quotas discriminatory but agrees with what it seeks to accomplish.
“Any kind of representative organization, whether it be the school board, or the school system, should reflect a little bit more what the community looks like,” Robbins said.
The four candidates offered ideas for dealing with a shrinking budget as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration pledges more belt tightening.
Becker touted her managerial experience working as an administrator in healthcare.
“What I offer the district is a very successful career in business budget management,” Becker said. “I’ve done a lot of project turnaround. I’ve done a lot of negotiations.”
Becker again called back to her experience as a hospital administrator when asked how she’d handle potential future cuts in state education funding.
“What I have learned from that experience is it’s better to get ahead of it than to have to react to it,” Becker said.
Paul Robbins, Jr. says he’s focused on getting the most out of the money the district spends.
“The question is what level and what is appropriate to get the return on investment that our taxpayers and our stakeholders deserve,” Robbins said.
Kvasnikoff suggested another factor that might be holding students back.
“I feel like we have lower ratings due to lack of social emotional areas in student development has all to do with keeping these kids motivated,” Kavasnikoff said.
Kathleen Yarr had a particularly unconventional approach for dealing with state education budget cuts. She said the state is only required to educate children between the ages of seven and 16. She suggested rolling back early childhood education.
“I would cut preschool except for special needs preschool,” Yarr said.
But she isn’t just looking to get rid of preschool.
“I wouldn’t even have kindergarten. I think that children are best socialized at home,” Yarr said.
Yarr brought up a few more items at the end of the forum. She’s critical of frequent tests in classrooms, she’d like more recess time and she says more attention should be paid to children with difficult home lives. And she has one more priority.
“I think that we do need guns in the schools,” Yarr said. “I think we need to arm one teacher at least for every 100 students to keep our schools safe.”
The other candidates didn’t touch that one.
Check out the full forum here:
KRBD will host another forum Thursday, September 12 at 7 p.m. with the three candidates running for Ketchikan City Council. If you have questions for the candidates, you can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org (before 6:30, please) – or call in to ask your question live on the air.