From left to right: Ketchikan School Board candidates Melissa O’Bryan, Ginger Yeił Atoowu McCormick and Robb Arnold during the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce forum September 7, 2022 (KRBD Staff photo by Maria Dudzak).

Three of the four candidates vying for two, 3-year seats on Ketchikan’s School Board participated in a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce September 7th.  They fielded questions about their priorities, what they saw as important attributes in a school board member, and how they would vote on a ballot measure that would remove borough funding for Ketchikan’s library.

Robb Arnold, Ginger Yeił Atoowu McCormick and Melissa O’Bryan shared their views during a luncheon at the Cape Fox Lodge. Candidate Tom Heutte was out of town. Chamber executive director Michelle O’Brien moderated the forum and posed questions submitted by community members.

Candidates were asked what the most important issue facing the school district was and how would they address it. McCormick says the biggest issue is student retention. She says the district should continue to work to support all kinds of learning needs.

“But if we can have better routes and different places to go besides just an alternative school where they work at their own pace,” she said. “Some seem to drop out with the inability to stay at that pace.”

McCormick also says the board should strategize to help keep kids in school. She says the board should give educators what they need to provide the best they can for their students.

“Whether that’s expanding science labs so they can have better materials to better fit different learning styles,” McCormick said.

Arnold says that reading and math skills have declined during the pandemic and the district needs to get back to basics.

“And focus on the A, B, Cs which are math, reading and writing. Our kids are falling behind,” he said. “They’re not going to be competitive when they get out into the world either through college or if they want to graduate and go right into the job field.”

He says the district needs to retain and recruit good educators to teach these basics. Arnold says the district also should look into why students are dropping out.

“Are the classes boring? I think we need more Vo-Tech. We need industrial arts back in the schools,” he said. “And I think that if we focus on these things that the kids’ test scores will go up.”

Melissa O’Bryan says focus should be on kids’ education and mental wellbeing. 

“When we talk about no child left behind, that means all of our kids. Kids that are on IEPs. Our kids that are struggling and maybe not graduating,” she said. “So I think for me that’s the most important. It’s just figuring out how we can support our kids’ education and mental wellbeing coming out of a pandemic.”

IEPs are individualized education programs for students with special needs.

Candidates were asked what attributes and behaviors are essential in a school board member. Here’s O’Bryan.

“Fairness. Compassion. Ability to learn and listen. I think it’s important that any public official realizes that they don’t know everything and that they have a lot to learn. That they have a lot to listen to,” O’Bryan said.

She says they also need to understand the issues and understand the community.

McCormick says it’s important for board members to not advocate for themselves but for the students.

“To not only understand but to build a relationship with them and their families and know where the faults and the strengths lie. To be able to be a good team worker because one person is not the school board. The whole entire school board together are the ones that are going to build up strategies and solutions,” McCormick said.

She says it’s also important to do outreach in the community.

Arnold says what he can offer to the board is his experience. He cited his appointment to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, a vice-chairmanship with the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, and involvement in negotiations with the State of Alaska on behalf of the union.

“And I think that building consensus with other members and your life experiences helps. You can relate to people. I’ve had all this experience so I feel that I can relate to the whole board and to the parent. Listening. Gathering information. I can gather information,” Arnold said.

Candidates were also asked how they would vote on Proposition 2, which if passed by borough voters outside the cities of Ketchikan and Saxman, would repeal a tax that provides about half a million in annual funding to the library. The measure was filed in response to the Ketchikan Public Library’s decision to host a drag queen story time event earlier this summer.

O’Bryan came out against the proposition. She says the library is a resource for everyone.

“I also think it’s important to note that representation and inclusion matter. The reason that this was brought up I believe is important to address as well. So I will say that I am a supporter of the library and all of the programs that they offer and I would vote ‘no’ on that,” O’Bryan said.

McCormick says she also opposes the proposition. She says the library provides a safe space for youth and adults.

“Not everybody has internet or Wi-Fi or access to these important materials. And really you can take everything from someone, every materialistic thing from them, but you can never take what they know. So I think the library is an important source for this community and the event that they host are very important to our youth as well,” McCormick said.

Arnold did not directly answer yes or no but said he opposed the drag queen storytime event.

“They’ve allowed something in that not everybody agrees with. I think it’s inappropriate that kids are taught, are learning that. And so I’m against politics being in the classroom. I’m not running for the assembly or the city council, I’m running for the school board, but I’d be against politics in the classroom,” Arnold said.

There are two open seats on the school board. Municipal elections are October 4.

KRBD will be hosting a call-in forum with candidates for Ketchikan School Board on Tuesday, September 20at 7 p.m. And a quick disclosure – Tom Heutte is a member of KRBD’s board of directors, which does not direct the newsroom.