Sunday, March 21, 2010

Anchorage 2010 School Board Recommendations: Robert Griffin A Slam Dunk For Seat B, James Labelle And Don Smith The Leaders For Seat A

The Anchorage School Board, a seven-member body elected from all parts of the Municipality of Anchorage, controls a budget that at last count was approaching $800 million. The primary source of local funding is through property taxes. Although the Anchorage School District (ASD), once its budget is approved by the school board, submits its budget to the Anchorage Municipal Assembly for approval, the Assembly rarely deviates much from ASD's request.

Yet despite the financial impact of the school board's decision, the school board campaigns had received virtually no media coverage. Even the Anchorage Press, which has provided the most detailed coverage of the Assembly races so far, has remained silent on school board issues. Thus there is a danger of school board members being chosen by the elite and by activists rather than by ordinary community members. Consequently, I'm publishing my own analysis of the school board races in order to better educate the community on the candidates and their intentions. Note that, unlike Assembly seats, school board seats are city-wide; the same school board candidates will appear on your ballot no matter where you vote in Anchorage on April 6th, 2010. Update April 2nd: The Anchorage Daily News has now published an article about the school board races.

Visit the static page I created for a list of all municipal candidates and, where applicable, their websites, as well as the ballot propositions and links to principal media stories about the 2010 municipal election campaign so far.

Anchorage School Board Seat A: Update March 26th: KTUU Channel 2's profile of the Seat A race, including video, available HERE. Audio of KAKM Channel 7 "Running" appearance embedded below.

-- Don Smith: Official campaign website HERE. Don Smith's primary claim to fame is that he is the father of the Anchorage Tax Cap, passed in 1984 to restrain unnecessary growth of the Municipal budget. In his 50-year political career, he has served on the Anchorage Assembly and in the Alaska State House. Consequently, he knows how to deal with different legislative bodies and use them to maximum advantage. Smith is also a viable candidate; as recently as 2009, he finished second in a field of seven candidates in the Seat E school board race. Don Smith's priorities include improving student outcomes without additional spending by redeploying teachers back into the classroom and reducing class sizes, being a fiscally-responsible and forceful advocate to ensure that taxpayers get great value for their generosity, and to work with other board members to break the “Groupthink“ dynamic that has dominated our school board.

-- James Labelle: Official campaign website HERE. Has received the Anchorage Education Association co-endorsement for this seat. This is the third time Labelle has run for a school board seat, and he's become more competitive with each successive election. Most recently in 2009, Labelle finished third in the seven-candidate Seat E race, just a shade behind Don Smith. Labelle's objectives include fiscal responsibility, fair pay for teachers and return to a defined benefit retirement system (this is why he received an AEA endorsement), early childhood learning and after-school programs, more experiential and active learning techniques, greater support of public/private partnerships, increase vocational education, and to adjust policy, curriculum and practices to support individual learning styles.

In his earlier campaigns, Labelle was promoting the "diversity" card, mistakenly believing that Alaskan constituents would respond positively. But now that he knows that most Alaskans view diversity as a means towards an end rather than an end unto itself (Mayor Dan Sullivan's "Diversity" Dinner was much better supported than the "alternative"), he has moderated his rhetoric and instead advocates that "the School Board should be comprised of individuals who come with different skill sets, knowledge, education and experiences". This approach is less polarizing and more in keeping with Alaskan thinking. This also illustrates a willingness to listen to the entire community, and make adjustments when he finds his thinking to be superseded by reality.

-- Tommy O'Malley: Facebook page HERE. Has received the Anchorage Education Association co-endorsement for this seat. O'Malley is a local community activist in Girdwood who's taken an interest in land-use issues in the past. His strengths include 20 years service with ASD and expertise in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. O'Malley has two main objectives. First, he wants to improve graduation rates by focusing his efforts on early childhood education, language skill-building and strengthening parent connections with schools. And second, he believes in better choices for students and parents, in particular in the areas of workforce readiness, vocational education and college preparation. Praiseworthy goals, and Girdwood can be proud of this man who has stepped forward to champion their interests. But he'll finish third, nonetheless, simply because of the other higher-profile candidates.

-- David Nees: Facebook page HERE. An ASD teacher who's leaving the classroom after 27 years, he's frustrated with the failure of salaries to keep pace with inflation. He's also concerned about sports programs for kids shrinking at the middle level. When he suggested that $2700 a day for a retainer fee was too much for the district's lawyers and that it would be cheaper to have an on staff lawyer like all of the other districts in the state, he said Carol Comeau told him "I like my lawyers". But Nees proposes no solutions on his Facebook page, and a fourth-place finish is most likely for him.

Recommendation: Not an easy call; both James Labelle and Don Smith are equally qualified to serve on the school board. But there are clear-cut differences. Labelle has a more expansive vision for the role of public education, a vision that, despite his own stated commitment to fiscal responsibility, may cost more and might exceed the financial will of the taxpayers. In contrast, Don Smith would prefer that the school district direct its efforts primarily towards traditional education, and keep the social engineering to a minimum. This vision appears more consistent with prevailing community sentiment, considering the rhetoric I hear on Dan Fagan's talk show. One other factor which could put Don Smith over the top: Labelle will be splitting the teachers' union vote with Tommy O'Malley; although Labelle would get a bigger chunk of it, O'Malley could snag just enough of it to propel Smith past Labelle on election day. I recommend Don Smith by a narrow margin over James Labelle.

Anchorage School Board Seat B: Audio of KAKM Channel 7 "Running" appearance embedded below:

-- Robert Griffin: Official campaign website HERE. Quite possibly the most meticulously-prepared candidate who's run for a school board seat since I came Anchorage in 1991; his website teems with graphs illustrating staffing and budgetary issues within ASD. Griffin's primary issue is that since the 2000-2001 school year, ASD has added over 1,000 new staff positions without an increase in student population and more than doubled our spending on a per-student basis. Despite this increase, our student outcomes are well below expectations and our class sizes are too large. Griffin contends numerous studies show ASD can reduce class sizes and improve student outcomes without spending more money by redeploying teachers from bureaucratic positions back into the classrooms. Griffin also strongly objects to the "groupthink" mentality frequently demonstrated by board members.

-- Jeannie Mackie (Incumbent): Official campaign website HERE. Has received the Anchorage Education Association endorsement. During her year on the school board, Jeannie Mackie has demonstrated herself to be a competent placeholder board member who can be relied upon to steer the ship of state in a straight course. Her platform consists of standard boilerplate issues such as closing the achievement gap, reducing the dropout rate, and recruiting and retaining the best teachers, generic objectives shared by all school board candidates. Conspicuous by their absence are any specific proposals detailing how she might accomplish these goals. Stability rather than innovation and initiative appear to be Mackie's hallmark.

-- Ted Wilson: This candidate has chosen not to establish a baseline Internet presence to provide basic information about his campaign and to deter redundant inquiries. Considering that two-thirds of Anchorage has Internet access, and the remainder can have free public access via the Anchorage Municipal Library System, this is an unacceptable omission. It is the candidate's responsibility to affirmatively promote the message, not just sit back and wait for enquiries.

Recommendation: Jeannie Mackie may be O.K., but during a time when the amount of oil flowing through the TAP is decreasing and a natural gas pipeline remains an uncertainty, we need more than just "O.K.". The Anchorage School District has been living on borrowed time; only state debt reimbursement has permitted the passage of some school bonds that ordinarily would have failed. What happens when debt reimbursement goes away? Anchorage needs school board members with more than just a pretty face and a Colgate smile; we need people with the initiative and imagination necessary to get a bigger bang for the buck, and who also demonstrate meticulous preparation and attention to detail. Robert Griffin is the overwhelming recommendation for this seat; it's a slam dunk.

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