Lon Garrison and Stephen Courtright in the KCAW studios on Wednesday. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Lon Garrison and Stephen Courtright in the KCAW studios on Wednesday. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Sitka voters next Tuesday will choose between two candidates for one seat on the Sitka school board. Lon Garrison is a six-year veteran of the board, the current president, and the group’s lead legislative strategist. Challenger Stephen Courtright is in his ninth year as a professional educator, and has developed strong views around the interaction of policy and the classroom.

The pair answered questions from the public in a live candidate forum Wednesday evening (9-25-13).

Listen to iFriendly audio.

When he talks about the race, Lon Garrison makes it plain that now is not the time to bring in a new face to the board.

“Public education is under attack. There are a lot of people criticizing public education, and who would like to see some major changes happen. I think it’s really important that we have advocates who stand up for what public education means. And that also means standing up for the public process and understanding what it means to be a good school board member. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Stephen Courtright says this election is not about replacing anyone, but is instead about bringing in a perspective that is absent from the board.

“I come from a position where I believe that education policy needs to have the voice of professional educators involved. And that has been neglected for far too long at all levels.”

In some school board races around the country there are larger principles at stake, like whether to open charter schools, or to distribute public education funding to private institutions through a voucher system.

Garrison and Courtright are aligned on the purpose of public education, and its value. How you get there in the larger world of legislative politics might be a difference. A listener emailed a question to the forum about how the school board could offset some of the “negative pressure” on school funding in the legislature.

Courtright thinks that patience may not always be the best approach to politics.

“It is tough, and there is no easy — well, there is an easy answer. And that’s to kick down every door in Juneau until we get what we need. But, unfortunately the road to that answer is not as easy as it needs to be.”

Garrison has met face-to-face with legislators who are openly hostile to the idea of public schools. He looks for smaller victories.

“I try to present both what we’re doing well, and what we need to do and where we need to go, and how they can help us. What are the items that they can really work toward providing some solutions for. Rather than go in and be argumentative and try to convince them that they’re entirely wrong. I want to show them a way they can be right. A way they can be a part of the solution.”

Read a candidate statement by Long Garrison.
Read a candidate statement by Stephen Courtright.

Questions posed by listeners to the forum came in mostly through social media and email, and covered a spectrum of issues, like how to better celebrate the achievements of students, the role of the Tribe in district affairs, whether the district should provide internet access for students who don’t already have it at home, and how to better fund activities so kids don’t have to go door-to-door selling stuff.

Some questions were technical, like the one posed by the forum’s lone caller.

“How do you feel about adopting the common-core standards?”

The candidates were not far apart here, at least in their initial reactions.

Courtright – It’s an elephant in the room.
Garrison – Well, it’s a real conundrum.

But this issue did create some space between the candidates. Courtright views the new state standards through the lens of a teacher.

“It’s going to change the landscape. If I had been asked, I would have said that national standards were a great idea. But I don’t know that these are, because they haven’t been tested yet. We’re field testing them now as they go live. And we’re doing things like taking Algebra from high school and putting it in eighth grade. That might turn out to be a great thing for our country. It might not, and that’s what we don’t know.”

Garrison approached the issue from the perspective of accountability. He said there’s about 85-percent overlap between Common Core and the new Alaska Standards. The changes in curriculum, testing, and evaluations will be implemented over the next two years.

“Is the Department of Education using it as a tool or a bat, so to speak, to get us to do what they want us to? I think at times, yes. And that doesn’t feel good. That’s a real concern I have about the Common Core.”

But neither Garrison or Courtright talked about standardized tests as the real measure of student achievement. When they talk about who the district serves and what they consider the measure of success to be, some of the candidate’s differences in opinion disappear, if not their differences in style.

Courtright – Sitka’s a weird little town. I love a weird little town. And weird little towns are really good at standing up against the big guy and saying, You know what? We don’t really care. We’re happy to be different, and we don’t mind being evaluated that way. As long as we know internally that we’re doing what we want to do.

Lon Garrison – I think one of the things you have to do is communicate the success that the district has, and tell our story. So that people understand who we are, what we’re doing, and the good work we’re doing.

The municipal election is Tuesday, October 1. The winning school board candidate will serve a three-year term.

Listen to the entire candidate forum, Part 1.
Listen to the entire candidate forum, Part 2.