School board candidates  (l to r) Ed Gray, Jennifer Robinson, Cass Pook, Eric Van Cise, Kat Richards. (KCAW photo/Rebecca Danon)

School board candidates (l to r) Ed Gray, Jennifer Robinson, Cass Pook, Eric Van Cise, Kat Richards. (KCAW photo/Rebecca Danon)

Sitka’s municipal election is Tuesday, October 6, and for the first time in recent memory, the school board is the race to watch.

There are five candidates vying for two open seats on the board: Two are incumbents with established-but-differing views on district budgeting; two are political newcomers hoping to build on the district’s strengths; and one is an ideological outlier, who’d like to see the district refuse standardized testing and take other measures to insulate schools from efforts to create national education standards.

The five candidates met in a 90-minute election forum on Raven Radio last Thursday night. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has this brief recap of the major issues.

Downloadable audio.

Listen to both Raven Radio’s school board candidate forum and our assembly candidate forum in their entirety here. You can also find profiles of each candidate prepared by our news department, and statements written by the candidates themselves here.

The municipal election is Tuesday, October 6. Polls are open 7 AM to 8 PM. The temporary voting location for Precinct 1 is at Grace Harbor Church. Precinct 2 will be at St. Gregory’s Catholic Church. If you’re not sure which precinct you vote in, you can cast a question ballot at either, and poll workers will verify your address and count your vote with absentees this Friday.

The first listener question to last Thursday’s forum went right to the heart of the matter: “Do you promise not to spend time and resources pursuing political and religious agendas such as denying climate change or evolutionary science, trying to impose history books with a certain point of view, or worrying about conspiracies?”

Cass Pook is an artist, and a behavioral health counselor. She has served on the Sitka board for 15 years.

“It’s not a secret that I go to church. I’m a Christian. I have Christian beliefs. But, at the same time, those are my beliefs. Those are my core beliefs and I don’t try to push that on anyone else.”

Jennifer Robinson is the other incumbent in the race. She’s served a three-year term, and is acting board president. She’s an independent business woman and the former director of Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce.

“As a school board member it is my job to make decisions in the best interests of our children. As a school board, we set policy for the district and the district implements that. I don’t see how we have room for state or national politics, or agendas brought in, or conspiracy theories, or — did I miss anything? — the school board table’s not the place for that.”

Ed Gray is a commercial fisherman and tannery owner. He’s the antagonist in this year’s election drama, an opponent of Planned Parenthood’s involvement in the health curriculum, and an opponent of the Common Core, the set of national educational standards on which Alaska’s standards are modeled.

He openly acknowledges a political divide.

“I hope that liberal, progressive families can come here and feel welcome in our school district, and I hope that children of conservatives can come here and feel comfortable in our school district. And so I believe that’s the district we want to create.”

Gray, however, does not send his own children to Sitka schools.

Kat Richards is another challenger, a nurse at Sitka Community Hospital. Richards was reluctant to make any sweeping promises to the person who asked this question.

“We sit there to help make sure what’s being offered to our children is the best. At the same time we’re community members, and we’re representing some of the community into that school system. I’m not sure how to really answer that question, because I’m not sure what they’re looking for.”

Eric Van Cise, a marine safety trainer and the third challenger in this race, saw a pretty clear boundary.

“This is common ground. This is where we have kids and families coming from all different demographics. And our job is to pay attention to what’s important, to what’s going to be the best for those children. It doesn’t stop what people want to do in private, in their homes, and situations like that.”

The candidates answered questions for a full 90-minutes, and found some of their common ground: No one was in favor of closing the Performing Arts Center, and all thought extracurricular activities were important.

A question from a high school senior about the candidate’s comfort level with a sexual health curriculum brought out more differences: Kat Richards, the nurse, was all about direct information, as were Eric Van Cise and Jennifer Robinson. Cass Pook was more cautious, and when the subject has come up in the past during her board service, she has tried to represent what she calls the “faith community.”

Ed Gray was unwilling to support the idea, saying a sexual health curriculum could not be separated from the values of the people teaching it.

And finally, the clearest line among the candidates involved Alaska’s Education Standards.

Ed Gray made the argument that he’s already taken to the board as a member of the public.

“You know these tests, these standardized tests, are designed to mass fail children. I would not have my children take a test that was designed for them to fail. I wouldn’t do it.”

The standards were adopted two years ago in Alaska, and last year was the first time students took tests based on them. Except for Gray, the candidates wanted to give the new standards a chance. Jennifer Robinson thought the standards debate was pulling the district off-task.

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to spend so much time on these big issues that we don’t have immediate control over changing, that we’re going to lose focus on the things we can implement – we can affect – right now, that’s affecting daily education in our schools.”

Statewide test results are already available on the Department of Education website. School-by-school scores are still to come. In an interview with KCAW, Commissioner Mike Hanley said scores will be lower than Alaska’s old standardized test, “because the bar will be higher.”