For the second time in two years, Sitka voters will choose between candidates for school board with significant differences in educational philosophy.
Challenger Ed Gray and incumbent Jennifer McNichol met in a 90-minute call-in forum on KCAW Monday night (9-19-16).
Listen to the 2016 KCAW School Board Candidate forum in its entirety here. The municipal election is Tuesday, October 4.
The most relevant question to ask any school board candidate is about funding. Balancing the expenses — or needs — of the district against revenues is most of a school board member’s job.
Incumbent Jennifer McNichol says it’s a tough position to be in, since the school district has no way to raise revenue. It has to advocate for funding from local and state government, and she’s willing to do that.
“There’s a lot of moving parts as far as the funding we receive, but there’s a lot of fixed things as far as expenses. It’s a tough balancing act. I think trying to advocate for what we do and why it should be supported, and why it should be a priority is an important job for all of us. Not just board members, but the whole community.”
“We’re facing crises that the school district’s not even talking about, and funding problems. Until we regain control over our school district, until we can make those decisions, we’re going to struggle. It’s a no-win situation for us.”
Gray uses the term “FedEd” to encapsulate his position on federal involvement in local districts.
But with a year of service under her belt, McNichol rejected the idea that schools are being taken over by federal government.
“I think it’s also important to keep in perspective that our budget is $20 million to $21 million. We get less than $1.3 million from federal funding. The majority of our funding is from state funds and our local contribution. So we’re not largely federally funded by any means, or any stretch of the imagination.”
Gray did not elaborate on his ideas much beyond this ideological beach head. Asked how he’d respond if the district were forced to make significant budget cuts this year due to under enrollment, Gray was steadfast.
“Until we get some local control and can make these decisions: We do have a local school board now, but we may not need a local school board before long if we continue down the FedEd path. That’s why we’re so committed to ending it, so we can make spending decisions over educational resources .”
The “we” Gray refers to is vague. He describes it as a loose coalition of legislators and school officials who oppose FedEd. He says they use the research “sent down” by Alaskans Against the Common Core, but they are not that group.
Something about this didn’t add up for McNichol.
“I would rather have our local school board make decisions about standards and assessments, than an ad hoc statewide or nationwide committee of folks who pressure legislators. I don’t think that’s local control.”
The lead opponent statewide to Common Core standards has been Lora Reinbold, who represents Eagle River in the legislature. In 2015 she barnstormed to Sitka and met with about 100 people concerned about the new standards.
Around the time of her visit, a meme appeared on Facebook depicting Sitka school Superintendent Mary Wegner dressed in a turban, riding a camel in the desert. The meme read “There is no learning but Common Core and Mary Wegner is its messenger.”
A caller to the forum asked Ed Gray for an explanation.
“A question about a meme that Ed (Gray) put up on social media depicting the superintendent as an ISIS fighter. It smacked of bullying and name calling. I’m curious how he reconciles that to running for school board and setting a good example for kids.”
Gray admitted circulating the meme on the Sitka Chatters Facebook page, but he denied recognizing the image.
“Actually when I posted it, I didn’t know it was Mary Wegner. They sent the post down, and I didn’t know the photoshop was of her. But I understood where the message was coming from and why it was sent.”
A subsequent listener asked Gray if he would “renounce the insult” to the superintendent.
Gray refused. He’d rather see her gone.
“Could I work with her? Yes. Would I rather have someone who would promote local control? Yeah, I would rather have a superintendent who would do that.”
The candidates had some common ground. Both supported extra-curricular activities and sports. They differed somewhat on health and sexuality education. Gray was a proponent of banning a health instructor at Blatchley Middle School two years ago who was also a part-time Planned Parenthood employee. Gray said sexuality instruction should be “a family enterprise.” McNichol, a pediatrician, had already seen the encountered youth in her practice who were facing possible lifetime consequences from easily-preventable sexually-transmitted infections. She agreed with Gray, but felt schools should take up the slack for families that don’t educate their children about these issues.
The forum did not get much more specific than this, but the audience did not seem to mind. One listener sent in the most global question of all: Why do we have public education?
Ed Gray said it was parents versus the government.
“There’s two opposing views of education right now. One is the traditional view that parents oversee the upbringing and education of their children, and the other is the primary role of the federal government is to oversee the education and upbringing of children. That’s being voiced by a lot of people behind the FedEd movement, who believe that education is by necessity being transformed into workforce development for a managed economy.”
Jennifer McNichol said it was about creating a modern, democratic society.
“Federal education is designed to create that common ground, the foundation that we all develop from. Where we go with it — that obviously is where the individualism, the creativity, and choices come in.”
And that is the choice Sitka voters will make when they fill the one open seat on the school board this October.