Dionne Brady-Howard (l.) and Elias Erickson are running unopposed for two seats on the Sitka School Board, but that didn’t stop them from bringing the Alaska Legislature to task for threatening to cut education funding, before creating a revenue plan to ease the current budget crisis. “Education should not be partisan,” said Erickson. (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)

With no opposition in the coming municipal election, Sitka’s two candidates for school board took aim at the state legislature and its continued inaction on resolving Alaska’s budget crisis, during a 90-minute forum on KCAW Thursday night (9-21-17).

Dionne Brady-Howard and Elias Erickson both made a strong case for public education, and its critical role in shaping Alaska’s future.

Downloadable audio.

In many ways it was the kind of conversation you would expect between two ideologically-aligned candidates running unopposed for school board: The investment a community makes in its children is paid back many times over by the benefits of a well-educated society.

Listen to KCAW’s School Board Election Forum in its entirety: Part 1, Part 2.

Both Dionne Brady-Howard, a Social Studies teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and Elias Erickson, a senior at Sitka High School, support education as a way of creating well-rounded citizens — which made it all the more aggravating that Senate Republicans in the Alaska Legislature used the threat of an education cut as one of their final bargaining chips last year’s budget deal.

Elias Erickson is only 18 years old. He was not impressed by the Senate majority’s tactics.

“Education is not, and should not be, a partisan issue. It should be something that we’re all prioritizing, because it is something that affects all of us as a society.”

In the end, the House and Senate arrived at a compromise that kept education funding at the same level as last year. But the threatened cut forced districts to consider something once thought inconceivable — that education funding would go backwards in the state.

Brady-Howard teaches government. She felt legislators were willing to risk cutting education, because the alternatives were even riskier.

Brady-Howard — We’re going to have to look probably at something more statewide, such as an income tax. I get that the Senate didn’t want to go there. There’s going to come a point in time where cuts have to be made in the budget, or we have to raise revenue. I think that they conceptually get that, but no one wants to make the decision for either of those. And then we end up in this vicious cycle with these ridiculously expensive special sessions, that come session after session.
Erickson — That per diem really racks up.
Brady-Howard — It does. I think there needs to be more pressure on our lawmakers to get their job done in the time allotted. One the one hand they’re telling us what a budget crunch we’re in, and they continue to spend money we evidently don’t have. And then to tell education that we need to take a drastic cut? When even holding harmless does not do enough for education year after year with the rate of inflation.

Elias Erickson represented the Sitka High Student Body on the Sitka School Board last year. He’s running for a full term now, and will likely be seen as the representative of the newest generation of voters. He’s already been to Juneau to advocate for education, and his frustration with Baby Boomer politics is showing. He’s got a list of ideas he’d rather the legislature explore before cutting education.

“We could restructure our dividend. We could restructure the way we subsidize oil and gas companies. We could further explore the income tax option. I’m really disappointed that Republicans in the Senate turned that down. Alaska is one of the only states without an income tax. If we did have an income tax, we’d have one of the lowest income taxes in the United States. Yet these senators — and the President of the Senate, Pete Kelly, just refuse to accept that tax measure. He would rather cut education than take a tax, and to me that was rather disappointing.”

Sen. Pete Kelly, in a statement released shortly after Gov. Walker’s announcement of a fourth special session to begin on October 23, said “The Senate Majority welcomes additional discussion on the state’s fiscal problems, which we believe are best addressed by reducing government budgets and instituting a spending limit.”

Both Erickson and Brady-Howard support maintaining arts and music programs in the schools, as well as extracurricular sports and activities. Brady-Howard said that community partnerships are critical for offsetting some of the costs of these programs, and ensuring equitable access.

Erickson sees extracurriculars as an important incentive for some students to remain in school, and he considers the home room programs in the middle- and high schools as critical for ensuring that students don’t fall through the cracks.

And, as a lifelong advocate for cultural issues, Brady-Howard suggested opening a conversation about problems endemic to the tribal community.

“One of the things that I think we have a hard time looking at in our state is not just trauma — but generational trauma. So for example in many of our state schools right now we don’t have students who are punished for speaking their Native language, but we often neglect to look at the fact that we are teaching students across the state who are being raised by folks who were in fact punished for practicing their culture or speaking their Native language. So we’re failing to look at where some of the attitudes toward education come from in Native communities. And if we could more honestly look at where those attitudes are coming from, we might be better able to address the needs of those students.”

The two candidates are running for three-year terms on the Sitka School Board. Erickson will graduate in May. He says he’ll remain in Sitka for at least a year afterwards to continue his service on the board, if elected, and to earn money for college.