School board candidates Cass Pook and Paul Rioux met in an election forum before the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (9-4-19).
Former school board member Cass Pook (l.) tried to drive home the importance of inclusivity in Sitka’s schools. “Until they’re (students) are accepted, you might as well throw academics out the door,” she said. Newcomer Paul Rioux (r.) had a broad vision of schools as helping shape the emotional lives of students: “In reality when someone comes to work for you, or with you, how they can communicate and how they see their role in their community –that’s all really important,” he said. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka’s two candidates for School Board met for the first time in an election forum this week (9-4-19) sponsored by the Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

Cass Pook is a 17-year veteran of the board, who lost her seat last year in a close election. Paul Rioux is a political newcomer, who nevertheless brings a long history of community service to his campaign.

The school board candidates were in agreement on many of the issues facing the Sitka School District in the immediate future — the most pressing being the uncertainty of funding under the administration of a governor who has been openly hostile to public education.

So the difference between the candidates really boiled down to Pook’s considerable experience, versus Rioux’s well-articulated vision of schools and their role in shaping the community in the present and future.

Pook previously served during a period of relative calm on the board. Unity and collaboration were her answer to this question: What is the single-most important responsibility of a board member?

That we all get along. That we work together as a team not only as a board, but — over the years that I’ve been a member of the board, we’ve had an amazing relationship with each other, with the superintendent, with the board members, with our staff. That was my experience. And also, over the past ten years building a stronger relationship with the city assembly. And strategizing solutions to resources — how are we going to keep resources in our community and give our kids a quality free education. It’s been tough, but mainly it’s our relationship with the city, coming up with our budget in the future: How are we going to work together to keep what we have, and to decide what’s important to us.

Rioux agreed with Pook on the importance of collaboration — or buy-in, as he put it — from the assembly and the community at large to support schools. The Chamber wanted to know what the schools could do better to prepare students for the workforce. Rioux, a marine hydraulics mechanic, may have surprised them with his answer.

I copied this off the Keet Gooshi Heen school’s website, a little quote at the bottom of the page: ‘Providing our children with the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to reason and communicate responsibly in society.’ And you think about that, our schools are measured so often by standardized testing and academics, but in reality when someone comes to work for you, or with you, how they can communicate and how they see that their role in their community — whether it’s their city, state, or nation — and their role in the workplace, that’s all really important. Their emotional development plays a lot into that as well. How ready are they to work? How ready are they to be a co-worker, how ready are they to be a neighbor? And all of that’s really hard to measure.

Pook seconded Rioux that it was important that schools provide emotional stability for students — and the district had been making strides toward that objective over the last several years. A point she made several times was that schools should be welcoming — a term which in her role as a prominent Tlingit citizen has always held a deeper meaning.

“We need to make our schools, kindergarten through high school, a welcome environment,” Pook said. “Because until they’re accepted, you might as well throw the academics out the door. Because they need to be loved, appreciated, and accepted for who they are.”

Paying for extracurricular programs is a perennial issue for school board candidates. Parents have been helping share the bill over the years for participation and travel for their students. Rioux was fully behind whatever kept kids engaged in school.

“I know my son’s grades are a lot better when he’s got a basketball trip to go on,” Rioux said. “I know that he’s paying more attention. I also know that they’re meeting kids from other communities, they’re forming bonds that are important. These are the same people that are going to be in business together in 15 or 20 years. So those bonds are unifying our communities together and that’s really important. However, I do feel we might need to look at different ways of funding it.”

Pook agreed with the importance of maintaining student engagement through activities. But when the candidates were pressed by an audience member to explain why schools shouldn’t just stick to academics, Pook took her argument a step further.

“You don’t understand the extra resources that are needed unless you’re not privileged,” said Pook. “When you’re not privileged, when you don’t have the resources like PE and band and being able to do sports — those things are key. And unless you’ve never had them, you don’t know how important it is to have them. And not everybody has that. There’s just a handful of people that can actually go through school with just the basics. And it’s not very many.”

School board candidates Cass Pook and Paul Rioux will meet again in a call-in election forum, live on Raven Radio, at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 26. The candidates are vying for a single three-year term on the Sitka School Board. The municipal election is Tuesday, October 1.