Board president Elias Erickson and newly elected board member Paul Rioux listen as superintendent Mary Wegner reads votes for other board leadership positions (KCAW/Rose)

The Sitka School Board has a new member. Paul Rioux was sworn in when the school board met Friday (10/11/19) night. And it has a new president too.

Elias Erickson didn’t anticipate this when he ran for office in 2017. After two years on the Sitka School Board, his fellow board members elected him the youngest chair in recent history. 

“I’ll be darned. You know? Who would have thought. I wake up, go to work, drink coffee, sometimes play video games, hang out with friends. And it’s just what I’ve grown to love to do on the side, you know,” he says of his most atypical extracurricular activity.

“Sometimes it’s not very fun. But it’s extremely meaningful to me. I’d rather be doing something meaningful with my time rather than something that’s fun and wasting my time. When I think about why I’m doing it,” he says, “I find myself really feeling grateful for where I’m at.” 

The 20-year-old is in the final year of his three-year board term. Erickson is one of three high school seniors to be elected to a school board in Southeast Alaska in recent memory. In 2012, the voters of Haines elected Royal Henderson to fill a one-year seat on the school board in that community. Henderson served the year, then went on to continue his education.

In Ketchikan, high school senior Trevor Shaw ran for school board in 2013 and won a full term. He was reelected in 2016 and voted president by his fellow board members in October of that year.

Since three years elapsed between Shaw’s first election as a high school senior and his being named chair — and two years have passed since Erickson was first elected, it’s likely that he now holds the honor of the youngest school board president in Southeast Alaska, and perhaps the state. At least, Lon Garrison at the Alaska Association of School Boards can recall no one younger serving as a board president.

And for his first year in the role, Erickson is bracing himself for a bruiser: The board is anticipating another tight budget year. 

“No matter what, I think we’re going to be having to look at budget decreases. There’s no other way to really approach it,” he says. “So trying to be more systematic on where we can do that and how we can do that. And seeing if there’s more efficient ways we can do that as well.” 

But he’s optimistic. He says it’s still a time to build and create new opportunities for students. 

“We have so much going on right now,” he says. “We have the budget issue, we have a governor who is kind of off the rails. It feels like we’re constantly putting out fires. I don’t want that to be the only thing that we get to focus on as a board this year. We should be actively working to construct new things too, to advance education forward.” 

Erickson says he’d like to see the district adopt a technology curriculum.

“When you look at where the world is heading, where the United States is heading, in terms of how many jobs are being replaced by automation and how many members of the United States workforce are being replaced by these computers –we have to start giving students a lot of foundational skills when it comes to coding, when it comes to computer science,” he says. “If we’re not adopting some of these computer science curriculums, then we’re falling way behind.” 

He says he’s thankful for the guidance of former board president Jenn McNichol, who chose not to run for reelection this year. And Erickson doesn’t plan to run again either. He’s taking some time for himself next election cycle. 

“I’d like to go see the world– go do some fun things. Visit family around the U.S. Eventually get back to school,” he says. “I was tempted to go start those things early. But I mean, those are available any time. Right now, I feel really, again I come back to the idea that I feel like I’m doing meaningful things, and as long as I feel like I’m doing meaningful things, then I’m fairly content with where I’m at.”   

So, taking a look at this 20-year old’s to-do list a few weeks from now, it might say “coffee, work, a little time for video games, a three hour meeting, and, oh yeah, lead the Sitka school district into the future.”