The race for Sitka School Board is uncontested this year – actually, it’s undercontested – as there are only two candidates on the ballot for three open seats.
Nevertheless, those two candidates aren’t taking the job lightly. Both participated in an hour-long school board forum Thursday night (9-22-22) on Raven Radio, and could easily have spent another hour discussing the issues.
Note: You can listen to KCAW’s School Board Candidate Forum at the KCAW Election Center. As of Friday afternoon (9-23-22) one individual – Melonie Boord – had submitted her paperwork to run as an official write-in candidate for school board.
Both Mitch Mork and Tristan Guevin were appointed to the Sitka School Board in June to fill vacancies by members who did not serve out their terms.
The learning curve has been steep, but Mitch Mork – an engineer-turned-fisherman – understands what a board member’s job is.
“Well, the kids, right?” Mork said. “Most of our decisions it seems are financial. There’s some aspect of financial oversight from us. But it all boils down to the kids: How good is it for the kids? Can we afford it?”
Tristan Guevin works in tribal government in Sitka, and has served a three-year term previously on the Sitka Assembly. The assembly and the school board haven’t always been on the best of terms in the past, but Guevin is ready now to move to the other side of the table, and to give his best effort to schools.
“Our funding situation hasn’t changed much in the last eight years or so,” Guevin said. “And so I think, you know, on those issues, just being an advocate for the school district, and, you know, all the good work that the teachers and staff are doing there.”
Listeners to the forum provided more questions than the candidates could answer in an hour, but some major themes were student performance, student engagement in the major social issues of the day, and teacher retention.
New teachers in Alaska don’t receive anything like the retirement benefits that once were considered among the best in the nation – it’s now basically a savings plan, with the added punch of disqualifying them from Social Security.
A listener asked if the candidates would advocate for a return to a “defined benefit” pension plan.
Mitch Mork said he would.
“If that’s what the teachers want, I’m more than happy to do whatever I can to ask, or try to get that back,” he said.
Guevin said that supporting teachers was one of the board’s priorities.
“I think that’s a perfect example of the board’s role and advocacy,” he said. “One of our roles is to advocate for our teachers, and to ensure that they’re getting the best salaries, the best benefit packages they can.”
Another listener asked what the board could do to support LGBTQ students. Guevin thought he had found an actionable loophole in district policy.
“I was looking through the policies recently, and within the section on students there’s a kind of non discrimination clause, and I did notice that doesn’t include include sexual orientation, or gender identity, for example,” he said. “So I think that’s an area where – much like the city added that to city code in terms of non discrimination – that’s an area where the school board could take some action.”
A listener question about test scores prompted some thoughtful responses. Alaska, the questioner claimed, ranked low nationally in academic achievement, and the Sitka schools, consequently, were stepping up to a very low bar.
Mitch Mork said test scores really didn’t fully represent student success in Alaska.
“Out in some of these villages – I just returned from Fairbanks, a conference for the school board – and one thing that seemed to come up a couple of times up there was what we view as achievement isn’t the same as what they view as achievement,” said Mork. “One guy gave an example of a kid that went out and he tackled a whole moose by himself. He butchered it all up and took care of it all. And for him, that was achievement. So for our standards, city people are not going to rank that very high, right? But anybody who wants to stay in the village, that is very, very, very necessary.”
Guevin seconded that idea: The expectations of education nowadays go far beyond standardized testing.
“That standardized data, that kind of big high-level data: graduation rates, the PEAKS testing,” said Guevin, “we bring it down to the classroom for MAP data, but you can bring it down even lower for street data, right? And incorporate things like can a student harvest a moose? Can a student harvest a deer, a fish? Are they making connections within the community? Are they civically engaged? So I think that is an important point Mitch is bringing up: we should be looking at how do we define achievement as a district and we should be diversifying that. We shouldn’t just be kind of up at those upper levels, we should be looking at those things that Mitch is bringing up. So yeah, I think we can kind of shift in a number of areas.”
On that theme, another question asked board members to consider whether too much emphasis was placed on making education fun, and might it ultimately be a disservice to students to make their lives too easy.
Mitch Mork said in his experience coaching basketball, players “zoned out” if practice was just plain work. He experienced the same thing as a volunteer Math teacher at Keet Gooshi Heen: Students learned more at play.
“I was doing math with some third graders last week, and this week,” Mork said. “We played a game last week, and this week we were doing something else. I had to divert a little bit and just straight up teach. Their attention spans were not there compared to doing something fun.”
Both candidates support Proposition 1, which would impose a specific sales tax on cannabis, with the revenue going to a dedicated fund to support extracurricular activities in schools. Mitch Mork said the benefits of student activities were worth taxing a recreational product.
“The kids in in these activities typically do better in what the government says is success,” Mork said. “But there’s all those things, those intangibles, I guess, that are confidence, and perseverance, work ethic, all those things are learned in these activities. And it’s an investment in our future. If our future leaders have those skills, we are going to be much better off.”
Tristan Guevin agreed, preferring to tax a “want” like marijuana, over a “need” like groceries. But as a former assembly member, he was cautious that the revenue stay on target, and remain completely outside the city’s other appropriation to schools.
“I’d hate to see future assemblies use this as the pretext for decreasing the funding to the cap or to decrease that non instructional funding,” said Guevin. “I think the intent of this was to supplement what the district is currently receiving. So I would hope that future assemblies stick to that commitment from the current assembly, and if voters do pass it, that’s the expectation voters have.”
Guevin and Mork are the only two candidates on the ballot for three open seats on the Sitka School Board. It’s not too late for someone to announce an official write-in campaign for the third seat. Although the board would make an appointment if no one runs, Guevin thinks it’s important for voters to have their say.
Mitch Mork put it a bit more bluntly.
“We need the help,” he said. “If you can swing it, definitely give it a try.”
Anyone interested in running for school board as a write-in should file a letter of intent and a financial disclosure with the municipal clerk no later than Thursday, September 29. Write-in votes for someone who has not met these requirements will not be counted.