During the first public forum of election season, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly candidates kept circling back to the topic of improving education.
Seven of the eight candidates for four Assembly seats were in attendance at Tuesday’s Get Out the Native Vote (GOTNV) Assembly Forum, and answered questions about homelessness, crime, economic development and multiple education topics. The three candidates for three Board of Education seats gave brief comments beforehand. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, moderated the forum.
Emil Mackey, a candidate for one of the two District 2 Assembly seats, wasn’t able to attend, but had a pre-recorded statement that was shown at the beginning of forum. Mackey, currently a member of the Board of Education, said two of his major priorities are funding the Juneau School District as much as possible and funding early education.
Those two goals helped set the tone for the night, as candidates mostly agreed on those two points but offered a variety of thoughts on the importance of education in the community.
In recent years, the topics of early education and childcare have been at the forefront of many Assembly meetings. Proponents of the Best Starts initiative, a program that would provide financial incentives for childcare providers in Juneau. Investing in pre-kindergarten programs, studies have shown, puts children on a path to get more out of their education and lead more successful lives.
There was nearly a ballot measure this fall to use property tax revenue to fund the program, but the Assembly voted it down. Almost all of the candidates said they were interested in using city funds to improve access to childcare. District 2 candidate Garrett Schoenberger referenced 2018 statistics that showed that only 32 percent of Juneau students in demonstrated the skills necessary to be prepared for kindergarten.
“We need to create urgency now to support early childhood development in Juneau,” Schoenberger said. “When you read stats that 70 percent of the kids in Juneau when they reach kindergarten are not ready for kindergarten, how is that setting us up for success?”
Boosting Juneau’s economy was another main topic — and one that an economic-minded group of candidates knew quite a bit about — and Areawide candidate Carole Triem said having a strong educational foundation helps business. Triem, an economic advisor for the Department of Economic Development, said she’s noticed a trend around the state.
“What I hear from business owners is that their No. 1 need is a quality workforce,” Triem said. “I think in Juneau we address that by starting with education.”
Fellow Areawide Assembly candidate Tom Williams, a longtime financial officer and CPA, said he believes the Assembly needs to first make sure JSD is doing its job before pumping money into pre-kindergarten education.
“What are we doing in the school district right now that isn’t working?” Williams said. “I’m really glad to see three new faces on the school board because what we need is to dig down, but not with earlier development. We need to dig down and find out what is not happening right now in our education.”
Incumbent Loren Jones, who is running unopposed for the District 1 seat, said it’s the Assembly’s job to fund the school district and it’s the Board of Education’s job to figure out how to best spend that money.
District 2 candidate Don Habeger said he would be open to recommendations from those closest to the school district and childcare community, and said he would want to look for alternatives such as distance education and online classes to help students.
As District 2 candidate Michelle Bonnet Hale pointed out, costly child care is not a new problem in Juneau, explaining that half of her mother’s wages went to childcare when she was being raised in town. She spoke in support of Best Starts specifically.
Fellow District 2 candidate Wade Bryson, who owns Subway in downtown, also agreed that the city should help fund pre-kindergarten education. He said affordability in Juneau is a huge problem across the board.
“The same reason why we can’t have $5 an hour daycare, are the exact same reasons we couldn’t have $5 footlongs,” Bryson said. “It’s just not realistic in Juneau.”
All of the candidates agreed on that. Almost all of them said the cost of living is the biggest challenge facing Juneau at the moment. A few of them phrased it slightly differently, but affordability stood out as the biggest hurdle to convincing people to live in Juneau.
They’ll continue sharing their thoughts and debating solutions at two more forums Thursday. The Juneau Chamber of Commerce is hosting one at noon for the Assembly candidates, and the Empire is co-hosting a forum at 7 p.m. that will include 30 minutes for the school board candidates and 90 minutes for the Assembly and mayoral candidates. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters is moderating the forum and it will take place at KTOO.
Know & Go
What: Get Out The Native Vote Candidate Forum Series
Where: Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall
District 33 & 34 Candidate Forum: Sept. 25, 11:30 a.m.
District 35 & District Q Candidate Forum: Sept. 25, 5:30 p.m.
Alaska Gubernatorial Candidate Forum: Oct. 2, 11:30 a.m.
Ballot Measure One Forum: Oct. 9, 11:30 a.m.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.