Juneau Board of Education candidate David Noon, center, answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Board of Education candidate David Noon, center, answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Assembly and school board candidates tackle tough topics at chamber forum

Housing, tourism and a new City Hall; book bans, absenteeism and consolidation.

A handful of Assembly and school board candidates shared the hot seat Thursday afternoon in front of the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce as they spent an hour and a half answering questions about some of the most hard-hitting issues Juneau faces today.

The candidates who attended were those running for the open seats for City and Borough of Juneau Assembly District 1 and District 2, along with candidates running the two open seats on the Juneau Board of Education.

The forum, moderated by chamber board member Benjamin Brown, tackled a wide range of issues the Juneau Assembly frequently faces, asking candidates their views on topics including the lack of child care in Juneau, the housing crisis, increasing cruise ship tourism and the new City Hall ballot measure. Questions such as possible book bans, school consolidation and high levels of absenteeism were some of the many topics directed toward the school board candidates.

Candidates were given 60 seconds to answer the questions, some of which were given to them before the forum.

Four Assembly candidates were present, the two seeking the seat for District 1 — Joe Geldhof and incumbent Alicia Hughes-Skandijs — and the two seeking the seat for District 2 — David Morris and incumbent Christine Woll.

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly District 2 candidate David Morris, right, answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. To his right was fellow District 2 candidate and incumbent Christine Woll, and District 1 candidate Joe Geldhof. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly District 2 candidate David Morris, right, answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. To his right was fellow District 2 candidate and incumbent Christine Woll, and District 1 candidate Joe Geldhof. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The three candidates running for the two open seats on the school board — Britteny Cioni-Haywood, Paige Sipniewski and David Noon — also joined the table.

The chamber is scheduled to host another forum next Thursday, directing similar questions to the 10 candidates seeking the two open areawide seats on the Assembly.

Most of the Assembly candidates tackled the questions thrown at them head-on, finding common ground on the need to create solutions to build more affordable housing, increase child care opportunities and develop incentives for workers, particularly in public safety positions, to stay in Juneau.

When asked their stance on whether the city needs a new City Hall, candidates Hughes-Skandijs, Morris and Woll spoke largely in favor of the merits behind fiscal benefits of a new building and its potential improvement to government efficiency.

“If you have all the people, all the positions of the city in one place, it’s much easier for people to get work done,” Morris said.

Woll agreed and followed: “I think it’s just the fiscally responsible thing to do. Our building doesn’t meet our needs, and right now we’re renting space and our employees are not necessarily in safe and healthy environments.”

However, Geldhof’s stance starkly differed from his fellow candidates.

“The current proposal to build a new City Hall is financial malpractice and political malpractice,” he said. “They are jumping the queue on a new clubhouse that we don’t need, can’t afford and shouldn’t build.”

The topic of the potential privatization of the city-owned hospital, Bartlett Regional Hospital, was also pitched to candidates, to which Woll and Hughes-Skandijs argued the city’s ownership of the hospital allows for the community to prioritize aspects of healthcare that the private sector might not necessarily prioritize, such as behavioral health.

Morris said he thought privatization was the best route for the hospital, but said if that does not occur the city must work better to identify the issues at the hospital, such as retention, and resolve them quickly.

“We need to figure out where the board is and why the people are leaving the town, because without finding that out we don’t know what areas to fix,” he said. “I think a private hospital would be better than a public one.”

Geldhof didn’t offer a specific stance leaning either way, but did argue that “rigorous analysis” was necessary to decide what is the best course of action for the hospital.

“It’s going to have to change and it might have to change dramatically,” he said. “But just allowing the existing status quo where it’s kind of wallowing along and the place is a snake pit of emotions has got to end.”

Rising property taxation was also put to the candidates, questioning where they stood on how the Assembly should balance property values in the mill rate relative to the needs of the city budget.

Geldhof said he believed the problem stemmed from the assessor’s office and its method of assessing property. He argued that change needed to occur within its staffing.

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly District 1 candidate Joe Geldhof answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly District 1 candidate Joe Geldhof answers a question during an election forum hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“If you want to keep that kind of goofball property assessment regime going, if you want increased taxes, then you should just keep the people who are in place and not supervise city managers in the finance department,” he said. “If you want change and relief, you better vote for change.”

Hughes-Skandijs said she thinks it’s important for the Assembly to stay focused on the mill rate and “keep a degree of separation from the assessment process.”

“I say that because you don’t want the value of your house politicized,” she said.

She said philosophically she believes the mill rate should be set so that the “city checkbook” remains balanced and does not run a deficit.

“I will say in the budget process you are one of nine and definitely things make it into that budget that you may have voted no for that drive up the cost,” she said.

Morris offered the idea of selling city land and lowering the mill rate. Woll argued in an ideal situation the Assembly chooses a mill rate that “keep our property taxes stable, even as our expenses are increasing,” but noted that community needs and building maintenance are city responsibilities that also need to be factored into that discussion.

On the other end of the table, school board candidates shared similar views on topics like finding solutions to the district’s growing absenteeism, declining test scores and incentivizing workforce development in the schools.

A popular topic circulating Juneau in recent years as enrollment continues to decline is the merits of possible school consolidation. Candidates were asked what their position was on the issue.

Noon, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, said from his experience with UAS, which in recent years faced possible consolidation of buildings and programs, he found the reality of closing buildings did not amount to what they were projected to save. He said he remains skeptical if consolidation of schools at the district level would differ from that experience.

Cioni-Haywood said she was concerned consolidation would potentially increase class sizes, however, she acknowledged the decline in enrollment means less funding to the district which she said shouldn’t be discounted when discussing consolidation.

All three candidates said they needed more solid data on the cost savings before deciding if it’s the best route for the district.

The moderator asked candidates about their stance on what books should be allowed in school libraries and what accessibility to “these particular texts” should be granted to students. He did not elaborate on what topic of texts he was referring to, but alluded to recent book ban efforts happening across the U.S., namely challenges to books about sexual, gender and racial identity.

Noon said professionally he believes it is not the school board’s role to “micromanage” the schools themselves, and argued the decision should be made by the educators and librarians.

“Folks who wind up banning books are never really the heroes of the story,” he said. Cioni-Haywood largely agreed and said she believed there should be a “vast range of options for children” in terms of what is available to them in the libraries.

“I do think there should be a wide berth of options within the library to choose from on lots of different topics,” she said.

Sipniewski took a different stance and said she thinks the decision should be up to the parents to know what books are available to their children.

“I am completely against anything regarding gender, sex, religion, religion, profanity, drug use, race,” she said. “As far as literature for kids in school, we have public libraries, they can go check out books there or their parents can if they want their children to read that.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651) 528-1807.

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