On Wednesday, Sept. 8, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Juneau — in cooperation with the Empire and KTOO — held the annual Municipal Candidates Forum. Candidates took turns answering questions on local issues ahead of the Oct. 5 municipal election. Answers from candidates for seats on the Juneau School District Board of Education are below. City and Borough of Juneau Assembly candidates’ answers appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the Juneau Empire.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity. A full recording of the broadcast is available online at www.juneauempire.com/news/watch-municipal-candidate-forum/.
In anticipation of federal infrastructure funding for the school district, what are your top priorities?
■ Ibn Bailey: (Agrees with other candidates who answered earlier in the round.) School maintenance and repairs are necessary along with our vocational training efforts. I’d like to look at a program that deals with agriculture. There’s a need for food. We have people dealing with homelessness and food insecurity. I’d add an agriculture piece into an existing career and technical education offering or STEM program.
■ Thom Buzard: I would take the bulk of the infrastructure money and put it into my industrial arts center plan for the Juneau school system. We would transform at least one building into a complete industrial arts center. For the training of trades and to help the students currently being bypassed by the overly heavy focus on academics. We are underserving too many of the young people coming out of high school and they struggle with the rigors of basic life not having the necessary skills.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: I appreciated assembly candidates pointing to school facility needs. We have major maintenance projects and concerns to make sure our students are in buildings where they can learn safely. We’d work with the city to prioritize the work as our buildings are owned by the city. The board will work together collectively with the assembly to move priorities forward.
■ Amber Frommherz: My first priority would be to work with the assembly and collaborate on ways to direct the money most efficiently and make the funds go further. I’d focus at the state level to make sure that they take care of the school debt bonds. The Juneau Assembly has done its part to keep the state accountable. I’d use any extra money to transform schools into green, sustainable spaces by installing items such as heat pumps and HVAC systems that contribute to safety.
■ Aaron Spratt: I agree school maintenance is a top priority. We also want to use the funding to ensure the success of students and identify early deficiencies in reading, writing and math and use the money to empower teachers to be dynamic and respond to those deficiencies.
The current Board of Education has made decisions regarding COVID-19 mitigation in schools. What would you change or keep moving forward?
■ Ibn Bailey: I applaud the school and CBJ. I believe masking is necessary now. It won’t be forever but it’s proven to reduce transmissions. The mitigations the board has implemented have not been easy. This is a pandemic. It’s something that none of us have experienced before as we were not alive for the Spanish Flu. We have 473 new medical professionals coming into the state. We have hospitalizations at an all-time high.
■ Thom Buzard: As pandemics go, this one is not as threatening as the Spanish flu or even the swine flu or the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death of the 1300s. I have a problem with controls being placed on us based on fear first then tyranny. Even the CDC recognizes this as they list the second major cause of COVID-19 death is due to fear and anxiety. Some of the measures in place like hand sanitizer and staying home when sick are appropriate. Parental rights play a major role in the decision. Parents make the best decisions.*
■ Elizabeth Siddon: One thing we can all agree on is that our end goal is kids in classrooms. Kids learn best there. The mitigation plans to date have been made with that goal in mind. Our goal is to keep kids in classrooms as consistently and safely as possible because stability affects all of us. When kids are sent home, it affects parents and local businesses. When Juneau Public Health investigates a case, they look at mask-wearing.
■ Amber Frommherz: I want to acknowledge that this is all brand new. We’ve never been in a pandemic before and thank the current school board and assembly for getting us this far and putting kids at the center. Suggests a debrief with tribal emergency operations command and the City’s Emergency Operations Center to leverage expertise and explore lessons learned.
■ Aaron Spratt: One thing I would change is to empower parents to make the best medical decisions for students. I’m against forced mask-wearing. I want parents to make that decision between them, their doctor, and their student. The COVID response has been driven by a desire to keep kids physically safe while denying the low risk to our students. Says he worries about the mental health of students, particularly special needs students.**
* Buzard asks the host to fact-check CDC claim. She does and confirms that it is a “leading cause,” per the CDC website.
Then, the host says that the school district’s guidelines are in line with the mitigation strategies that are set by the City and Borough of Juneau and the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
** Host clarifies that the CDC recommends that anyone who is not fully vaccinated, ages 2 and up, should wear a mask in indoor public places.
The district’s budget is the responsibility of the Board and establishes the district’s priorities. What budget decisions would you make to assist in achieving the district’s goals?
■ Ibn Bailey: First and foremost being able to work as a board member directly with the district to avoid the temptation for undisciplined spending. I’d focus on broadband and accessibility and connectivity. I have accessibility concerns with the school website for people who have low vision. I’d focus on the hiring and retention of quality teachers. We should expand our recruitment efforts beyond Juneau and Alaska and towards the lower 48, if needed.
■ Thom Buzard: (Calls point of order and asks for the clock to be stopped.) I’m not going to answer that even though I have a really good answer. I’ll call the point of order for you. You called us into the forum to ask questions. I don’t appreciate you people challenging us or questioning us on our answers. You can do that on your own time and I’m not going to thank you for allowing me to have my piece.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: My focus is on academic, social and emotional supports for students. Recovery from academic losses due to distance learning will take time and needs are different at different levels. At elementary school, students may need extra support from reading interventionists. At the high school, we might need extra support for credit recovery so kids who fell behind and can get back on track to graduate. And, social and emotional is foundational to all of our student’s academic successes and we want to support that through counseling support and family engagement.
■ Amber Frommherz: The school district’s budget is based on an allocation at the state level. So, school board members should be part of advocacy to increase the state funding level. Another area to support is the school curriculum support, including reading specialists so that teachers can focus on teaching that benefits the students overall.
■ Aaron Spratt: We have a distinct challenge ahead of us. Last year is called the lost year of learning due to the school board’s decisions to not have in-person learning. I appreciate our students and teachers and I appreciate them being resilient in the face of that. But, we have real challenges moving forward. We need to be sure that foundations are taught and mastered and I’d be a proponent of ensuring that. This year is going to be a tough year to make up for what we lost and to put our kids back on track.
What is your own experience with public education? How do you think your own experience would influence your work as a board member?
■ Ibn Bailey: I’d start off with that I’m a military brat. I attended schools in the U.S., in various states, and in England. I’ve attended public, private Department of Defense and British Primary Schools. That has given me really good insight into families that are military dependents and what it’s like to have to travel from place to place and have to make those adjustments as they come into different cities, states and regions.
■ Thom Buzard: I am blessed with both private and public education. For most of my first seven years, I was in private education, and then seventh grade rolled around I moved into the public area. There’s a significant difference in terms of what goes on in private and public schools. I bring experience from both areas and a great understanding. I haven’t much more to share about that in the limited time.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: My experience growing up was all in public schools, including my undergraduate and graduate work. But what’s important in this realm is my involvement with the Juneau School District prior to being on the board. I co-founded the Southeast Exchange, which is a local partnership between local STEM professionals, including the trades to bring hands-on, place-based science opportunities into the classroom. I’ve spent a lot of time with NOAA hat on in classrooms. I’ve developed a curriculum and spent six weeks teaching it at Floyd Dryden. I am deeply committed to education and the public school system in Juneau. I walk the walk and advocate for it when I’m at the table.
■ Amber Frommherz: My experience with public education. I grew up on the western side of the Navajo Nation in a border town. I’m also an active duty military dependent. My family has seen different schools on the east coast and the west coast and now in Alaska. I’ve seen success with vocational education. My experience with public education includes higher learning as a non-traditional student and I believe our students can learn in different ways.
■ Aaron Spratt: I received a public education from kindergarten to high school. What sticks out to me was the impact of passionate teachers that can transform lives and motivate people to success. I’ll personally advocate for those teachers who are passionate. I appreciate that there are lots of ways for teaching in public schools.
What is your philosophy on collaboration, especially around difficult topics? How are you prepared to address strong public opinions focused at the board regardless of your personal perspective on specific issues?
■ Ibn Bailey: I’m all for collaboration. Part of the collaborative process is that people aren’t going to agree with everything you do. You work together through your differences, through your difficulties, in order to maintain, to keep your eye on the prize: making sure our children get the best quality education they can receive in this district.
■ Thom Buzard: First I want to point out that we are elected officials, not petty tyrants. It’s real important in our society when controversial subjects come up, we actually listen to the input of the people in the community and how they feel about it and whether or not we should go forward. With that being said, all subjects should be taught, fairly, unbiased, and with the most current and correct information available.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: When I became president of the board this last year, I said to my fellow board members: I lead with three themes. Collaboration, communication and transparency, because all of those things build trust. The board as a whole needs trust with the community. As we face difficult topics and we have disagreements, reminding each other why we’re there, as we’re making the best possible decisions for our students has been helpful for everyone to keep in mind.
■ Amber Frommherz: Right now we’re in an era of COVID and federal funding, but this opportunity is going to end. We need to prepare for this transition, for an era of fiscal limitations. We need to think regional, similar to Assembly members talking about Juneau as a hub. Juneau can be a hub for the Southeast region
■ Aaron Spratt: As a retired navy officer and enlisted, collaboration has been a key part of my professional background. Our collaboration always needs to focus on the success of our students. I plan to be a valuable part of that moving forward.
How does the board assist in overcoming income-based achievement gaps?
■ Ibn Bailey: One of the ways in which we look at income-based inequities in student achievement, one of the things that (Frommherz) had mentioned was our free and reduced lunch programs. I think that as we move forward we can try and encourage as many folks locally at each school, folks that actually qualify for those particular programs.
As mentioned before, funding is not inexhaustible, it will run out, and the more folks we actually have that can complete those forms or they need assistance filling out those forms so we can actually keep this going district-wide no matter what the income is. I think that would be a great place to start. I think that every child should start off the day with having breakfast and having a full belly which can help them with their learning.
■ Thom Buzard: It needs to be reassessed. The current school board’s philosophy is groupthink and they need more diversity on the board. Clearly, if you go back and take a look at their voting record they almost always vote as a bloc. In fact, last Saturday morning during their retreat near the end of the meeting they were patting each other on the back because they all thought so much alike. They all got along so well, it made everything so much easier to get done and that’s a travesty.
The host provides Buzard an additional opportunity to comment on the income-based achievement gap. He continued:
The formula is entirely too complicated. The formula is very complicated, it justifies what it does. When I read through it I realized the complication is there for a reason and I’m not really clear on what the reason is.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: I think this speaks to the board’s recently adopted strategic plan. We have a pillar in the strategic plan around equity and we have identified specific subpopulations within that pillar of equity. Digging down into the details of that strategic plan really some pointed goals around ways to get there and closing the achievement gap.
There’s a lot of work we can do on our side and there’s a lot of which we will rely on our community partners. We have great community partners that really lean in with us on these topics and are really committed along with us to help to close those academic achievement gaps.
■ Amber Frommherz: I have previous experience as a headstart director and during that time I’ve been informed and heavily guided by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which says that children cannot learn unless their needs are met. So you start at the bottom level, are they fed? Do they have stable housing? This means that there needs to be understanding and collaboration of support for our families in Juneau. That means continuing the efforts of Juneau School District is currently undertaking with their social and emotional curriculum with the teachers as well as with the students. I also think that investing in our early childhood education programing at the city level and in collaboration with the school district. Head Start is an income-based program and there are proven benefits.
■ Aaron Spratt: I prefer to think that all of our children can be successful. I am a proponent of giving students equal opportunity in success. That can be done through the encouragement of parental involvement, but I believe every student can succeed. It’s smart to recognize there are differing challenges for every student but I believe when we give them equality of opportunity we give them the best chance for success.
What can the district do to best prepare students throughout their education to become future voters and engaged citizens?
■ Ibn Bailey: What I would like to see done, and I what think that we could actually really focus in on is looking at our debate club, what we have available for our students. Right now including debate, including drama, public speaking.
Also, something that the board could look at, in Grade 12, our senior students in their US History class or English class, there might be an incentive once you turn 18 that once you go and vote, it might be your senior year and you might get a lower test score dropped. That’s something that we did in Michigan, and that was highly successful.
■ Thom Buzard: I think having the students more well-grounded in constitutional studies, civic studies and their duties as American citizens would go a long way. American citizenship is something that is cherished, world-renowned. People all over the world are desperate to get here and live here. We have people hiding in boats, illegally coming across the border to come to our country and live here. And for such a bad place it must be a whole lot better from where they’re coming from.
Our young people here don’t know that and they need to be taught things. They need to be taught these things and they need to realize and understand just how great our country really is and how important it is for them to come to the ballot box and vote.
■ Elizabeth Siddon: Well, the mission statement of the Juneau School District specifically calls out providing meaningful, relevant and rigorous learning experiences in order to graduate diverse, engaged citizens for a changing world. It is our mission, it is at the core of the decisions we make along the way.
My background in STEM, in science education, provides that framework for critical thinking. If our students can graduate as strong critical thinkers then they can decipher between news sources and misinformation and make informed decisions for themselves about the issues going on around us in the world. Lastly, I’ll mention two years ago the board provided a resolution to the state school board association to develop an Alaska history textbook written in part by Alaska Native scholars.
■ Amber Frommherz: I think that civics education is a piece of our curriculum that JSD students should have a part, should have included in their class schedules which also leads me to want to thank and send a shout out for the League of Women Voters and their efforts to bring students into the Capitol.
Research has shown that there are benefits to a place-based curriculum, and what better place could our students be placed than Juneau? The capital of Alaska. We have legislators and staffers just walks away from some of our schools. I believe that continuing this relationship that the League of Women’s voters has fostered, giving our students real hands-on experience to see that civics is taking place in Juneau is absolutely important.
■ Aaron Spratt: It really comes down to teaching the basics and mastery of the basics. When our children are able to read, write, when they do well at math, they become critical thinkers. We need articulate, critical thinkers and we can do this in our school system. We want to have unbiased teaching of history.
We want to ensure that American history is taught faithfully. When we create critical thinking individuals we have succeeded and they will be active voters and engaging in our community.
Two candidates did not participate
Wiljordon V. Sangster filed as a candidate and will appear on the ballot. However, he has provided no information about his candidacy. The Empire has made multiple attempts to reach him by phone, email and text. He did not participate in the forum.
In addition, write-in candidate Kyle Scholl did not participate in the forum. He will not appear on the ballot. However, because the candidate did not complete the necessary paperwork before the filing deadline, the candidate’s name does not appear on the ballot. Write-in votes are only counted if race results are close, using a threshold established by statute. If the race is not tight enough, write-in ballots are not counted.