Juneau resident David Ignell, seen via video link, and departing City Manager Rorie Watt discuss a ballot measure asking voters to approve $27 million toward a new City Hall during a forum Wednesday night at the KTOO studio. (Screenshot from official video of forum)

Juneau resident David Ignell, seen via video link, and departing City Manager Rorie Watt discuss a ballot measure asking voters to approve $27 million toward a new City Hall during a forum Wednesday night at the KTOO studio. (Screenshot from official video of forum)

School board candidates agree on much, foes on City Hall ballot measure agree on little during forum

Funding and curriculum dominate education discussion, city’s actions and needs focus of ballot issue.

Two Board of Education candidates agreed with each other on many things, while two people with strong opinions about a new City Hall most definitely did not see eye-to-eye during a forum on Wednesday night.

The forum, taking place the day before ballots for the Oct. 3 municipal election were mailed out, was the second in two nights hosted by the League of Women Voters of Juneau. The 14 candidates for four Juneau Assembly seats participated in Tuesday night’s forum. The forums were moderated by media representatives from KTOO, KINY and the Juneau Empire.

[Assembly hopefuls find some areas of agreement and many differences at candidate forum]

The first portion of Wednesday’s 50-minute forum featured two of the three candidates for two open school board seats discussing funding and curriculum issues. David Noon and Britteny Cioni-Haywood gave one-minute responses to questions, along with opening and closing statements. Paige Sipniewski, the third candidate on the ballot, was not available to participate in the forum due to family medical reasons.

Responding to the opening question about what the candidates have done to become familiar with the Juneau School District, Noon said he spent time chairing the site council at Harborview Elementary School while his kids were students there. Also, as a teacher at The University of Alaska Southeast he said students of his who became teachers in local schools.

“I’m familiar as well with the process of teacher training and I know how talented our potential labor force is out there,” he said. “And I think recruiting and retaining those teachers is an important goal for the board.”

Cioni-Haywood said she is president of the Juneau Community Charter School Board, which she has been a member of for five years.

“In that role, as the chair, I have had interaction with both the board and district members in working through a number of different issues from personnel to a contract renewal I’ve presented to the board as well,” she said.

Also, Cioni-Haywood said she was a member of a parent support group working to lower the cost of the district’s RALLY daycare program “when that was an issue about a year or two ago.”

Both candidates agreed the level of state funding for education is inadequate by a considerable amount and there are no easy solutions if that doesn’t change since employees are typically the district’s highest cost.

“If we don’t start seeing that then, yes, we probably do have to start looking at consolidation, although the math on that consolidation of schools is really difficult and not very straightforward,” Cioni-Haywood said. I think unfortunately we would probably see class sizes increase. And I think that that’s kind of a terrible route.”

There was a similar consensus about increasing recruitment of teachers and retaining current ones given the current budget climate.

“It’s absolutely impossible to recruit and retain teachers if they’re living in a kind of budgetary environment where they’re not receiving regular pay increases,” Noon said.

Cioni-Haywood said the money aspect is important — but the dissatisfaction among teachers goes beyond that.

“I don’t understand why we don’t value their services when they’re basically educating the most precious things in our lives,” she said. “And I think also the additional tasks are starting to add up. I’ve heard from teachers that it’s not necessarily the teaching that is a problem, but having to deal with other things on top of that, that just keep getting added on and they’re not compensated for most of the time that they work.”

The candidates also agreed non-public school participants should have access to public education funding.

“Parents who choose not to have their kids in the public schools, kids who are not in the public schools, they are still part of the public, they’re still part of our community,” Noon said. That means “we maintain an attitude of openness and generosity toward everyone in our community, starting with the students and sort of building out from there.”

Something of a disagreement arose about making civics education part of the teaching curriculum, given the increasing demands on academic classroom time. Cioni-Haywood said she favors such classes.

“I think that we are seeing some of the civil discourse taking place currently because we have lost some of that and many of our public education institutions,” she said. “So I think that it’s important that we understand how the process works, what that looks like, that we can name all three branches of government.”

Also, she added, “knowing how to deal with social media and disinformation” should be part of such a curriculum.

Noon said he favors students learning such things, but “I look at this in part as an extension of student activities — I mean the activities that students are involved with outside of the classroom.”

“I think civics education is not only important for students, but I think it’s important for parents and families,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how government works, I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the roles and responsibilities of the school board are. And I think that it would be useful for students as well as parents to become more educated and informed, and involved about the kinds of institutions that we live in.”

Opposing views about a new City Hall

The second portion of the forum featured outgoing City Manager Rorie Watt speaking in favor of the ballot initiative and local resident David Ignell in opposition. The initiative asks voters whether or not to approve a $27 million bond that would go toward the construction of a new City Hall building, with the preferred site at 450 Whittier St. across from the Alaska State Museum.

Ignell, who has expressed his opposition at public meetings and in a written column calling for a grand jury investigation of actions by the city, started the discussion by noting a city analysis a few months ago showed bids for projects were coming in at 1.5 to 1.8 times the official estimate, which would make the cost of building a new City Hall considerably high than $43.3 million.

“What we’re really talking about is $65 (million) to $80 million,” he said.

The hope is the city can negotiate a fixed-fee contract for the building since construction costs can be unpredictable, Watt said, responding to a different question later during the forum.

“If we couldn’t get the scope that we need for $43 million, we would we would work to value engineer the project and figure out how to bring a project home for that,” he said. “And that might be that might be a slightly lesser structure, or might be a longer performance period, or a variety of things.”

Watt, when asked if the project is financially responsible at this time, said the current building needs an estimated $14 million in maintenance, and spending that while continuing to pay rent for an insufficient facility makes no sense.

“About 40% of our downtown employees are in the existing City Hall, which is a 70-year-old fire station,” he said. “The building simply is old and worn out.”

The age of the building shouldn’t be an issue, since others in Juneau are much older and still in good condition, Ignell said. He cited the House of Wickersham built in 1899 and the governor’s mansion built in 1912, among others.

“So to say that this building is 70 years old and we need something new it’s just kind of a slap in the face to everybody else in Juneau who’s made do with these older buildings,” he said.

Ignell suggested if the city needs a different space, the Goldbelt Inc. building downtown currently has 24,000 square feet available for lease.

A key question to Watt was why the question is on the ballot again this year after voters rejected it last year, which some observers have stated is largely what prompted a field of 14 Assembly candidates this year when last year’s races did not see a single challenger to the three incumbents seeking reelection. Watt noted other past projects have taken more than one vote to get approved and he believes the Assembly and city leaders are taking a wiser approach on the City Hall question this year.

“I think I erred and I think the Assembly erred in not deciding to publicly advocate for the project” last year, he said, referring to the $50,000 the city is spending this year, which has also been a contentious part of the debate. He noted the city has also allocated $10 million toward the project during the past year, thus reducing the bond amount from $35 million last year to $27 million this year.

The city has already dedicated a total of $16.3 million toward a new City Hall and Ignell was asked if it makes sense to abandon the project given that amount. His answer, put simply, was “That’s the taxpayer money. Give that back to taxpayers.”

“We’ve got so many problems. We’ve got, education, public safety, living affordability,” he said, referring to priorities the city could redirect the money toward. “If we’re not going to give the money back, let’s put it in the pockets of the people rather than spending $100 million on luxury office space.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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