Special ed, pre-K dominate talk with school board candidates

Special ed, pre-K dominate talk with school board candidates

They’re hot topics.

Only two of Juneau’s four candidates for School Board showed up for lunch Thursday.

Candidates Deedie Sorensen and Martin Stepetin were the only candidates to attend the luncheon. According to the Chamber’s President-elect Charlie Williams, Emil Mackey had an unexpected work obligation and the Chamber didn’t hear back from Bonnie Jensen.

Before the forum began, attendees told the Empire that among their top concerns were special education and early childhood education.

“I’ve got a daughter who’s in the (special education) program, that’s the main thing for me,” Dan Dawson, of AAA Moving and Storage, said.

Attendees said they were not particularly familiar with the candidates, but that special education and pre-K were important to them.

“I have five grandchildren,” said Reggie Schapp of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. “One of them is special needs and two of them are early childhood so I hope they talk about both those things.”

Those two topics ended up dominating the conversation.

Stepetin in particular gave a lot of attention to the cost of special education in the Juneau School District.

“We have more students in special education than any other district, we pay more than any other district for special education,” Stepetin said. Stepetin told the Empire that he got that information from school board member Jeff Short, who compiled data from the Department of Education and Early Development website.

Short told the Empire in an email the Juneau School District has the highest proportion of special education students and spends more than the aggregate of other students in Southeast Alaska school districts over the last decade to the 2017 fiscal year.

Stepetin said that special education was important but that there were things the district could look at to make the system more efficient.

Juneau School Board candidates Deedie Sorensen, left, and Martin Stepetin, Sr. speak to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during its weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Candidates Bonnie Jensen and Emil Mackey are not at the forum. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Juneau School Board candidates Deedie Sorensen, left, and Martin Stepetin, Sr. speak to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during its weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Candidates Bonnie Jensen and Emil Mackey are not at the forum. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sorensen too, talked about how special education money from the state was spent.

“It is important for the school district to know if there are programs that do not meaningfully improve education in our classrooms,” she said.

Sorensen, a former teacher, criticized the national system of standardized testing, which she said made educators focus on a single performance metric rather than educational outcomes.

“What is really new is we have gotten ourselves, nationally, is this high-stakes testing game,” she said. “The bottom line is the only thing we’re focused on.”

Hanging over the conversation were the cuts made to the state budget by the administration by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The governor cut roughly $3.8 million from the Department of Education and Early Development.

Schapp said that she was interested to hear what the candidates had to say in light of the fact that the governor had done a “hatchet job” to the state budget.

“If the predicted cuts for next year come through, there will be carnage,” Sorensen said.

“If we were as passionate about reading as we were about the Dunleavy administration, our reading scores would’ve been improved already,” Stepetin said.

After the forum audience members told the Empire they were pleased with what they heard.

“I like the conversation about pre-K,” said Wayne Stevens, president and CEO of United Way of Southeast Alaska. “That’s important.”

Cecilia Wilcox of Southeast Mining Supply said, “I was a teacher years ago I know what teachers go through. I know that you have no voice,” she said, referring to Sorensen’s comments that teachers were often left out of the decision-making process for school districts.

Municipal elections are Oct. 1.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

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