Three finalists for the Juneau School District superintendent position fielded questions from the public Tuesday at a public forum held at Thunder Mountain High School. Finalists are Frank Hauser, Carlee Simon and Thom Peck.
The forum featured candidates addressing members of the community separately and from two locations, the school’s auditorium and library. Each candidate answered the same three questions asked by a member of the school board, along with any questions from cards submitted by the public and read by moderators.
Hauser is an Alaska educator with 25 years of experience currently serving as superintendent of the Sitka School District. Hauser served as a music teacher, assistant principal, principal and director with the district office in the Anchorage School District.
When asked how he would support Juneau’s community and school staff through changes (budgetary, curriculum, administrative or state-mandated) to improve educational outcomes for students, Hauser said the best way for a superintendent to show support is by leading with trust and integrity, and staying focused on the district’s mission of improving educational outcomes for students.
“I think staff need to know that when you’re having conversations with them that you’re going to be there to listen and support them and that you’re committed to them collaboratively to meet the needs of the students,” Hauser said. “I think parents are also important in this, very important when talking about educating our students, and parents need to know that when they contact their school or superintendent with any problems, the superintendent is going to take it seriously and make sure that a solution is developed around meeting the needs of the students. From a community perspective, when we’re talking about finances and budget, making sure that the community is able to trust that the superintendent is being as transparent and honest with the information that’s being provided is key. One of the ways you build trust is through establishing open and honest communication with teachers, staff, parents, students and the community.”
Hauser added that one thing he personally likes to do is to participate and support school teams, whether at sporting events or spending time having one-on-one conversations with family and community members. He said those conversations are invaluable to building trust. Hauser cited the Alaska Reads Act, which starting on July 1 will focus on new programs for early literacy, as an example of a “successful rollout” that’s contingent upon the trust and relationships that a superintendent establishes with staff, parents and the community.
Simon currently works with Families Deserve Inclusive Schools and is former superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools in Florida. When she was 21 she worked for Denali National Park in housekeeping, where Simon said she fell in love with Alaska and appreciates the opportunity to possibly come back.
Originally from Gainesville, Florida, Simon was the superintendent for Alachua County for nearly two years before being fired last year when three of five school board members gave Simon poor annual evaluations, despite receiving what were reportedly glowing reviews from parents, teachers and community leaders.
Simon’s district in Florida was the first district to implement a masking policy amid spread of the delta variant during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was fired after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed one of the school board members and replaced them with an appointee.
“Unfortunately, I was involved with the political aspects with the response to COVID, but what we were doing was pretty important work focused on the achievement gap and making sure that we were providing the mental health support to many of our students and addressing the learning needs we have in the state of Florida.” Simon said.
She said she’s now looking to be a superintendent within a school district that support the work of education, providing inclusive environments and supporting all students.
When Simon was asked to give an example of how and when she received opposition and how she dealt with the resulting situation, Simon replied by sharing a story from early in her time as Alachua County superintendent, when she had to make an unpopular decision regarding rezoning of schools that ultimately was in the best interest of the students.
Simon said the district had schools with predominantly Black students with high-poverty backgrounds next to a population on the west side of the community that was racially more integrated. This became a concern, Simon said, within the district because rezoning was decades overdue, which resulted in buildings decaying as well as buildings being both over- and underpopulated. When Simon had come into her position, the district had already agreed on a new voter-approved school building in what Simon described as being a “very affluent neighborhood.”
Simon’s proposal was to take students within the school that predominantly served students with high-poverty backgrounds, place them in the new building and delay the time that the district would go forward with the “meaningful comprehensive” rezoning that still needed to take place. Simon said she was able to convince the board that her idea was a good solution, however, the decision didn’t come without plenty of criticism and opposition.
“In that process there was considerable racial tension, unfortunate negative comments about good students, bad students, we’re talking about 6 year olds,” Simon said. “Just not productive conversations and essentially the kids were taking the heat of the adults delaying the work that needed to be done in order to operate a district.”
When the students were moved from their old building into the new building, and the old building was evaluated, Simon said it was determined that the decay and rat and insect infestation had become so bad that items inside the building were unsalvageable, which Simon said only solidified that it was the right decision to make because of the unsafe learning environment the district had been providing to its students.
Peck has served for 35 years as a Montana educator currently in his sixth year as Lewistown Public School’s superintendent in Montana. Peck currently serves as the President of Central Montana Association of School Superintendents and is also a representative of the School Administrators of Montana Legislative Network, as well as a member of the Delegate Assembly with the Coalition of Advocates for Montana Public Schools. Peck is also a past scholarship recipient of the AASA National Conference and in 2018 he was a regional nominee for Montana School Superintendent of the Year.
When Peck was asked what about his skills and experience make him well-suited to steward the district finances of Juneau, Peck responded by saying that his immediate concern pertained to the city owning the buildings. Peck said that just like any other building that the city might own, when it comes to budget lines, if you own a building, then you have to help maintain and help take care of it by ensuring that it’s functional and serving the community.
“One thing that’s really unusual that I’m still trying to get used to in Juneau is the city owns the buildings. That is weird to me,” Peck said. “I’m not used to that at all, so I think where I would start would be forming a really strong partnership with the city. Forming that relationship with the city so that they actually help take care of the building and then we provide opportunities, not just for schools and kids, but community groups, as well, that makes Juneau a stronger community. So, my first budget concern is actually the weird thing that the city owns the buildings.”
The school board will hold a special meeting on Wednesday at the district office conference room. The sole action item on the meeting’s agenda is selecting the next superintendent. The meeting will begin in executive session, which is not open to the public, but afterward the board will resume in regular session and move on to the superintendent selection action item.
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at email@example.com.