Candidate profiles: Meet the candidates running for Anchorage School Board Seat E

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Undated photo.(KTUU)
Published: Mar. 24, 2021 at 11:15 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The race for several seats on the Anchorage School Board is a crowded one. In the 2021 Municipal Election, four of the seven member spots are up for grabs, positioning those running to be part of a group that will undoubtedly help shape the future of the board and district itself.

For all four seats, 16 candidates total remain on the ballot, but of those, six are vying for a single seat: Anchorage School Board Seat E.

The candidates include Rachel Blakeslee, Edgar Blatchford, Sami Graham, and Nial Sherwood Williams, as well as former school board member Pat Higgins and incumbent Alisha Hilde, who was elected in 2018.

All of them have their own visions for the Anchorage School District and the board itself.

For Blakeslee, a primary focus is how kids are actually taught and treated in the classrooms.

“I want to try to advocate for kids in a more holistic, student-centered way,” she said, “and all the ways that I felt frustrated when I was an educator myself.”

Graham, who was recently a private school principal, said she wants to repair the relationship between board members in terms of ensuring everyone’s ideas are heard.

“I would make sure that we were talking together,” she said, “and not one voice was heard louder than another voice.”

Expressing similar sentiments over the current state of the school board, Blatchford said he wants to see more cooperation and inclusion within the board so that more can be done for the district and community.

“We’re fighting ourselves over how we’re going to deal with each other,” he said. “I am more willing to cooperate and work with members of a team. Rather than trying to arrive at a 4-to-3 majority, leaving three people unhappy, we should strive for consensus, and I think we can do that.

“There is no one right answer,” he added. “You have to take all the right answers and amalgamate them into a course of action that is a summation of the vision of what this state is all about.”

For Williams, who called himself “the only conservative candidate,” he said the idea is to be a refreshed voice of reason.

“I’ll be that new voice, the one that holds them to the laws of the Constitution, to the laws of the school board,” Williams said, adding that the board has much work to do regarding the budget. “We have a huge budget. A lot of it is on administrative costs, and just as we’re looking at each student, we need to look at each member of the staff, faculty, and see how they’re doing. What is the real impact on a cost-benefit analysis?”

Former board member Higgins said no one is questioning that there are opportunities for change, but noted that the board needs to take more responsibility for what’s going on in the district.

“We just need to look at best practices out there, and move forward,” he said. “These things can cut results and save money [...] The board has got to play a role of setting directions and accountability. They can’t just be innocent bystanders. If they want to do that, then don’t show up.”

Incumbent Hilde said her view of and goals for the board – and what she intends to do – remain the same as three years ago.

“To really focus on improving student outcomes, to focus on long-term budget planning, to make sure we’re recruiting and retaining the best teachers,” she said. “That’s what my focus has been on these last three years. Looking at multi-year bonding, making sure we’re using the best of our space in our different school buildings, those are some of the long-term planning things I’ve worked on.

“On student achievement, it’s really been a push to boost reading scores,” she continued, “making sure students are the focus of everything the board does and where our resources are allocated.”

RELATED: With four of seven seats on the line, Anchorage School Board election will help shape future of board

While the six candidates’ views of the board – and what may need to change – differ at least somewhat from person to person, some of their thoughts on the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic are even more dissimilar in various ways. For example, Williams said he wants to bar any mask mandates and any potential vaccine requirements and said he wouldn’t support shutting schools at any point, no matter what.

“I will fight against those who discriminate against those who choose not to wear masks or vaccinate,” he said. ”And I will never vote to close the schools ever again.”

Having ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop make the “final calls” over opening and closing schools, Higgins said, may not have been the best choice, adding that a better plan was needed from the beginning.

“But the good news is they put safety first,” he said. “Let’s give them credit where credit is due: they looked at this, saw this coming, and they were right.

“When they went with the pandemic, they let the superintendent call the shots when they closed it,” he continued. “I think they did it a week too early, because the kids should’ve had a connection when they left. They needed a better plan for that, and they didn’t do it. They should’ve had a contact as they left, because some of those kids were lost for good.”

Hilde took a more optimistic approach and said that building off the progress made the last year is really exciting, as challenging as the past 12 months have been.

“Seeing some of the ways teachers have been able to connect with their students, teach in new ways,” she said, “that’s going to be brought back in this fall and woven into how we plan for our fiscal cliff in a few years.”

However, like the others, Blakeslee said she’s also concerned students fell so far behind that they’re going to struggle to catch up.

“The pandemic is a huge issue in longtime learning lost,” she said, “and it’s big, but what’s happening is it’s highlighting problems we’ve had for a long time. You can see it in terms of student proficiency; exams are just one measure of a student’s success.”

One of the things the candidates seem to agree on is that students need help.

“First thing you need to do is figure out where the kiddo is,” Graham said, “and then target instruction for that student specifically. That might include summer school, tutoring, target curriculum specifically for that learning style.

“If I had my magic wand to create a district,” she continued, “it would be high performing, and it would have lots and lots of parent involvement, and they would take students seriously and student issues seriously. It would have great sports, great arts, great extra-curriculars, great STEM, and all those things engage the students. And that’s what’s important to help boost achievements.”

Williams specifically suggested individual tutoring.

“I think it needs to be one-on-one,” he said, “individualized with each student, type of review. That needs to occur in all academic subjects.”

An approach specifically targeting curriculum is one that Higgins would take.

“We need an objective review of this,” he said of the schools’ curricula. “We need to listen to the teachers and the public, but [have] a comprehensive audit review. These things have to be integrated, differentiated for kids at levels in different grades.”

Focusing on kids is the main thing, Blakeslee said, though she sees a different approach versus tackling curriculum directly.

“I feel like there is a strong need – and this pandemic, if anything has highlighted it – this strong need for education to be more holistic,” she said, “focused on kids and not just on teaching kids how to test.”

Meanwhile, Blatchford said students need “good, positive role models.”

“The school board has to reflect the diversity of Anchorage,” he added, noting his Alaska Native descent and his view that more of a mix of people should be part of the board. “The faculty, students have to reflect the diversity of Alaska. This is a very diverse state and becoming more so. We need positive role models to show everybody that everybody can succeed.”

Three years into her stay as a board member, Hilde said she sees the district reaching targets it’s set for itself.

“We want to improve reading over the next five years by doubling it, 40 to 80 percent,” she said. “Improve math proficiency, college and going out into the workforce and vocational training.

“How do we deliver education that better meets the needs of our children within our budget? Whoever is going to be on the board,” she said, “and how we tackle those goals will determine whether we’re successful.”

Each of the six candidates for School Board Seat E responded to a questionnaire from Alaska’s News Source. You may read each by following the links below.

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