Public debates teacher health insurance, gender identity, parental rights at Mat-Su school board meeting

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Published: May. 25, 2023 at 7:05 AM AKDT|Updated: May. 26, 2023 at 8:28 AM AKDT
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - A proposed Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District School Board policy is drawing reaction from parents, teachers, and students on issues surrounding how students identify themselves at school.

Hundreds of residents, including members of the Mat-Su Education Association and the Mat-Su Borough School District, showed up to Wednesday’s Mat-Su School Board meeting. Although the board is looking at various policy revisions recommended by the board policy committee, the greater majority of people were there to support the continued negotiations of contracts.

Mat-Su Education Association President Vikki Hewitt spoke at the meeting, pleading to the board to give them more time until their current health insurance provided by the district is taken away.

“Kids who need their diabetic equipment, mental health that will not be covered, hearing aids that will no longer be covered, physical therapy for an already performed surgery, the list goes on, please give them time,” Hewitt said.

Supporters and critics also showed up to speak on the new contract that is being debated between the teacher’s union and school district, which recently voted to approve a strike for as early as this fall. The district says it is still willing to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the educators association and says it remains open to scheduling discussions.

Along with those rallying were some who came to speak on the potential changes to the board policy. The revisions could impact students, teachers, and parents in the district.

The more controversial policy changes that the board is eyeing revolve around parent engagement, family life, human sexuality, and school counseling services. One of them requires that “parent permission before the name or pronoun used by a student at school is changed.”

Critics have said the proposal bears resemblance to HB 105, a bill put forward by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who maintains the bill would strengthen parental rights in the Alaska school system.

Pat Martin is the Outreach Director for the Right to Life and responded to the public testimony on the policy, saying there was a “lot of troubling testimony” that he heard during the meeting.

“Since we seem to be a little outnumbered here tonight, I figured I would bring you some friends,” Martin said. “Four hundred and seventy-four Alaskans have recently signed a petition that say they are absolutely opposed to everything these people are advocating for and they are therefore in support of what you the board are doing to protect children from sexual and homosexual perversion.”

Some other speakers spoke of the importance of censoring books throughout the school system. A big topic on the agenda was the possibility of creating a Library Citizens Advisory Committee which would have a big influence on what books could be on the shelves of the school libraries.

Some spoke of what they referred to as “pornographic” material found in some books that were allowed in schools. Ultimately, the school board voted to change the way members of the committee are selected.

Along with a crowd of people in red — part of a rally behind continued teacher contract negotiations — some residents spoke out against potential policy changes, particularly those involving gender identity discussions.

“We strongly oppose the Mat-Su borough’s proposed revisions,” said Rose O’Hara-Jolley with Planned Parenthood. “These changes are an outright extreme attack on LGBTQ youth that forcibly outs and misgenders LGBTQ students.”

“When I come back to our hometown and hear the suffering and exclusion of queer and trans people, especially our students and our children, my heart is broken,” said Jessi Saiki, a former Mat-Su student. “I want love and respect for the people of the Valley too.”

Michael Garvey, advocacy director with the Alaska Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, believes some policy changes would hurt an already vulnerable population.

“We already know that this is a population of kids who are under an immense risk of self-harm, mental health deterioration, and so in our view, this doesn’t really uphold the district’s obligation to provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for every student,” Garvey said.

The board considered multiple policy changes that were on Wednesday night’s agenda with the next school board meeting slated for June 7.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.