2 incumbent school board members face challengers in upcoming Anchorage election
Mar. 19—Two longtime incumbent Anchorage School Board members are vying to keep their seats in the upcoming municipal election, each facing one challenger.
Andy Holleman, a former Anchorage educator and former president of the local teachers union, and Dave Donley, a former state legislator who is the deputy commissioner in the state's Department of Administration, are running for reelection. Both Donley and Holleman have been on the school board since 2017. If both win, they'd be serving a third term on the board. After that, Anchorage municipal code requires school board members to take at least one three-year term off before running again.
Donley, the most conservative member of the school board, faces a challenge from Irene Boll, who is endorsed by groups on the left and who also ran for the school board in 2018 and lost. Holleman, who tends to vote with the board's more liberal majority, is running against Mark Anthony Cox, who ran in two previous elections with support from conservative groups and lost.
The seven-member Anchorage School Board frequently, though not always, votes unanimously on policy and generally votes with at least a six-member majority, so any shifts among the two seats up for reelection aren't likely to change the overall direction of the current board.
Recent campaign disclosure reports show that both incumbents have outraised their opponents. Holleman had raised more than $32,400 throughout his campaign, while Cox had raised close to $13,500 since beginning his campaign. Meanwhile, Donley had raised close to $51,000 throughout his campaign. Boll had raised about $3,400.
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One of the biggest issues the candidates will face if elected is the ongoing challenge of school funding.
Budget issues are squeezing school districts statewide, as mostly flat state funds have not kept up with increasing inflation. In the Anchorage School District, that translated to a $48 million budgetary gap this year, which officials had to contend with closing over the past several months.
Board members this year approved a balanced budget that drew on one-time funds, district savings, winding down programs, raising the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one student, administrative cuts and closure of one elementary school, Abbott Loop. Next year, without any changes to the state's funding formula, district officials say there may be an even larger gap.
Holleman said that if reelected he'll continue advocating for predictable education funding, which hasn't kept pace with inflation. Without a significant increase to the state's per-student funding, known as the Base Student Allocation, Holleman said the district will face a larger gap with fewer resources come next year.
Holleman was among the majority of school board members who voted in favor of this year's budget, which included the use of district savings to fill the hole. But that money won't be available next year, he said.
"We are doing some things that we just can't do in the long run, because we feel like the programs matter that much," Holleman said. "We absolutely don't want to get ourselves to the point where we lay people off because we're not sure we can hire them back again."
Holleman's opponent, Cox, declined an interview request for this story and did not respond to emailed questions asking for his position on the Legislature increasing the Base Student Allocation. In response to a Daily News candidate survey asking if the state spends enough money on public education, Cox responded, "yes, the Anchorage School Board and District has a financial mismanagement issue which needs to be resolved before receiving additional funding from the state."
Boll, who is challenging Donley in the race for Seat C, said that as a school board member, she would prioritize advocating for the Legislature to increase and inflation-proof the Base Student Allocation.
"The flat funding to our district has been really egregious under-funding," Boll said.
In a response to a question about where she might be more comfortable making cuts if elected, Boll said that additional cuts would be "to the further detriment of students and society as a whole." She said she understood it may be necessary to make cuts if the district continues to be underfunded, but did not provide specifics.
"I definitely don't want to have to make any cuts, that's for sure," Boll said. "And it's really just a play it by ear, and only do what's absolutely necessary."
She said it looks like the Legislature will take action to increase funding for public schools this year, and cuts may not be necessary.
Boll's opponent, Donley, is also in favor of an increase to the Base Student Allocation and recently signed a letter alongside all members of the Anchorage School Board and Anchorage Assembly requesting an increase.
However, Donley said there need to be reforms alongside an increase in state funding, including an increase in instructional hours in Alaska. Donley said Alaska's instructional hour requirement is far lower than in many states across the country.
"It's really serious," Donley said. "That's a huge disadvantage for our kids."
Donley was the sole board member who voted against this year's school district budget, which included raising the student-to-teacher ratio by one student as a means to close the budget gap. He said he opposed that part of the budget, particularly among younger grade levels. Donley tried to advance other budget amendments at the February meeting, like an administrative cut and changes to middle school, instead.
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"I just could not vote for a budget that increased class sizes, especially for those lowest classes, where it's crucial, crucial, to obtain our No. 1 priority of the board, and that's reading proficiency," he said.
Candidates on governor's 'parents' rights' proposals
Earlier this month, Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced controversial education policy proposals that would, among other measures, require gender nonconforming students to use locker rooms associated with their "biological sex," require parent sign-off before students can change their names or pronouns at school, and put new limits on sexual education, including requiring parent permission for their children to participate in sex ed. While the future of the proposed legislation is uncertain, Anchorage School Board candidates are taking different positions on the proposals
The Anchorage School District's guidelines for working with transgender and gender nonconforming students and employees include a provision that parents of secondary students don't need to be notified of a student's "gender identity, expression or transition." The guidelines also say bathroom and locker room "access should be allowed based on the gender identity consistently expressed by the student or employee."
Boll said she was frustrated with the governor's recent announcement.
"I am the candidate in this race dedicated to advocating for LGBTQIA+ students and ensuring that they have a voice and representation in our school district," Boll said.
On Twitter, Boll shared a photo of her opponent Donley, standing near the governor when Dunleavy announced the policy proposals earlier this month, saying Donley "has made it clear where he stands on LGBTQ issues."
Donley said he supports the idea for increased teacher bonuses that Dunleavy also proposed that day, and that proposal relates to legislation that Donley worked on as a state lawmaker. Asked about Dunleavy's policy proposals that relate to sexual education and gender issues, Donley said, "I strongly support parental rights."
Donley said the district's guidelines are flawed and that he objects to the component that says the district does not need to notify parents of secondary students about a student's gender identity, expression or transition, which he said he didn't think was legal.
"I think that's just dead wrong," Donley said. "Parents should have full information about what's happening with their children at school."
Donley said he agreed with the governor's position that in locker rooms, students should be physically separated according to their "biological sex," have access to single-occupant facilities, or other protocols to address their physical safety and privacy.
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Holleman said he was not supportive of Dunleavy's "parental rights" proposals. He said "there's a lot that's problematic" in them and their impacts will go beyond what Dunleavy is suggesting. He said the governor's plan could create uncertainties for teachers. While teachers try to keep students focused on the curriculum, students do find trusted adults at school, he said.
"I think a lot of people understand the fact that the school can be an outlet where a student can talk about things like that is probably a huge benefit the vast majority of times," Holleman said. "And it is tough. And then sometimes teachers bungle these conversations, too, just like parents do. So it's not a perfect world by any means. But bringing in penalties of law when it doesn't go right is a real problem."
Holleman said he believes parents have a right to know what the district is teaching students, and ultimately what they're talking to students about, though maybe not immediately. He said teachers usually try to close the gap between students and parents.
"It's been portrayed that schools are the source of so much of the conversation about sexuality and gender identity," Holleman said. "These are really things that just come into the building from the community."
Cox did not agree to an interview nor respond to an emailed question about the governor's policy proposals.
But in response to questions from a conservative Christian public policy group, the Alaska Family Council, Cox wrote that he agreed that schools and teachers should be required to notify parents about a child's request to change their name or pronouns before the school makes those changes. He also wrote he agreed that locker rooms and restrooms should "be designated for and used exclusively by persons of the same biological sex."
Additionally, Cox wrote he agreed that students need written parent permission before participating in "any activity, class, or program that includes content involving human sexuality and reproduction."