The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s June 7 meeting was, like many in recent months, contentious.
“You will be fought the whole way,” said Krista Schooley, a peninsula grandparent who said she was opposed to introducing a “progressive way of thinking” to the school district.
Another speaker, James Davis, similarly denounced “progressive ideas” — asserting that school board members would be voted out if they “force things down our throat.”
“I want these guys to know that you guys work for us and we don’t want the real progressive ideas coming to the Kenai,” said Davis.
The outrage — voiced by a number of people involved in a newly coalescing conservative movement on the peninsula — stemmed from concern over that night’s board agenda.
Up for consideration was the first reading of new Title IX policies. Those policies, which have been in the works for months, will bring the district into compliance with Title IX guidance announced at the federal level in May of 2020 by Betsy DeVos, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Education under former President Donald Trump.
The policies establish a formal process for how the district handles Title IX complaints. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities that receive financial assistance from the federal government, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The statute is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
To bring itself into compliance with federal law, KPBSD will hire a new Title IX and Human Resources Coordinator for the first time and formalize its process for addressing allegations of discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, in code.
School Board Vice President Debbie Cary, who also serves as the chair of the board’s Policy Review Committee, said Friday that the policies are meant to make the process of handling Title IX complaints clearer.
“The main difference is the fact that there are more stringent and clearer guidelines on how to report, what the process is and how to appeal if you don’t agree with the process — that’s on either side — and putting supportive measures in place,” Cary said.
KPBSD was supposed to implement the regulations announced by DeVos prior to the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff has said the district was unable to implement the changes because they were focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though development of the policies has been underway for months, Cary said there has been “absolutely zero” public interest in the process until now.
‘7 Mountains of Influence’
Monday’s discussion, however, garnered the attention of a burgeoning local conservative movement affiliated with two Facebook groups called the “Kenai Peninsula Conservative Community Coalition,” or KP Triple C, and “KP Triple C’s Mountain of Education.”
Those groups, which are public, were started by Schooley earlier this year and, as of June 11, have more than 140 members combined, including KPBSD staff and local politicians.
An introduction posted by Schooley shortly after the group was created says the vision of KPCCC is to “restructure and build the foundation of the 7 Mountains of Influence in our society through conservative action.”
“KP Triple C (Kenai Peninsula Conservative Community Coalition) is a local grassroots community-based, solution-oriented Civic (community) and Political (government) engagement network with conservative theology and biblical worldview values that will restructure and build the foundation of the 7 Mountains of Influence in our society through conservative activism,” the post says.
The “7 Mountains of Influence” refers to a religious ideology that asserts that the only way to transform a nation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to reach society’s seven facets: family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment, and business, according to subscribers of the movement.
“KPCCC is here to awaken, educate, and activate the conservative community of the KP to push back on the progressive agenda to secure the legacy of future generations,” Schooley told the Clarion on Saturday.
Schooley declined to be interviewed, but responded to a Clarion query on the nature of the group via Facebook.
Many of the posts shared to the group address hot-button issues, which were also voiced during Monday’s meeting, such as discrimination of transgender students and critical race theory.
Critical race theory is an academic concept developed in the 1970s that looks at racism not just as a product of individual bias but as a social construct reinforced through policies and institutions, according to a description by Education Week. The theory has recently been brought to the forefront of national discussions about race spurred by the rise of racial justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.
KPBSD Board of Education President Zen Kelly said Friday that the board has not addressed critical race theory in any capacity, but that the concept has experienced a recent “groundswell.”
“This rally cry behind critical race theory being taught in our schools is just so far from reality,” Kelly said. “In my opinion, it’s just creating a problem that just doesn’t exist.”
Kelly also said critical race theory doesn’t have a specific curriculum attached to it but that conversations about contemporary race relations in the United States may be included in curricula that cover current events.
“Are we never going to talk about racial justice in our schools?” Kelly said. “It’s a current event. It’s happening.”
Similarly, Cary said that none of the policies being considered by the school board address transgender students. One policy that “vaguely” mentioned equality in sports, Cary said, has been tabled until the board can do more research on the issue and is being looked at by KPBSD’s attorney.
“We’ve actually tabled that until we can do some more research to see exactly what is required by the law,” Cary said.
A common theme among some who addressed the board Monday was the need for more parent involvement in the crafting of KPBSD curricula. All district curricula are publicly available on KPBSD’s website, however, and are reviewed on a regular basis by committees that typically include parents or members of the community, in addition to teachers and a school board representative.
“We have always had parents in our curriculum committees if they’re interested in being in the curriculum committee,” Cary said.
A private audience with public officials
KPCCC isn’t just focused on school district curricula, however. The group also organizes and promotes community events, which usually feature a guest speaker, with many held at Ammo-Can Coffee in Soldotna.
Ammo-Can is a members-only coffee shop, WiFi lounge and event venue in Soldotna that is closely aligned with KPCCC’s conservative ethos. The establishment, owned by Jason Floyd, brands itself as “A Private Conservative Cultural and Social Club.” The club has a stated mission of celebrating and promoting contemporary conservative culture and the “Judeo-Christian foundations” of the United States, and offers free membership to anyone who supports that mission and makes three “Empyreal Acknowledgements” as defined by Ammo-Can.
Those acknowledgements are: All freedom, liberty and one’s right to self-determination flow from God and shall not be infringed by any man. Personal Sacrifice on behalf of the innocent, vulnerable and helpless is the highest form of love a person can demonstrate. Where one voice may be easily silenced, many voices raised together in righteous solidarity must prevail.
Floyd told the Clarion via text on Friday that members are required to sign Ammo-Can’s membership book and that members may include individuals, families, affiliate businesses or affiliate organizations. Members who do not “abide by the spirit” of Ammo-Can’s mission and standards, who “actively seek to undermine the mission of the club” or who make staff feel uncomfortable or unsafe are asked to leave.
Membership restrictions limit who can attend events hosted at Ammo-Can. Only members or the invited guests of members are allowed to attend.
School board member Matt Morse, who has spoken to the group at Ammo-Can alongside board member Dr. Greg Madden, said Friday that he was invited to speak at the club by KPCCC about school board policies. Morse said he sees the group as a way to “mobilize” community members interested in KPBSD issues.
Morse also said that both he and Madden were clear at the beginning of the meeting that they were speaking as individuals and not on behalf of the school board or of the district. Madden could not be reached for comment before press time.
If members of a governing body meet outside an official meeting, they are bound by the Open Meetings Act, a state law that says that no more than three members of the same body may meet outside of an official meeting without providing notice ahead of time.
KPBSD Board President Zen Kelly said Friday that all school board members also sign a Code of Ethics that outlines what is expected of them.
Described actions include, among other things, taking no private action that will compromise the board of the administration, refusing to surrender judgment to people or groups at the expense of the school district, and recognizing that members should only make policy decisions after a public discussion at a board meeting.
Kelly said that he reached out to Madden to remind him of the board Code of Ethics ahead of KPCCC’s June 4 meeting at Ammo-Can.
“It’s incumbent on the board members to follow our bylaws, and what they signed on to,” Kelly said. “So I try to give as much trust as possible that they’re doing the right thing.”
What could be a liability for the school district, Kelly said, is that school board members’ titles are being used in the social media posts advertising the events. Their speech as individuals is protected by the First Amendment, but if they are speaking as board members they are bound by the Code of Ethics.
KPCCC’s guest speakers have not been limited to the school district. Scheduled for June 30 at Ammo-Can is a shared discussion with Morse, Madden and State House Rep. Ron Gillham, R–Kenai. Morse said Friday that he encourages people to attend, even if they don’t agree with what is being discussed.
“It gives people an idea of what’s coming down the pipeline,” Morse said, noting that KPCCC hopes to welcome more guests from around the state in the future.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.