Board names ‘Zen’ Kelly to empty seat

The Board of Education has found a representative for southern Kenai Peninsula residents.

John “Zen” Kelly will be filling the District 9 seat left unoccupied for nearly two months since 12-year member Sunni Hilts served at her last meeting in early December. The Texan-turned-Alaskan has a family history of long-time educators, including his father who worked as a superintendent and mother who was a teacher.

“I understand the time commitment,” Kelly said. “I am going to make every possible attempt to connect with people in the school district.”

The seat includes a mix of diverse communities including Anchor Point, Fritz Creek, Voznesenka, Razdolna, Kachemak Selo, Fox River, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham.

The board unanimously approved Kelly’s appointment Monday evening, during its regularly scheduled meeting. Kelly was the sole candidate who fielded questions from board members Monday, including the origins of his nickname.

“Most people in Homer know me as ‘Zen,’” Kelly said during his introduction to the board.

He explained it stemmed from his high school days, and resurfaced when he took his first job in Alaska on a fishing boat. Kelly was one of two men called John in a group of four deckhands, and the captain determined one name had to be changed for clarity. Kelly later maintained the title by naming the beverage production company he founded Zen Chai.

Twenty-four hours into the new role, Kelly explained he ran “mainly to fulfill a need.”

“The school district is faced with some significant financial difficulties for the next couple of years,” Kelly said. “I am hoping to bring my skill set to the table.”

Kelly is a business consultant in the private sector, specializing in the fields of accounting and information technology

Peter Swanson, principal of McNeil Canyon Elementary School, has worked closely with Kelly and said the new member’s business background would be an asset to the board.

“I think he will be a great addition to the school board,” Swanson said. “He listens well. Any feedback he gives is well thought out. He is a ‘big picture’ kind of guy.”

Swanson has been an administrator at the elementary school Kelly’s two daughters went through, the youngest of whom recently 

After Kelly’s many years of being involved in the school community, and experience working in smaller schools in particular, Swanson said he is confident the new board member has a grasp of the issues relevant to his constituents and the programs and services that affect students in the area.

Kelly said he is most immediately concerned about the risks to small schools trickling down from the state level, and that state officials are considering closing sites with enrollment of 25 students or less.

He also cited helping to advocate for state funding, addressing the rising costs of health care that have become a burden on the school district and raising awareness within the community as areas he will be focusing on in the long-term.

In the coming weeks, Kelly said he will spend time with his constituents, contact the individual schools in his coverage area and make connections with site staff and administrators.

After his first meeting Monday, Kelly disclosed that his wife works for the school district at a school in Homer, as a potential conflict of interest.

Board President Joe Arness said he would not consider Kelly’s situation as a concern.

“Welcome sir,” Arness said. “We hope you never regret this moment. At least not for more than an hour.”

Kelly will have to rerun again in October’s regular municipal election to keep the seat, Arness said. Kelly said he has not decided how long he will remain on the board. He did report his first 24 hours as District 9 representative went well.

“I don’t feel like I have had a shocking revelation but there is a lot of work to be done,” Kelly said.

His first activities included a public meeting held by the school district, which was to make connections between constituents and legislators to increase community involvement in advocacy for education.

Kelly said the event reiterated to him “what a great job the school district is doing in educating our children,” and he was “realizing everyone is a stakeholder in children receiving a quality education.”

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.