The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education chose a new member at its meeting Monday evening.
Mike Illg, the City of Homer’s Community Recreation Coordinator and a former wrestling coach at Homer High and Middle schools, was elected to join in a 5-1 secret ballot vote. School Board president Joe Arness and member Marty Anderson were absent.
The School Board’s District 8 seat, representing Homer, was vacated by Liz Downing in September. The nine school board members are normally elected to serve three-year terms, but in the case of resignations a replacement is chosen by remaining members. Illg will fill the District 8 seat until October 2017, when he will have to run for re-election.
In addition to Illg, who unsuccessfully ran for the school board against Downing in 2012, two other candidates applied for Downing’s seat: Joni Wise, a former secretary at Homer’s Paul Banks Elementary, and Lane Chesley, a member of the South Peninsula Hospital Operating Board and treasurer of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
Chesley withdrew his application, leaving Wise and Illg to be interviewed by the present board members on Monday.
Sitting school board members questioned the two candidates about issues the school board has been wrestling with this year: a budget slimmed by declining enrollment, and protracted contract negotiations with school employee unions over stipends and health benefits, which were concluded by arbitration in September.
Illg linked the two issues. Eighty percent of the school district’s $140 million budget for fiscal 2017 is dedicated to salaries (48.7 percent) and benefits (31.3 percent).
“The biggest cost to the school district is the employees, and yet the employees are the front line to delivering the best education we can,” Illg said. “Inevitably we have to find a way to balance our budget and that may mean reduced teachers, larger classroom sizes — which we don’t want to do. There could be some other potential cost savings, because I understand the negotiations also involve health care costs. Through a potential legislation down the road, maybe as a municipality we could consolidate with other municipalities to pull out funds to deliver reasonable affordable health care to all our employees.”
Illg also is a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee, the Homer High Site Council, and the Alaska Recreation and Parks Association. He works for the Homer’s Community Recreation Program, a municipal program that organizes gym activities for the general public using school district-owned buildings and recreational equipment. According to the joint use agreement between Homer and the school district, “the extent, content, and management of the (Community Recreation) program shall be decided by the City with guidance and advice provided by the (school district) and the Homer Middle School and Homer High School principals.”
School board member John Kelley asked Illg if he’d be able to maintain distance between his job and his prospective school board membership, avoiding a conflict of interest.
“Our mission statements are exactly the same,” Illg said of the school district and the Homer Community Recreation program. “Our goal is to provide community-based education and recreational opportunity. The short answer to your question is absolutely. I look at the relationship with the school district, utilizing Homer High and Middle School, as one small microcosm of what the school district does. So if that issue were to ever come up I would abstain myself. … I absolutely understand where that stands in my potential role as a school board member.”
Ben Boettger and Elizabeth Earl are reporters for the Peninsula Clarion.