Lawmakers, school board talk Juneau priorities

The Kenai Peninsula’s state legislative delegation joined the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education on Monday for a frank and sometimes charged discussion about issues the district would like to see lawmakers prioritize in the upcoming legislative session.

The board in October identified as priorities maintaining a robust public education system; providing a timely and sustainable education funding plan; reconsideration of the state’s bond reimbursement moratorium; and supporting a positive school climate, including social and emotional learning.

Lawmakers were invited for an “open discussion” about the upcoming legislative session and were provided with a copy of the district’s legislative priorities. Reps. Ron Gillham, R-Kenai, and Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, attended the meeting in person, while Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, and Doug Letch, aide to Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, attended remotely.

While attaining state funding is identified as a priority by the district, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland emphasized Monday the importance of the district receiving funding without delay, which impacts staffing and contracts. Even if the amount of funding hasn’t gone up from the previous year, Holland said, securing funding early makes a big difference.

“My experience here has been that you get to a point if you wait until May, sometimes it happens, it really becomes a difficult task to maintain staffing,” Holland said.

Carpenter called concerns about finances a “foregone conclusion” and that the state’s education budget will likely remain flat. He said he was interested in hearing thoughts and concerns “outside of the money issue.”

After reviewing priorities, Micciche put the onus on the district to be more vocal about the support they’d like to see from the state and more clearly connect their proposals to expected outcomes.

“I don’t mind the funding priorities, I just want to see that you’ve got a vision for pushing to a better outcome that legislators can support,” Micciche said. “ … Seeing the same thing every year is going to get you the same result. So let DEED know that that is important to you (and) that you want to go to the next level.”

Carpenter expressed concerns that none of the district’s legislative priorities address improving the quality of education in KPBSD schools. He criticized the district’s performance on standardized tests, especially in the area of writing, which he said “seems to be atrocious” and “not where it needs to be.”

“If we’re having problems with reading, writing and arithmetic on our school standardized measurements, which is what we have agreed that we’re going to hold ourselves to … I look at the priorities and I say I’m not sure how this addresses that,” Carpenter said.

Performance Evaluation of Alaska’s Schools, or PEAKS, assessments are administered annually to Alaska’s third through ninth grade students. PEAKS results are meant to inform educators, families and communities, among others, about how Alaska schools and school districts are performing, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, or DEED. PEAKS assessments were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide, 39.5% of students were considered advanced or proficient in English Language Arts and 32.38% were considered advanced or proficient in math. That is compared to KPBSD, where 48.55% of students were considered advanced or proficient in English Language Arts and 35.15% were considered advanced or proficient in math.

Board member Jason Tauriainen clarified that the district has identified academic priorities in a separate document and that the legislative priorities up for discussion are targeted specifically to what the board wants to see happen in Juneau.

Social and emotional learning

The discussion with legislators came after the board received a presentation from KPBSD Curriculum Coordinator Melissa Linton about social emotional learning and what the concept looks like when applied in classrooms. Linton’s presentation, which she said was developed in collaboration with other district counselors and psychologists, kicked off with a mindfulness exercise where she had board members close their eyes, adjust their posture and relax their muscles while she guided them through the exercise.

“Notice your breath,” Linton said. “Feel your lungs expand and contract.”

Those are the types of exercises, Linton said, teachers lead students through in class as a way to center themselves and students in the moment. Students’ self-direction, curiosity and civic identity is only possible when other goals are achieved, such as resilience and agency and, at a basic level, things like stress management and self-regulation, Linton said.

“If (students) don’t have those kinds of skills, we can’t get to some of the higher-level thinking and academic success that we want our kids to have,” Linton said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Linton said the district was working to become more trauma-informed. That means acknowledging students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, that stand in the way of their ability to learn. The district defines a traumatic event as “a frightening, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” That may include things like abuse or neglect, family violence, incarceration or loss. Linton described traumatized students as being in a “perpetual loop of stress and trauma.” It’s estimated that between half and two-thirds of all school-aged children experience trauma by being exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences.

Those experiences physically impact student’s bodies. The stress manifests as things like tense muscles, rapid heart beat, chest pain and dilated pupils. That’s in addition to the way trauma causes a child’s brain to be wired differently so that they are in a constant state of fight or flight, according to Linton’s presentation.

Carpenter questioned the district’s placement of social and emotional learning on its list of legislative priorities, which he said he didn’t have when he was in school and yet still was able to graduate from high school and college and then serve in the military. He also questioned what the district meant by “collective trauma” as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Multiple board members sought to defend the need for social and emotional learning programs in schools, including Tauriainen, who explained that adversity can stand in the way of a student’s academic growth.

“Kids that don’t get fed probably aren’t going to do real good at math,” Tauriainen said. “Children that don’t feel safe also aren’t going to do very good math or reading or citizenship class.”

Pre-K and parental involvement

Carpenter said he’s anticipating a push for pre-K education funding in the upcoming legislative session, which he said he won’t support because he does not think it is the school district’s responsibility to “train” children from pre-K to high school.

Micciche said he would “likely” support pre-K for kids without family support prior to kindergarten if the proposed program was tied to results. Ultimately, he said, that responsibility should fall to families. Micciche said he doesn’t think the state could fund a universal pre-K program and that clearer guidelines would be needed to to make a noticeable difference.

“There’s no doubt that there are families that are barely hanging on,” Micciche said. “There are some that aren’t hanging on at all: They are not reading to their kids at night. They are not walking through the very basic building blocks of education prior to kindergarten. If I saw a program that would target those individuals, to give them at least an even start in kindergarten, very likely supported universal pre-K.”

Board of Education president Zen Kelly said he doesn’t necessarily support required pre-K, but that he’d like families to have the option available.

“We have the data that shows it makes a huge difference in the trajectory of a child’s education,” Kelly said.

Parent involvement in education is something several in attendance Monday also said they’d like to see more of.

Board member Debbie Cary agreed that it may not be possible to go back and fix past experiences of lack of parental involvement, but that the way teachers interact with students now might make them better parents in the future.

“The students that we are educating today will be parents in the future,” Carey said. “If we can start changing that — parenting skills today with the students that we have in our classrooms — my hope is that the parents of the future will be better parents with better knowledge than what we’re experiencing right now.”

Kelly echoed those comments and told Carpenter that he sees schools working to engage parents.

“All we can do is be a stable structure to some kids who are experiencing trauma,” Kelly said. “We may never get their parents to come in the classroom, ever. Again, you said we can’t force them, but I do think we are doing a good job at encouraging and reaching out and developing relationships with parents, and having them be engaged in their kids’ education.”

Resources from the board of education’s work sessions and Monday meeting can be found on KPBSD’s BoardDocs page.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meets on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)