Candidates vying for seats on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education gathered Monday in the Soldotna Public Library to talk about their bid for public office and issues facing peninsula schools as part of a candidate forum moderated by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM public radio.
The forum, hosted in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Soldotna Public Library, was the seventh of eight being held throughout September heading into the Oct. 3 municipal election.
Over the course of about an hour, candidates fielded questions from forum moderators Ashlyn O’Hara, the Peninsula Clarion’s government and education reporter, and Riley Board, a reporter at KDLL. Voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Soldotna, Nikiski, Sterling and Central districts will cast ballots for a school board candidate.
Whoever is elected to the assembly’s Nikiski, Central and Soldotna seats will serve a three-year term, while the person elected to the Sterling seat will serve a one-year term. That’s because they’ll be finishing out the term of Jessica Waller, who resigned her seat last fall and was first elected in 2021.
Participating in Monday’s forum were Lyndsey Bertoldo, Jason Tauriainen and Penny Vadla. Vadla is running unopposed for election to the assembly’s Soldotna seat, which she’s held since 2008. Tauriainen and Bertoldo are running for the Nikiski seat.
A separate forum featuring candidates for the school board’s Central and Sterling seats will be held Thursday, also in Soldotna.
Vadla has served on the school board for 15 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in English and education and a master’s degree in public school administration. Tauriainen is an engineer and paramedic with the Nikiski Fire Department who has served on the board of education since 2017. Bertoldo is a 1996 graduate of Milan Junior/Senior High School in Indiana who studied secondary education and English at the University of Cincinnati and completed basic and technical training with the United States Air Force.
Candidates kicked off the forum by saying whether or not they currently have children who attend KPBSD schools.
Vadla said both her children are in their 30s, but that she has a 9-month-old granddaughter who will attend school in the district. Tauriainen, who has eight kids, said seven are KPBSD graduates. Bertoldo said her children do not currently attend KPBSD schools, but rather are home-schooled.
On the issue of school funding, both Tauriainen and Vadla said they hope to see an increase in state funding to school districts by the State of Alaska for the upcoming fiscal year. KPBSD Finance Director Elizabeth Hayes told school board members earlier this month that the district will start fiscal year 2025 with a minimum of a $13 million deficit.
When it comes to their philosophy on budget cuts, Vadla and Tauriainen were in agreement that they want to see cuts kept as far away from KPBSD classrooms as possible. Bertoldo said she would support cuts to KPBSD administration, consider the consolidation of district schools and look at scaling back student nutrition and transportation services, which she said may force parents to become more involved.
Tauriainen said KPBSD has already made a lot of budget cuts, and that he’s worried the district’s pupil to teacher ratio will be hit next.
“We’re getting to a point where the only place to make cuts is going to be to payroll, which is staffing, which is going to increase classroom sizes,” Tauriainen said. “That’s something this board is hoping to avoid.”
Along similar lines, Vadla and Tauriainen said they support a meaningful increase to Alaska’s base student allocation, which refers to the amount of money school districts receive per student. That amount has stayed mostly flat since fiscal year 2017, not including one-time funding awarded by the Alaska Legislature.
Bertoldo said she does not support an increase to that amount, citing low standardized test scores and a “woke agenda” she said is being handed down by the state and federal government. Although she wants to support teachers for their hard work by increasing salaries, Bertoldo said there are things happening in school that “aren’t necessary.”
“I think that we need to focus on getting these scores up first,” Bertoldo said. “People just aren’t excited to fund what is going on in the schools right now. We need to give them a reason to get excited to do that.”
Candidates had different ideas about how KPBSD should be working to recruit and retain quality educators. Vadla said the lack of a defined benefit retirement system offered by the state and benefits packages generally need to be looked at. Bertoldo said the primary concerns she hears from teachers she talks to are about “woke” curricula and student behavior.
Tauriainen said the district has the opportunity to respond to some of the concerns teachers are voicing and to incentivize staff positions as it negotiates new contracts with the two unions that represent KPBSD’s certified and support staff.
“We’re going to be going through another contract negotiation and I think we need to get creative in how we create a package and work with the teachers and the support staff to adequately pay not just teachers but support staff, so making sure they’re paid a wage that is worth what they do,” Tauriainen said.
A priority identified by both KPBSD and the Kenai Peninsula Borough in recent months has been recapturing home-schooled students who live on the peninsula, but who do not attend KPBSD’s home-school program, Connections. Tauriainen said it is important for the district to communicate with home-school parents to identify the needs Connections may or may not be addressing, while Vadla said KPBSD could emphasize the independent learning tracks students can have with flexible courses.
Bertoldo said a top reason parents — like her — home-school their children is because they want education to include an element of faith that is not permitted in public schools.
“The reason why they home-school is because they feel that it’s their job to, and they get that from the Bible,” Bertoldo said. “They just don’t want to leave it all up to somebody else and they just want to have more say in what their kids are learning and (make) sure that their kids are receiving the values that they believe in.”
KPBSD is currently in the process of implementing the Alaska Reads Act, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed into law last summer. That legislation aims to enable all students to read by the end of the third grade and also addresses early learning, reading programming, reading intervention and virtual education.
Bertoldo said teaching kids to read by age 9 is a low bar and that Alaska should be looking to other states for ideas on how to successfully implement literacy programs. Tauriainen said it’s important that the district continue to listen to teachers as the Alaska Reads Act is rolled out, and Vadla said it will take time for students and staff to become fully acclimated to the new programs.
“If they don’t read at the third grade level by the time they’re in third grade and haven’t had that training, then they have a difficult time catching up and ever going forward beyond that time of that reading ability,” Vadla said. “It’s really important that we structure this and that we allow teachers to move into this. This is a big lift.”
Candidates also had different opinions on how the district should tackle the issue of deferred maintenance in school buildings, estimated to be a roughly $200 million problem even with a $65.5 million bond package passed by voters last year.
Tauriainen said the bond takes care of important projects but said he’s optimistic about “more synergy” between the school district’s facilities director and the borough’s facility director moving forward. Bertoldo said her household “swear(s) off debt” and that she “regret(s)” that the bond passed. Vadla said the bond was an important step and that she trusts the borough maintenance department to stay on top of things moving forward.
“I think we maintain our buildings better than anybody in the state and we always have,” Vadla said. “I do believe that sometimes because we have been that successful and we’ve tried so hard, that sometimes we are overlooked. “This bond package … will enable us to go ahead and do the maintenance that we need.”
Candidates were also given the opportunity to make opening and closing statements.
Election day is Oct. 3 and absentee in-person voting started on Sept. 18. Monday’s full candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page or on KDLL’s website at kdll.org. The next forum will be held on Thursday, Sept. 28 at the Soldotna Public Library and will feature candidates for the school board’s Central and Sterling seats.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.