Liz Downing, currently on the school board with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, faces off against Mike Illg, the coordinator of the Community Recreation Progam. The Homer Tribune had them answer the following questions.
Q: Based on your own experience as a student and later, as a parent, how do you view the role of the school board?
Liz Downing: The school board role is that of a student and of a caretaker. I try to learn as much as I can about what our communities and employees think and care about, and to study about how effective education organizations work best. I have ready access to a wide array of resources and I am well connected and involved in my community so these help to inform my decisions. As board members, we take care of our communities, our borough, our staff, teachers, and most importantly, our families and students. Our motto of, “Kid’s First” is always at the forefront in our decision-making.
Mike Illg: While a school board member has many important roles and responsibilities to fulfill, I believe the primary role requires the accurate representation and advocacy for the educational and community needs as expressed by our students, staff, parents and community stakeholders. Understanding that the school board collectively provides the direction and policy to the superintendent for total school district operation, individual board members should be actively engaged, genuinely concerned and proactive in receiving input, concerns and suggestions from all community stakeholders relating to local school district functions and beyond. This begins with having an equitable and accessible means of communication that reassures the public and staff that their concerns are not only being heard, but are seriously listened to with prompt responses and effective results.
Q: The KPBSD has seen different kinds of challenges throughout its broad area and 43 schools, where Homer-area schools vie for funding with larger Kenai and Soldotna schools. What kind of advocacy does it take to solicit and achieve goals for schools from Fireweed to Voznesenka?
Downing: Funding for schools, including the new additional funds for sports/activities transportation, are based on equitable formulas that take into account the higher cost for small schools. The funding area that is always a challenge is raising additional funds for activities. In communities with a smaller population we end up eating a lot of each other’s baked goods.
However, each school has unique needs and any of us – parents, teachers, administrators, or school board members – can advocate for those needs. Sometimes the goal can be accomplished within the school or the district and other times we need to work with the legislature. We get the most accomplished when we have broad support and work together. When we go into conversations with a positive approach we can be successful advocating for our needs. The new Homer High track is just the most recent example of this.
Illg: Local schools are the symbolical and tangible pillars of every community. Our school district is very diverse as there are many different schools throughout Kenai Peninsula each with its own unique needs and challenges to deliver the best education possible to their students. While there are some apparent similarities, no two schools are alike. To fulfill the respective goals and education requirements, the main vehicle to successfully deliver services boils down to having an accurate and in depth understanding of each of the schools’ operational climate. To accomplish this, our school board members should ideally be readily accessible and in tune to the happenings of the respective schools to best understand and articulate their needs. Whether it is meeting with parents or attending school events, a school board member should be available whenever possible beyond the planned celebrations and unexpected challenges to best understand and connect to the ethos of the schools. Related to this is the expectation that school board members should also ideally have the broad view understanding in being proactive in representing all needs of the school district and not just the areas they represent. This may mean at times breaking away from the usual course of action by attending the needs of the outlying schools first and then on to the more populated area schools. I would also like to see the local communities rally and support our local schools beyond our usual fundraising efforts and taxable allocations. When a community feels connected to their schools, everyone benefits and ultimately the local community becomes the school’s biggest advocate. The bridge to this relationship is amicable communication and encouraging local involvement.
Q: District meetings usually take place in Soldotna. How would you solve the problem many parents express that they are too far from the decision-makers?
Downing: Parents have, and do access decision-makers via traditional communication, through their site councils, by surveys and direct comment options on the district website, as well as attending meetings. That said, the technology available for greater interaction over a distance is certainly manageable and financially feasible. I believe it is time to bring these options back to the board and the borough so that regardless of where we meet, the technology and the process is in place to receive timely input from all of our communities. Central Peninsula administrators are often in Homer and are always willing to make special trips to talk with site councils or other groups. Distance should not be a barrier.
Illg: This is a big concern that many community members have expressed to me that there is an apparent disconnect between the school district decision–makers and local south peninsula residents. The lack of local accessibility to school administrators is detrimental to the educational process and creates division within the community. This boils down to the lack of local control, input and ability to be a part of local school decisions from community members. While we certainly utilize modern technology by sending emails, using Skype, making phone calls and filling out numerous online surveys these mediums take away the personal connection and human ethos where concerns become less real or less important than a face to face interaction. I strongly suggest the expansion and promotion in the roles and authority individual school site council has with making local school related decisions. I suggest rotating school board meetings on a monthly cycle between central peninsula, Homer and Seward as this could give respective community members an increased opportunity for interaction with all school board members and administrative staff. I also suggest the concept of increasing the superintendent or assistant superintendent visits (announced and unannounced) to local schools as well as inviting them to attend local community events beyond school district functions. Another suggestion includes the idea of establishing a satellite school district office (maybe combined with borough’s office) that houses one of the assistant superintendents on a permanent basis that provides the local connection and face time that our community greatly needs.
Q: Anything else you might want to tell us about yourself?
Downing: I’m often asked why I sought to be on the school board. I believe in the importance of contributing to my community. I have done so as a student, as an employee, and with my involvement in many of our local and state organizations.
When my son was in kindergarten and I had a chance to help out in class, I learned very quickly that being in the classroom did not play to my strengths. In other words, I was terrified! I did work to overcome that by being a t-ball coach but really, I am much better at policy, budgets, and organizational development. I have been involved in education from pre-K through graduate school all of my life. Few things are more important and I am happy to dedicate my efforts to supporting our truly wonderful school district which I believe is becoming even better.
Illg: As a candidate for representing the Homer area for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board, I wholeheartedly believe that I am very capable, educated and knowledgeable to best represent the educational needs and expectations of our incredible community.
With my personal and professional experiences as a life-long learning advocate, I understand first hand the importance of making a quality educational experience and quality of life opportunities readily available and supported.
As my educational background includes being a public school student in the Head Start program as a young child and continuing on to graduate school, I have also spent 10 years as a mason allowing me to understand the importance of a quality vocational education.
I am very engaged in our community and understand the important variables with improving the relationship between the schools and the community stakeholders.
I have worked as volunteer for many organizations and coached youth and high school wrestling in Homer for many years. As a young dad and uncle, I have a vested interest in being a part of the process that provides them the best possible education available.
While I may not have school board administrative experience, I offer my productive enthusiasm, personal commitment and local involvements to best represent our community. Now is the time for new representation, new voice and new change.
I am very excited about this opportunity and truly hope to be a positive resource to our greatest resource: our children. Please consider voting for me on Oct. 2.
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