School Board member keeps job despite living 4,000 miles away

Higgins phones in during meetings and hasn't missed one.

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 13, 2012 

Anchorage School Board member Pat Higgins is working in the Marshall Islands, more than 4,000 miles from home, and hasn't been physically present at a board meeting since April. He won't be back in town until early August.

David Boyle, a volunteer with the conservative Alaska Policy Forum, told the School Board this week that Higgins should step down or be ejected for being away for so long.

Yet as far as the School District is concerned, Higgins hasn't been absent a single time.

District attorneys have told board members and Superintendent Carol Comeau that it appears to be legal for Higgins to be considered present by calling in, Comeau said.

For the 2011-12 school year, Higgins attended in person or called into all 33 regular meetings, special meetings and work sessions, according to a summary provided by the district. He called in 13 times and was physically there 20 times. Many of the phone-ins were this year.

He did miss at least one early meeting this year, according to the Feb. 6 minutes. Early meetings are often held before regular meetings to discuss student disciplinary cases, and those meetings don't count for attendance purposes, Comeau said. He called into the Feb. 6 regular meeting.

Comeau said she sought a written legal opinion on the matter. It should be complete next week.

Higgins, reached by phone on the Kwajalein Atoll, says he intends to remain on the School Board. He's in the middle of his second term and is the longest-serving current member. He says he brings wide experience and remains committed to working on initiatives that he helped start.

"If I ever reach the point where I feel like I am not being effective, I will immediately resign," Higgins, 59, said.

He moved earlier this year to a tiny island more than 2,000 miles west of Honolulu for a human resources job with Chugach Alaska Corp., a Native corporation that provides services for the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. It's a test facility for U.S. missile defense and space research programs in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

"It is rocket science," he said. For the test center, Chugach employs some 800 people, some of them Americans and some Marshall citizens, Higgins said.

The Marshall Islands are 20 hours ahead, so when he calls in, it's already the next day there.

School Board members are part-time positions. Higgins currently makes just over $27,000 a year, counting several thousand dollars added to his salary because he opts out of district health coverage.

Even though he's far away, he remains an active, effective board member, new board president Jeannie Mackie said.

"He's been a big part of the direction that the board has set and some of the work that we're doing, Pat's been an integral part of that," she said in an interview. "I would agree that it's not ideal for him to not be present in the community. But as far as his engagement as a board member, he has been engaged."

He's well prepared for meetings, Comeau said. He speaks up, and he votes.

Besides working with the administration and participating in meetings, board members typically visit schools and attend special events, including high school graduations. Neither Comeau nor Mackie wanted to address the impact of Higgins' situation on those community connections.

Boyle, a retired Air Force major, didn't hesitate.

"Our position is that he's an elected representative and he needs to be here in the community to feel what the community feels," Boyle said. What's the difference between what Higgins is doing and the entire board calling in from Hawaii? he asked.

Higgins said he thinks Boyle's concerns are rooted in politics. Boyle supported his 2011 opponent, Bob Griffin. But Boyle said if Griffin had won and tried to do the job from afar, he'd be calling him out on it, too.

While School Board members have been phoning into meetings for years, Higgins' arrangement is unusual because of the long time span. Asked whether at some point he'll be gone too long, Higgins said he didn't think of it in those terms. He's been immersed in School Board work and that continues.

"I took off a whole year last year to focus on some major objectives," Higgins said. He pushed for the board to set annual goals and objectives, according to a district memorandum from September 2010. The list of projects includes a review of the district's controversial Everyday Math program and bonds to pay for technology equipment in the high schools, he said. He chairs the board's audit committee and is eagerly awaiting the results of a management review, he said.

And even though he couldn't go to high school graduations this year, he attended every one in 2011, he said.

He's part of the team, Mackie said.

Higgins said he planned to travel back and forth between the islands and Anchorage. He wasn't sure how long he would be working out there. He remains an Anchorage resident.

"It's not like I am forever gone."


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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