Smith brings a different perspective to School Board

Megan Holland

In his political career that spans more than 40 years, Don Smith has been many things.

He's been the guy who blocked a push for an Anchorage Assembly resolution to freeze nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

He's been the guy who fought against city projects being named after Martin Luther King Jr.

He's been the guy who always hates taxes. And in recent years, he's been the guy who ran in a lot of elections.

On Tuesday night, he became something else: the newest member of the Anchorage School Board.

Smith won Seat A and a three-year term on the board over Tommy O'Malley, James LaBelle and David Nees.

On Wednesday, Smith dismissed talk that his conservative values will warp a smooth-running School Board.

"I don't think you are going to see me as being this evil, tear-everything-down (kind of person), because I don't believe in that way," he said.

Smith, 71, a retired former owner of a printing business, has been involved in politics since 1965, when he was elected to the Anchorage Borough Assembly. He grew up here and went to college in Fairbanks. Now he's got two grandchildren in an Anchorage high school.

a voice of dissension?

Heather Flynn, who was on the Assembly with Smith about 30 years ago, said his loyalty to Anchorage was both a positive and a negative when she knew him. His passion meant he obviously cared. "He never seemed to want to look and see how they do things other places that might be of benefit to our community. He was just often very parochial in his view."

Peggy Robinson served on the School Board from 1993 to 2002 and knows Smith's reputation. She predicted him going one of two ways based on the other rock-the-boat candidates who have made it to the board. Like many people who campaign as fiscal conservatives, she said, Smith might learn, once he's on the inside, that issues are more complicated than he thought, and back off. "The other way that they can go is that they can stay cantankerous through all three years and not work as a team," she said.

That voice of dissension, some say, could be good.

"I wouldn't want a majority of people on the School Board with his mind bent, but having one may not be a bad thing," said local attorney Joe Josephson, who worked with Smith when they were on the Assembly together.

Current School Board member John Steiner said Smith's different perspective may be helpful during hard budget cuts.

Robinson noted that no one viewpoint prevails on the seven-person School Board without the support of at least three other members.


Part of Smith's campaign platform was that the school district channels too much money into headquarters jobs and away from classrooms. "I have some strong feelings about the budget, but we also need to be educating kids," he said Wednesday.

"I don't think I hid my political philosophy (during the campaign)," he said. "A lot of Anchorage residents are concerned."

Smith said he sees his election as a shift in the board's political leanings. He is replacing Tim Steele, one of the more liberal board members.

Josephson described Smith as a hard worker with an entrepreneurial background and a guy who loves to look at numbers. "He's not mean-spirited. He's not demagogical. He's not lazy. These are good things, I think," he said.

"Sometimes, I think he's too sure he's right, but others might say that's just because he's a person of convictions," Josephson said.

But Josephson said his dealings with Smith were a long time ago. "Remember, he's 70 now. He hasn't been in public office for a long time. In other words, there could be growth or development," he said.


Smith admits he hasn't regularly attended School Board meetings.

"Frankly, they are a very boring meeting when you sit through them," he said. They put on a program for half an hour, then rubber-stamp everything, he said. "There's not a whole lot that seems to be going on in the board meeting."

The real, interesting work happens when the public isn't watching during the work sessions, he said. He'd like to see those discussions more out in the public, as the Assembly does, he said.

Smith admits that he doesn't know the inner-workings of the School District and once he gets in there and learns, his opinions may change.

"Frankly, I think it's going to take a few months on the board to see how things work and how things come together," he said.