School Board candidate: Changing ethnic makeup of students cause of school problems

Nathaniel Herz

An Anchorage school board candidate says some of the problems at the cash-strapped Anchorage School District have been caused by a shift in the ethnic background of its students.

In an interview with Alaska Public Media broadcast and posted online this week, Don Smith, 75, compared the ethnic makeup of students in the district today to what he remembered from when he was in school.

"When I was in Anchorage High School, it was about 98 percent white students, and the balance were probably Native, and one or two black students," he told reporter Daysha Eaton. "Today, we're 48 percent white, 52 percent other, and that clearly is causing problems. I think our numbers are dropping because we're importing all these people that aren't up to the standards that we had set for the school."

In the 2012-13 school year, 55 percent of the district's students were non-white. At West High School, formerly Anchorage High, 62 percent of the students were non-white last October, according to the district. Data from before 1976 wasn't immediately available.

In the interview, Smith was responding to a question about what he thought was driving recent increases in graduation rates, and decreases in dropout rates.

He answered that "there's lots of problems that have been caused by organizations like the State Department that have somehow convinced Alaskans, or Anchorage residents, to accept two families a month from Africa and Indonesia totally unable to speak English, and give us the responsibility to try to educate these kids in the school system."

Pressed by Eaton about what was driving improvements at the school district, Smith said that "we might be just in a lucky period," and added that it was unlikely that a local nonprofit organization, Catholic Social Services, would reduce the number of families it settles in Alaska.

"There is no solution. You know, we can't tell all these people to go back to Africa, or back to Indonesia, or wherever they've been imported from," he said.

Susan Bomalaski, the executive director of Catholic Social Services, said in an interview Thursday that 38 school-aged children had entered the Anchorage School District last year under a refugee assistance program run by the group.

Her agency, she said, works with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, to bring between 60 and 100 people to Alaska each year.

Some of the refugees have come from Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq, Bomalaski said, but she couldn't recall any who had arrived from Indonesia.

Bomalaski said she sent a letter to Smith responding to what she called "misinformation," and offered him a tour of her organization's Refugee Welcome Center.

Smith is a longtime politician who has served in the state House of Representatives, and on the Anchorage Assembly. He was on the Anchorage School Board between 2010 and 2013, when he lost his re-election bid.

Smith is running for a seat in Tuesday's election against incumbent Kameron Perez-Verdia.

In an interview with the Daily News on Thursday, Smith called Catholic Social Services a "great organization," but added that he thought they were downplaying the number of resettled refugees.

"I haven't bothered to go there and ask somebody to show me the figures," he said.

He characterized questions about and criticism of his statements as coming from people "making me out to be some kind of Scrooge."

"I clearly believe there are more people (who) agree with me than disagree," he said. "All these noisy liberals that you're hearing from -- and it's probably six or eight -- their whole life revolves around saving the world. And I'd like to save the world in our own community."

The School Board recently approved a budget that would eliminate 200 positions at the district. The budget is still awaiting approval from the Anchorage Assembly.

Smith said Thursday that the district's cost of educating each student is between $15,000 and $17,000.

In 2013, that figure was $17,409, according to a spokeswoman for the district. That would put the cost of the 38 recently resettled students at about $660,000, but Smith pointed out that refugees had been arriving in Anchorage for years.

Bomalaski said her reaction to seeing Smith's interview was "disappointment."

She said she was especially frustrated that "someone would view this as somehow making the school system less than it can be -- rather than talking about how it adds so much richness to the experience of the students that go there."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.