School board race pits liberal against conservative or past against present, depending on who you ask

Nathaniel Herz

Kameron Perez-Verdia was worried that his race for an Anchorage School Board seat wasn't getting enough attention from local media. That's not a problem any more.

Televised comments by Perez-Verdia's opponent, Don Smith, about the ethnic makeup of the Anchorage School District have drawn intense focus this week, highlighting some of the differences between the two candidates.

Tuesday's election pits Perez-Verdia, 42, against Smith, 75, in a race that Smith says offers voters a stark choice between a "conservative and a liberal."

Smith, a lifelong Republican who says he voted against John F. Kennedy, sees himself as the conservative in the race. But Perez-Verdia describes it differently, saying that he's fiscally conservative himself.

"I really think it's a choice between our past and our future," Perez-Verdia said.

A third candidate, Karli Lopez, withdrew from the race in February and endorsed Perez-Verdia, saying that she did not want to risk splitting the vote and electing Smith, whose positions she opposes.

Perez-Verdia is the incumbent in the race, after the school board a year ago appointed him to fill a vacancy. That was following the withdrawal of the board's first selection, a former executive at Veco Corp., after concerns arose that he had not been properly vetted.

Perez-Verdia grew up in Barrow, where both of his parents worked in education; his mother, Shirley Holloway, later became the state's education commissioner.

He has two daughters, 3 and 5, and the eldest will start at a local public school next year, he said.

Perez-Verdia is now the senior director of education for the United Way, where he's working on an initiative to improve graduation rates.

The school board just approved a $750 million budget that would eliminate 200 positions if it's approved by the Anchorage Assembly, and Perez-Verdia said that the school district is "in a bit of a mess."

He placed some of the responsibility for that on the state, which Perez-Verdia said invests lots of money in facilities and retiree benefits, and not enough at the classroom level.

The school board, he added, needs to "cut smarter," and gather more data to evaluate the effectiveness of its programs -- a process that Perez-Verdia said he pushed for this year.

"The systems to gather that data are being put in place now," he said.

Perez-Verdia also said he had pushed the board to change the format of some of its meetings to be more collaborative -- holding more public work sessions in which members sit around a table, in contrast to the official gatherings on-camera.

And a committee he chairs initiated a study of dropout rates, which indentified correlations with attendance and grades that Perez-Verdia said could help the district intervene with at-risk students.

Smith was born in Anchorage, worked on the commission that drafted the city's charter, and has also served in the state House of Representatives, on the Anchorage Assembly, and on the school board from 2010 to 2013, when he lost to Bettye Davis.

In fact, even though he's not currently in office, he said in an interview that he's re-using some of his signs that ask voters to re-elect Don Smith, and stressed that Perez-Verdia had been appointed.

"It's very clear I'm seeking re-election, and he's seeking to be returned," Smith said.

He has put $4,000 of his own money into his campaign, and says he wants to be a questioning, conservative voice on the board.

In his previous term, Smith said he had pushed to expand the district's offerings of career and technical education programs, and would keep pushing if he were elected.

"A lot of these graduates--they're coming out of Anchorage School District in the career and technical program and are going up on the Slope," he said. "Not everybody is going to go to college and become a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer or an architect. There are going to be people who repair things and build things."

Smith says the state should increase its funding for education.

But he wants to reduce the amount of money spent on employee benefits, and he thinks money could be saved by a consolidation of different public sector health plans across the state.

Smith also said that the city spends too much money on a federally mandated program that requires the district to pay for transportation for students classified as homeless to get to their original schools, if they've had to move -- citing, as an example, a hypothetical student who moved from South Anchorage to Chugiak.

"Anchorage does not have different educational standards between South Anchorage and Chugiak," he said. "If the Anchorage School Board would stand up and tell the federal government where to put that law, and just violated it, nobody would go to jail."

Smith said he saw Perez-Verdia as a "super-liberal Democrat," noting that Perez-Verdia had received campaign contributions from several prominent Democratic Alaskans.

"If he had his way, I suspect he'd love to see a big jump in taxes from the school district for the people in Anchorage," he said.

Perez-Verdia said that was not the case.

"I'm actually someone that brings a real understanding how to manage budgets and spend wisely. I'm going to be somebody who is very careful about spending, and ensuring we're good stewards of public money," he said. "But I also realize in order to have a strong public school system, you need to make sure that you have quality teachers, and you have safe facilities, and you have all the things that are necessary in order for kids to get a quality education."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.