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Incumbent School Board member faces opponents who want more fiscal restraint

Nathaniel Herz

Pat Higgins has served two terms on the Anchorage School Board, and now voters will get to decide in Tuesday's election: Should he get three more years? Or is it time for a change?

Higgins, a 61-year-old human resources professional with three young grandchildren, says he has a long record of accomplishments, and wants to push through more changes.

He faces two challengers, both of whom say that the School District needs more rigorous financial oversight.

One, Dean Williams, 55, says the district has a "spending problem," and he was spurred to run when he learned that Higgins had been calling into School Board meetings from a job in the Marshall Islands.

The other, Liz Ross, 34, says the district's budget is "out of control," and she wants money directed toward programs that she says parents are demanding, like Montessori, charter and immersion schools.

Higgins, the incumbent, has raised more than $16,000 for his re-election campaign -- far more than his opponents -- with several thousand dollars coming from unions.

He cites the district's recently rising graduation rate as evidence of his effectiveness, and attributes the trend to "several issues," one of which he said was more emphasis he placed on determining what caused students to drop out.

He also touted improvements in purchasing policies stemming from a review conducted at the direction of a committee Higgins chaired, which saved the School District more than $300,000 between 2012 and 2013.

Higgins said that recent cuts by the district -- which is awaiting Assembly approval of a $750 million budget that would eliminate 200 jobs, most of which were teaching positions -- are hurting classrooms. Higgins said more education money needs to come from the state, which has not increased the amount of money it pays districts on a per-pupil basis for the last three years.

"We just don't have anything else to cut," he said. "If we want to keep the education costs down, we can. But are we willing to go down to 63 percent graduation rate? Or do we want 90?"

Williams, who's retired after a three-decade career in juvenile justice, said that, in fact, the district may still need some "right-sizing." But he also believes the state needs to boost education funding.

The district is currently in a "dilemma," Williams said, brought on by several factors such as an oversupply of space, and jobs that the district created that were originally funded with grants that have since dried up.

Some schools, Williams noted, are only at 70 percent to 80 percent occupancy and may have to be consolidated.

"It is a difficult conversation to have but it is a needed conversation to have," he said. "My goal in this entire effort has been to convince people this is a better conversation to have now than what the alternatives are going to be later. The wave is still coming, in terms of financial trouble."

Williams is a former superintendent of Anchorage's youth detention and treatment center, and he said some of his work in the juvenile justice field helped drive the increase in the graduation rate that Higgins takes credit for.

Williams also criticized Higgins' 11-month stint in the Marshall Islands, during which he was working for Chugach Alaska Corp. at a U.S. missile defense test site and phoned into meetings, occasionally returning to Anchorage.

"I would not expect to be re-elected if I did that," Williams said.

Higgins said that the issue had been "politically generated," and added he had not missed a single School Board meeting. (The School District could not immediately confirm Higgins' attendance records Friday but a 2012 Daily News story two months into his Marshall Islands job found he had either called in to every meeting that year or been present in person.)

"It was a distraction for the board, and for that, I'm sorry," Higgins said. But, he added, "I responded to everything coming in. I was more knowledgeable than other people on the board. I still continued to lead on so many issues."

Ross, the third candidate, said she's running not because of who her opponents are but because she has two young children entering the school system -- the oldest of whom will start kindergarten at Alpenglow Elementary in Eagle River in the fall, Ross said.

She works part-time doing emergency management for the National Guard, and said she worked for 10 years in emergency response planning for the Defense Department. That experience with planning and budgeting would be useful on the School Board, she said.

While Ross agrees that schools needs more funding from the state, she said the district could also make improvements without spending any more money -- mainly by adding more alternative programs like Montessori, charter and immersion schools.

"We have thousands of kids on the waiting lists," she said. "If you have 25 kids in an immersion class versus 25 kids in a regular class, it's still the same number of kids. So it's going to cost the same amount to educate them. Parents are looking for options."

Ross also said that the district spends "a lot of money on places that don't need to be spent."

She suggested the district could contract out its facility maintenance -- something that's already done on a limited basis, according to the district's chief operating officer, Mike Abbott.

And she also said that the budget for police officers who work in schools should be covered entirely by the city, rather than split between the city and the School District.

As for her opponents?

"I think we're all dedicated to the cause," she said. "The reason I think I stand out is because I'm different, and I want a change."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com