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9 questions: Anchorage School Board candidate James Smallwood

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News
  • Updated: March 28, 2020
  • Published March 28, 2020

The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for School Board in the 2020 election to answer a series of issue questions. Many of the questions were based on suggestions from readers. Find all candidates’ responses here. We also asked candidates for Anchorage Assembly a series of questions.

Note: This survey was sent and candidates’ responses were collected in February, before the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus was reported in Alaska.

School Board candidate 2020 James Smallwood. (Photo provided by James Smallwood)

Candidate: James Smallwood

Age: 41

Occupation: Senior account specialist

Why are you running?

As a parent of two children who are part of the Anchorage School District, a community leader, an education advocate, a former school district substitute teacher, a youth pastor and a business owner, I’m running because all kids can succeed when we make education a priority. As a school board member, I believe every decision of the school board should always center around student achievement.

How should the Anchorage School District handle a decrease in state funds for local education?

With the uncertainties of state funding, it is essential to explore nontraditional ways to support our public schools financially. Here are a couple of suggestions: The school district should look in to the possibility of generating new revenues by way of real estate assets. Increasing the school district’s home-school student enrollment would help with raising revenue.

Due to static state funding, the Anchorage School District is looking at ways to lower its budget. What’s your idea for a solution?

There are no secure solutions when the school district is looking at budget cuts. I do not support the reduction of teachers and support staff. I do think lowering the cost of high health claims would give the district significant savings. That would require health care providers to renegotiate service contracts with the Trust.

What should be done to raise the performance of underperforming students and schools?

It is the imperative of the school district not to allow students to be left behind when their attendance begins to suffer. We also need to reemphasize the importance of school district officials following up with students who have developed a consistent pattern of missing school. Numerous factors can contribute to students missing school. When the school district has the power to remove a barrier, they should take an active role in communicating and connecting with families on a more communal level to address these issues.

State your views on school choice/the charter system.

One of the uniquenesses of the school district is that we have public alternative/charter schools. The school district allows all parents the opportunity to participate in a lottery system to enroll their children in a school that would work for their child’s learning. A couple of challenges parents may encounter would be transportation and the possibility of an extensive waiting list to complete their enrollment in the school of their choice. These barriers have caused some hesitations with parents not wanting to take advantage of the district’s alternative/charter schools. I would like to see the school district look for a solution where transportation is a barrier and reevaluate the current structure of the lottery system.

Do you think the school district’s sex education should include instruction on practicing safe sex, or should it be abstinence-based? Please explain your answer.

According to the 2018 federal Centers for Disease Control report, Alaska has been consistently one of the highest-ranking states with the amount of STD cases. It could be seen as negligent for the school district to ignore these horrendous but eye-opening reports. I believe that comprehensive sex education, that is, medically accurate, is the way to safely empower our students to make the best decisions regarding their health and relationships.

How should the district improve teacher retention? If your answer requires additional funding, please pose a source for that money.

One of the ways would require the state of Alaska to have a defined-benefits retirement plan for teachers. We should also continue to consider restructuring our retirement tiers so that new teachers can receive post-retirement pension adjustments. It is difficult to retain teachers when their financial future is in question, and they begin having difficulty justifying staying in a position here that does not adequately value the work teachers do. Another way that helps with retaining teachers would be mentoring new teachers and providing a community infrastructure so they feel welcomed and supported. I also frequently talk about community involvement during my campaign that would help our teachers too.

Recently, the school board and Assembly approved a bond to fund upgrades for the Anchorage School District building Aquarian Charter School operates in. Aquarian is the only charter in a school district building, but it was also the first time money for a charter school was placed on the bond. What do you think about that decision?

Aquarian has been in severe need of repairs for quite some time. I do support the bond. However, based on the extraordinary circumstances that have lead Aquarian and the school district to their disagreements, I do believe this issue will need to be revisited. I do expect future changes will happen moving forward so that responsibility is clear to the public.

What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

In addition to subjects that I have already mentioned, these are the issues I would like to focus on once I am on the school board:

• Increasing student reading proficiency should be at the very top of the list for all school board members.

• The school district should look at implementing effective ways to increase student attendance.

• Having an open conversation with students, parents, and teachers regarding the district’s cell-phones-in-the-classroom policy.

• Future planning on adding independent living “adulting” courses in high school.