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School Board candidates focus on achievement, funding

On the minds of Anchorage School Board candidates in Tuesday's city election: How to squeeze a higher level of performance out of students without breaking the bank.

One candidate says an answer is getting nonprofit groups to do more. Another says do a major review of the curriculum being taught. Some candidates say school spending needs more scrutiny, and one goes so far as to oppose the $59.1 million school bond proposition that is also on the ballot.

Three of the seven Anchorage School Board seats are up at a time already guaranteed to hold major changes for the school district. Whoever is elected will help determine marching orders for the city's first new superintendent in more than a decade, Jim Browder, who takes over July 1. Plus, the district just adopted new and tougher academic standards for students and now has to follow through.

Six people are running, among them two former teachers and candidates with experience in finance and business.

The available board seats are designated E, F, and G, and two people are competing for each one. All board members are elected citywide. Only one incumbent, oil company accountant and long-term community council activist Kathleen Plunkett, is running for re-election. Two other incumbents, Jeff Friedman and Crystal Kennedy, have served the maximum three, three-year terms and can't run again.

Plunkett's opponent for Seat E is retired middle school math teacher David Nees -- the sole candidate who has come out against the school bonds. Nees says the district is spending too much.

The Seat F contest features another former teacher, Tam Agosti-Gisler, who is executive director of the nonprofit Anchorage School Business Partnerships, and Richard Wanda. Wanda ran for mayor in 2009 and School Board in 2004 but declined in an email to answer Daily News questions such as what he does for a living and what he hopes to accomplish on the School Board.

In the race for Seat G, Starr Marsett, a real estate associate broker, PTA president and volunteer on school district committees, is competing against Natasha von Imhof, a financial analyst, Rasmuson Foundation board member and program director for the Alyeska Mighty Mites downhill ski racing program.


Plunkett has served three years on the board. She said she was successful in getting the district to set up a capital projects fund so the district doesn't have to bond for everything, and she encouraged the district to streamline purchasing so that it takes fewer people to manage it.

An ongoing management and operational audit by the Council for Great City Schools will give the new superintendent information he needs to "reorganize the district to target success for kids," Plunkett said.

She supports the school bonds. "I think they're a good mix," with money for career and technical education as well as safety projects, she said.

Nees opposes the bonds, saying there are leftover bond funds that should be used first.

He is running because of budget concerns and his dislike of Everyday Math, the controversial math program used in most Anchorage elementary schools, Nees said. "I hate it."

He taught math at Hanshew Middle School until he retired last year.

"We have students coming into seventh grade with less and less arithmetic skills," Nees said.


Seat F candidate Agosti-Gisler manages a nonprofit group that has established more than 500 partnerships in which businesses volunteer to help schools. She taught French, social studies and a business partnership class during her 22-year teaching career in Anchorage. She has also been on the city's Budget Advisory Commission, which critiques the school budget.

Besides the management audit now under way, Agosti-Gisler says the district should get an external audit of its entire system. Without such a study, Agosti-Gisler said she doesn't know enough to decide if the state -- the biggest funder of public education in Alaska -- should increase the amount it gives school districts.

She also supports innovation such as a pilot program at West High to extend the school day by adding two periods at the end, Agosti-Gisler said. And she'd like to see a mentorship program that now connects gifted 11th- and 12th-graders to people in different careers extended to all high school students.

The point, she said, is to get the students "re-interested" in school.

Wanda, the second Seat F candidate, said in a public radio and TV interview that he is running because there's an opening. On his website,, he displays envelopes showing he received letters from congressional leaders.


In the third race, both Von Imhof and Marsett say they are concerned with rising costs.

Von Imhof said she wants to re-evaluate fiscal priorities, and she proposes calling on nonprofit groups to take over some social services the district now handles. For example, she said, the district runs a youth symphony for seventh- and eighth-graders that duplicates a community youth symphony. And United Way of Anchorage has started a pilot program at Susitna Elementary and Lake Hood Elementary schools to provide extra help with homework, mentoring or other services to children who need it. That type of program could be expanded, Von Imhof said.

Marsett said she'd like to see a payroll tax like Alaska used to have to as a new source of funding for education.

Marsett disagrees with the notion that nonprofits can be relied on over the long run to take over district services beyond what they're already doing -- nonprofits' funding levels go up and down, she said. Nonprofit groups already donate things like food and clothing, she said.

Von Imhof and Marsett both approve of the district having adopted new standards, known as Common Core State Standards.

Marsett said the district needs to audit its curriculum. The last curricular audit, in 2002, found the district lacking in some areas such as professional development, she said. She believes this audit could result in a significant improvement for students.

Von Imhof said her background -- she manages the Atwood Foundation as well as serving on the Rasmuson Foundation board -- gives her financial expertise and experience thinking creatively.

Marsett brings a long history of involvement in schools to the campaign, both in Anchorage and in North Pole where she used to live. She is Wendler Middle School PTA president, and has been on districtwide committees such as one that reviewed math, and one that advises on special education.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.

School Board Candidates

• Seat E

Kathleen Plunkett, 56

Occupation: accountant for Conoco Phillips Alaska Inc.

Other qualifications: current board member, elected in 2009; former president of Russian Jack Community Council; former chairman, city Parks and Recreation Commission; has served on city Platting Board, Weed and Seed East Anchorage Steering Committee and Neighborworks Anchorage Board

David Nees, 55

Occupation: retired middle school math teacher, Clark and Hanshew; currently part-time ramp supervisor for Delta Global Services

Other qualifications: Soccer, track and field, cross country running, cross country skiing coach; helped design Goldenview Middle School science rooms; has been Cub Scout volunteer and Scoutmaster

• Seat F

Tam Agosti-Gisler, 54

Occupation: executive director, Anchorage School Business Partnership

Other qualifications: 22-year teacher; former member city Budget Advisory Commission; adjunct professor UAA teaching program

Richard Wanda

Job and experience information not available

• Seat G

Starr Marsett, 56

Occupation: real estate associate broker

Other qualifications: chair, school district's Special Education Advisory Council; member, district's Capital Investment Advisory Committee; president, Wendler Middle School PTA; surrogate mother for special education children in state care during school meetings; substitute teacher, three years

Natasha von Imhof, 41

Occupation: financial analyst, Latash Investments

Other qualifications: manages Atwood Foundation; program director, Alyeska Mighty Mites downhill ski racing program; board member, Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Alaska Foundation, advisory board for Homeward Bound; owner of RNV Properties


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