Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop is set to retire at the end of next month. Bishop spent more than five years presiding over the district during a sometimes-tumultuous period that included a major earthquake, funding challenges and a global pandemic.
The Daily News spoke with her in the final weeks of her tenure, and Bishop reflected on her time leading the largest district in the state and what she hopes for its future after her departure.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ADN: Your time at the Anchorage School District included the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. At times there was hostility in the community around masking, school reopening, all those issues. What would you say were some of the biggest lessons that you learned?
Bishop: I think the best information that we’ve had is how we made our decisions. I regret that we couldn’t get kids back sooner. We should have had our our schools open at the fall of 2020. And they didn’t open up till the January of 2021. They were closed an extra four months.
We did online at home and everything, but that didn’t really serve kids that well. Some kids, it did, because we have a virtual school now that’s highly successful. But for the majority of people and families, it was difficult.
And there were some pretty intense board meetings of testimony of me trying to convince and convince. But I understand people were fearful of their safety that if they go to work, they could put other people in danger. But the young people needed us. And so that was pretty tough time. But I do know that the decisions I made, even though they were controversial, we were keeping them in mind.
[Earlier coverage: Anchorage School District superintendent to retire at end of school year]
ADN: A topic that I know has been a big part of your tenure is state funding for schools. Base Student Allocation has been flat for several years. I’m wondering if you can talk about where the district’s at financially right now.
Bishop: Costs have increased incredibly, just like everywhere else. And (not) inflation-proofing that BSA has not kept up with the real costs.
The fact that education is always thought of last, therein lies the problem. We say, “We want our kids to stay, we want to build our economy, our brightest kids leave,” well, then let’s start paying attention to them and building capacity around Alaska, its economy, what attracts young people.
So we need to put energy and focus into that. And it is experiences at school. It is having courses and classes and opportunities for internships, things like that. And those investments do cost.
People don’t get rich in the education field. There’s not millionaires here. So it really does go toward teaching. And we want the best teachers, and we want the best experiences for our kids. And if you want that, you have to compete for it like in any other sector. And that’s the message, you want to compete for the best, then you need to put our money where our mouth is.
ADN: You have a successor, Jharrett Bryantt. What do you think some of the biggest challenges are going to be for him when he takes over? What advice have you been giving him?
Bishop: We’ve met several times, even before he’s come and he’s here now. I moved out of my office and into an office adjacent, just so that he can start to move in and feel like people can come to him as the superintendent.
I’m introducing him to different nonprofits and different educational partners, different politicians at the state and local level, as well as principals. So I’m kind of making that bridge of introducing him to the people that matter and the partners in our school district.
And he’s a very, very smart guy. He’s Yale-educated — really, really bright.
I was not from Anchorage, and I moved into Anchorage. And it was kind of funny, I was seen as like the outsider. It’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m from Alaska here. I’ve been here for however many years.”
And so just having that experience of, “You really don’t know us because we’re Anchorage. You weren’t from here.” I felt that myself. I believe that he’s going to have that exponentially because he’s not even from the state.
ADN: What sort of advice have you been giving him about that?
Bishop: Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, Dr. Bryantt, it is kind of an Alaskan thing, if you will. And so just ask lots of questions. And don’t believe that you have to have all the answers because you’re the boss, that really sometimes the person that listens is the wisest in the room.
ADN: I wanted to follow up in the most recent city election; the bond proposition failed. What would you tell Anchorage voters about how that failure will impact the district? And what do you think the district is going to do moving forward?
Bishop: All the schools belong to the city. So they belong to all of us, those are our assets. And so I want to let people know there’s over $2 billion in assets that are located in their neighborhoods and my neighborhood.
We have a responsibility to take care of those assets. And that was the focus of our bond ... of just major maintenance. My recommendation was to not invest in new schools or rebuilding, let’s take care of our assets now — what’s needed in major maintenance to for the longevity of these buildings, just like people have to take care of their homes, and keep it under what we were retiring.
ADN: Could or should the district be doing more to address equity gaps?
Bishop: I would say the highest possible equity we can give is a high-quality teacher. When kids learn, they can get out of the cycle of poverty, and they can get out of the cycle of harm. But I think sometimes, when we think of equity, we think of taking care of all those other things — and they’re important. We feed kids, we transport kids, we do after-school activities, we do early morning babysitting. And we do that to support the family so that kids can learn.
For me, those things aren’t going to matter if we don’t take care of high-quality instruction first, because I can take care of a kid all day. I could be with a babysitter all day and enjoying play and open learning. But unless somebody teaches me something, I’m going to struggle. And so for me, all of those things that we do are to help a child be successful in school. So he or she has a fighting chance in this world.
ADN: Do you feel that district could be doing more going forward to retain high-quality teachers and principals?
Bishop: Oh yeah. We’re competing with every other sector for educated people. When you become a teacher, you have a degree and many of our teachers have a master’s degree. ... Alaska used to be one of the top salaries. While the money still — just dollars to dollars — looks good, when you have inflation and travel and things like that, being away from families, you need to compete a little bit more, and other sectors kind of get that more than we do.
I believe that if we want to compete for the best teachers and the best leaders in the nation, that you have to pay for it. And that kind of goes back to the Legislature about, where do we want our education system?
ADN: What was your proudest moment as a superintendent?
Bishop: I don’t know if it’s the proudest moment, but the best moments are when I’m in schools, like when you actually see kids do something. And when parents are happy for their kids, that’s the best. So nothing that I’ve done.