The Arctic Sounder

Two candidates enter race for House District 40 seat highlighting education needs and public safety

As debates over education funding and resource development continue churning through the state Legislature, two people have filed to run for District 40 in the Alaska House, which includes the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs.

Robyn Niayuq Burke, the president of the North Slope School District Board of Education, filed her letter of intent in March. If elected, she said she wants to support more education funding and sustainable resource development. Kotzebue City Mayor Saima Chase filed in April and is putting an emphasis on public safety and collaboration between state and tribal governments.

Currently, the House District 40 seat is held by Kotzebue Republican Thomas Baker. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed Baker in November to replace independent state Rep. Josiah Patkotak, who resigned after he was elected North Slope Borough mayor.

The deadline for candidates to file is June 1. As of April 17, Baker hasn’t filed to run for the seat, and in response to a reporter’s questions and several other efforts to reach him for this story, he said he didn’t have time to respond.

Robyn Burke

Burke is a lifelong moderate Democrat, and her primary experience and passion lie in education. She was raised by her grandmother, who was an educator, and said she believes that children “are our most important resource. They are our future workforce, lawmakers, teachers and health care workers.”

Originally from Utqiagvik, Burke began working for the North Slope Borough School District in 2010. She has served on the district Board of Education for four years and as the board president for the last two years. She also worked in other administrative positions at the school district and was part of the Iḷisaġvik College Board of Trustees, Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat and other organizations.

In education, Burke said she values securing predictable funding, advancing capital improvement projects, advocating for broadband infrastructure and developing more Iñupiaq language and culture programs. She said schools need a statutory increase to the Base Student Allocation, the state’s per-pupil funding formula, and inflation-proofing to stabilize funding.


“We can no longer ask districts to rely on one-time funding that does not provide the stability necessary to truly address issues within our education systems to support our children,” she said.

Burke decided to run for the seat after Alaska lawmakers failed to override Gov. Dunleavy’s veto of a bipartisan education bill last month. The education bill included a historic $680 increase to the Base Student Allocation — amounting to an additional $175 million in funding for Alaska’s public schools — and funding for the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act, among other provisions. The governor said he vetoed the bill because it did not include his priorities, such as a plan to provide teachers with annual bonuses and a path to increase the number of the state’s charter schools. Alaska lawmakers tried to override the veto but failed by one vote.

On the day of the vote, several Northwest Arctic Borough leaders urged the current House District 40 representative, Baker, to vote to override the veto. He voted to uphold the governor’s decision instead. Baker told the Anchorage Daily News that he understood that the governor was likely to veto the funding from the budget if the veto was overridden. Baker also said he wanted to make sure that the district he represents can receive as much funding as possible.

Burke wrote an op-ed, criticizing Baker’s vote to uphold Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of the education bill.

“Baker’s vote virtually assured deep education cuts that make it improbable to adequately staff our schools or provide basic materials,” Burke said in the op-ed.

[OPINION: A devastating vote for rural schools]

Burke also criticized Baker for not consulting with local leaders before introducing a constitutional amendment to unify subsistence management under the state. In a letter to the House Resources Committee, the Maniilaq Association and NANA Corp. criticized Baker’s proposal because it speaks about residential preference but does not reflect mandatory standards for rural subsistence priority.

“It was bold for a member who was appointed to propose that type of legislation rather than for somebody who might have been elected,” she said. ”I agree with the local leaders. If you’re going to represent a region, then you should consult with the local leaders and, you know, present to them prior to proposing something that would make changes.”

Burke said in her candidate statement that she is running for office because she believes “the constituents of House District 40 deserve representation that prioritizes their needs above the needs of one person, and above party lines.”

When it comes to the economy, Burke said she wants to support sustainable resource development in the district where the revenue often comes from leveraging unique geography — the oilfields on the North Slope and Red Dog Mine in the Northwest Arctic. She said she has been a supporter of the Willow project but wants to listen more to the concerns people have about the proposed Ambler road.

“An overwhelming majority of the residents in HD40 rely on subsistence hunting on our lands, rivers and oceans to sustain our physical and cultural well-being as a link to our ancestors and traditions,” she said. “We recognize that in order to increase infrastructure and revenues that our communities heavily rely upon, we must support resource development while respecting the knowledge and culture of our people.”

After talking with people in the Northwest Arctic, Burke said she understands there is a need for increased public safety in the region. She also wants to work on legislation to address housing shortages in the region, though for now, she doesn’t know what that might look like.

“There’s a huge need for housing, all across the North Slope and I assume in the Northwest Arctic as well. It’s a life, health and safety issue,” she said. “I would be happy to work on some kind of legislation to address it.”

Growing up, Burke said she has spent time in foster care and had family members who had mental illnesses and suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. If elected, she said she wants to work on those issues that have affected her family and many of the residents in the district.

Burke currently lives in Utqiagvik with her son Rowan, 5, and daughter Maevyn, 4.

Saima Chase

As a candidate, Chase brings to the table extensive experience in public safety.

Chase started working as an emergency trauma technician and then as an emergency medical technician 3 in high school. She worked in hospital and administrative settings at Providence Alaska Medical Center and Maniilaq Association, doing project management, AIDS and STD prevention management, sexual assault response team coordination and licensing foster homes.


At the Northwest Arctic Borough, Chase started as the fire chief and was promoted to public safety administrator, overseeing high-level search and rescue operations and fire response. She now works as a tribal emergency manager at the Native Village of Kotzebue and is the Kotzebue city mayor.

Chase said starting at the small local government level has given her a better understanding of policymaking, working with budgets and following code and statute. Her experience also deepened her knowledge of the issues her region faces — such as a lack of law enforcement.

In the Northwest Arctic Borough, Selawik is the only village to have a trooper stationed in the community, working on a rotating two-week-on, two-weeks-off schedule. Troopers respond to calls in the rest of the villages, but help is hours or, during storms, days away. While the Village Public Safety Officer program covers the region, it has been facing recruitment and retention challenges.

While the North Slope Borough has a police department, they also face challenges recruiting local residents to be police officers, Chase said.

“We’re a lawless country,” Chase said about the Northwest Arctic. “It makes for really unhealthy decision-making at the (legislative) level because they don’t see the consequences right away.”

Chase decided to run for office after several residents asked her to put forward her candidacy last fall. If elected, Chase said she wants to advocate for a better distribution of troopers and having more accountability for how the distribution is decided.

She also wants to support filling the open public safety positions locally, which she said is challenging but necessary.

“How do you get the motivation for people to apply to be this public safety figure in their village when they don’t want to be arresting their family members, they don’t want to be confronting their cousins. ... You have to have someone who’s got the mental capacity, who’s got the home support,” she said. “You really have to find that niche of people who want to do things for their communities, small communities, who understand that they’re not going to have somebody as backup right there, within 10 minutes.”


While more funding is often a way to help keep the programs running, Chase said it’s even more important to better support public safety employees — for example, by making VPSO training more manageable.

“I don’t think it’s more funding. I think it’s more support,” Chase said.

More collaboration between state and local government can help address such public safety issues as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis, Chase said. This could mean partnering public safety officers with locals who can better prepare them to hear about people going missing in communities and respond in an empathetic and culturally appropriate manner. It can also mean partnerships between state and tribal governments to engage more people and access more funds.

To address a housing shortage in the district, Chase said it would be helpful to combine programs available to small governments and streamline the process.

Empowering village and tribal governments — as well as individuals who might want to start a support group or a parents’ group — would also be beneficial for addressing mental health needs in the region, Chase said.

“At the village level, they do a really good job taking care of each other. They already do it. You see it with search and rescue. You see it with funerals. You see it with people who are sick, you know, and get sent out, they’ll pull all their money together, they’ll pull resources together and they’ll say, ‘We’re taking care of you,’” Chase said. “But why not do that to people who are having mental issues, having social issues?”

For existing state programs, Chase said it would be important to look more closely at their spending and success rate, analyzing how they’re making a difference at the village level.

Like most people in her region, Chase and her family rely on subsistence, and protecting those resources is important for her. When it comes to resource development, Chase said she strives for a balance between prioritizing wildlife protection and economic opportunities brought by Red Dog Mine and other developments.

After hearing from teachers in her district about insufficient pay, a lack of housing and a shortage of teaching supplies, Chase said she wants better oversight of state funding distribution.

“My question is always like, who’s doing the checks and balances for how much people are getting paid,” she said. “It might not be at the state level that it’s unbalanced. It might be at the administrative level where the school districts are beefing up the programs within the school district but not necessarily looking at the teachers and saying, you know, you deserve to get paid a little bit more because you’re living in a remote community.”

Chase said that her experience in education is not as deep as in public safety, but her strategy on every issue is to surround herself with experts — including Burke.

“We’re kind of working together even though we’re running against each other,” she said. “I feel like that’s the future of leadership. ... It’s not going to be a constant competition. It’s going to be who can better answer these questions.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.