Politics take center stage as Anchorage school board race gets underway

An empty conference room
An empty Anchorage School District board room on March 13, 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

A majority of seats — four of seven — on the Anchorage School Board are up for grabs on the municipal ballot this year. Some candidates see it as an opportunity to move the non-partisan body in a more partisan direction.

Following a year of budget turmoil, summer protests over racial injustice, and an ongoing debate about reopening school buildings during the pandemic, school board decision-making power has garnered renewed interest.

In late January, a group of four people announced they would be running for the board together — as a conservative slate, explicitly designed to create a conservative majority on the board. The slate included Judy Eledge, Pierce Blewett, Kim Paulson and Sami Graham.

Judy Eledge, a longtime Alaska educator, is running for a one-year term on the board. Eledge said the idea was for candidates to work together.

“It was a good idea,” Eledge said. “It didn’t last very long, but there were some of us that just were talking about getting together and trying to make a big change on the school board.”

The website for the candidates who formed a conservative slate when running for the school board before (left) and after (right) the filing deadline for municipal elections. The slate fell apart shortly after the Jan. 29, 2021, filing deadline. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The slate quickly fell apart after the filing deadline, with Blewett dropping out of the race and Graham deciding to use separate messaging.

Paulson and Eledge continued to appear on the group’s website together, even after Eledge came under fire for culturally insensitive social media posts. One likened LGBTQ relationships to pedophilia; another said people of color have no self-esteem.

A screenshot of a post from Judy Eledge’s personal Facebook page. The screenshot, among others, was shared across social media as Eledge announced her candidacy for the Anchorage School Board. Eledge claimed responsibility for this post but said others were altered or she did not post them. (Facebook)

Eledge claimed the posts were altered as part of a smear campaign targeting her for being conservative, though admitted to writing one where she is pictured with her husband smiling on an airplane with her mask down.

“Yeah, I wrote a couple. Yeah, I did,” Eledge said. “The majority, no I do (sic) not.”

Eledge said her campaign is still strong and she wants people to focus on her conservative values and priorities. She said the district’s budget is bloated, and parents have lost their voice.

“We don’t make decisions in education because of what teachers, what unions might want,” Eledge said. “We make them on what parents and students want, and what is best for them.”

Eledge’s campaign website lists priorities such as protecting against special interests, including curricula that “indoctrinates” students in social norms. She also says students should have returned to the classroom sooner during the pandemic.

Other candidates don’t want to define themselves in partisan terms.

Kelly Lessens is one of three candidates running against Eledge.

“My neighborhood happens to be one of those purple in Anchorage, if you look at the voters demographics,” Lessens said. “I was totally delighted the other day to put a yard sign in the snowbank in front of friends of ours down the street, who supported conservative candidates in the past, and then I walked a few houses over and I put another yard sign in the front of neighbors who have supported more liberal candidates in the past.”

Lessens wants to direct resources toward student-wellness programs and equity initiatives. She said trust in district leadership needs to be restored both within the district and the community, and described herself as open-minded.

“It is a big task to try to represent such a diverse municipality,” Lessens said. “But I do think that Anchorage voters value independent thinkers, and I think that they value people who are not in a politician’s pocket.”

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School boards in Alaska are policy governance boards: They set policy and the district superintendent is tasked with implementing them. Members are supposed to work together to create those policies, in a mostly non-partisan way.

Former Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau warns against politicization of the school board.

“If you have very politicized school board decision-making, it just causes turmoil no matter what the issue is,” Comeau said. “It just makes it even more personal and more difficult to work through the issues. It becomes too personalized.”

Comeau, who was ASD superintendent for 12 years, said more politically-motivated boards across the country have found themselves micromanaging superintendents rather than allowing them to handle day-to-day operations on their own: Politics end up getting in the way of policy-making.

Lon Garrison is the executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, which advises school boards throughout the state.

Garrison said it’s natural for people to have different perspectives, especially in a district as large and diverse as Anchorage. Voters should think about who they want to represent them, and who can work together to make the best decisions for the community.

“The important thing is, do you elect school board members that are really thinking about the education of students in your community? What’s the most important piece of that?” Garrison said. “Focus on students, and not necessarily on politics.”

The school board race is just getting started. Municipal Election Day is April 6. Voters will start receiving their mail-in ballots March 15.

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