Technically, they’re nonpartisan contests, but recent Mat-Su School Board decisions have focused on politically charged issues, including some familiar to political debates around the country. With two more moderate challengers, the election represents a referendum on the work of the current, mostly conservative school board, in a part of the state seen as a stronghold for right-leaning voters.
The board came under scrutiny for their bans on trans students playing on sports teams and using bathrooms they prefer, a committee hand-picked by the board to review 56 challenged library books and a vote in September to all but remove the board’s own student representative.
Board members had said they made a decision to sideline the student representative during a board retreat that was not open to the public.
It was the lack of public discussion on broader policy changes that prompted Dianne Shibe, a former educator of 20 years and a former teacher’s union president, to run.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Wait, we don’t know why it is that they’re making these changes,’” Shibe said. “If they’re going to have these private committee meetings, then it is incumbent upon them when they are up there on the dais to explain themselves publicly, because there were some sweeping changes that were made that affected the relationship between the employees and the students.”
Shibe is running against Richard “Ole” Larson for the seat that represents District 6, in the Meadow Lakes area north of Wasilla. Larson has been elected five times and received an endorsement from Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Larson did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. In the borough’s voter pamphlet, Larson touted his support of parental rights in education and conservative values.
Ron Johnson, chair of the Republican Party’s District 2, which covers the Mat-Su, voiced his support for Larson.
“Specifically, how myself, my wife, and most of my conservative circles feel about this Mat-Su School Board, we’re quite pleased,” Johnson said. “They’re not perfect, but some of the things that this school board has taken on … they’re statewide issues and getting national prominence.”
Pat Chesbro was a teacher and administrator in the school district for over two decades and ran for U.S. Senate last year as a Democrat. The school board’s recent actions are unprecedented in her nearly 50 years living and working in the area, Chesbro said.
“I’m not sure that I would even call them conservative. I think they have become harmful to people,” Chesbro said. “They don’t even want to discuss things that they don’t want to discuss, and I think that is bad for public policy, and I think it’s bad mentoring for children, because the kids are watching this.”
Sydney Zuyus is another first-time candidate hoping to unseat a politically well-connected conservative incumbent, Kathy McCollum. Zuyus is a graphic designer, marketing strategist and a 2016 graduate of the Mat-Su Borough School District.
Zuyus said she wants to repair the relationship between parents, teachers and the district, and increase transparency for board decisions.
“Nobody else was throwing their hat in the ring,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I can affect positive change here, and I want to be somebody who can help amplify the voices of people who are getting steamrolled.’ So that led me here.”
Zuyus is running in District 3, which represents north Palmer and the Fairview Loop area of Wasilla. Her opponent, McCollum, is a former teacher, current chair of the Mat-Su Republican Women’s Club and chair of the state Republican Party’s District 26.
McCollum has only been on the school board for about a year, after running unopposed in 2022.
She also did not respond to requests for an interview but said in the borough’s voter brochure that she believes in parental rights and fiscal responsibility.
For Shibe and Zuyus, pulling votes away from conservative candidates will be challenging in an area where more than two-thirds of voters cast ballots for former Republican President Donald Trump in 2020, but they’re both hoping that voters are willing to send a message to the school board with their ballots.
In a move not seen recently in the Mat-Su or elsewhere in the state, the Mat-Su Education Association released a poll that showed over 93% of their bargaining unit said they had no confidence in the school board.
MSEA President Vicki Hewitt said members had been asking to take the poll for over a year.
“This was a vote that we felt was important to get everyone’s input on, because this isn’t really a union issue. It’s an educator issue, and it’s a community issue,” Hewitt said. “We feel very much that some of the decisions that are being made are not good for all students, and some of them are even detrimental, like the idea that counselors can only counsel about academic things. You know, there’s too many things going on in kids’ lives that they need to talk to their counselors about.”
This election cycle in the Mat-Su has seen vandalism and destruction of campaign signs.
Shibe’s signs have been spray-painted with vulgar messages. She said more than 200 yard signs and 14 road signs were vandalized or destroyed as of Friday, resulting in about $2,000 worth of damage. Over the weekend, Shibe posted photos of what appeared to be bullet holes shot through her campaign signs.
Zuyus has been the target of vitriolic comments online and said she’s received death threats during the campaign.
Candidates and party officials all denounced the vandalism.
“We, as a party, are not very happy with all of the vandalism going on with signs. Even though most of the vandalism is occurring against some of our opponents, we do not condone that and we do condemn that,” said Johnson, the area’s Republican party chair. “I’ve been involved in local elections now for several years. There is something definitely different about this.”
Polls are open Tuesday in the Mat-Su Borough from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.