18-year-old Mat-Su grad seeks seat on school board that silenced him

A man in a black t-shirt and down vest.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board candidate Ben Kolendo, stands outside the front doors of the Mat-Su Borough School District office building on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Over the last school year, Ben Kolendo’s opportunities to speak during Matanuska-Susitna School Board meetings were severely reduced. But at the first meeting after relinquishing his duties, he stepped up to the podium and said he wants back in. Following six years as a student representative, Kolendo announced he’s running for a seat on the school board.

“I firmly support the rights and freedoms of students and parents. It is not the district’s job to raise our children, but to educate them,” Kolendo said. “Together, we can build a future where our schools provide the highest quality of education while respecting the values and freedoms of our community.”

Kolendo was elected by Mat-Su students three times to represent them on the school board. Last fall, at the beginning of his sixth year, Kolendo found his seat among the audience instead of up on the dais with other board members, without any vote or public explanation of why he was removed from the board.

Friction between Kolendo and board members started in 2023 when the board was deciding how to select members for a citizen’s library advisory committee. Kolendo’s pointed questions about the committee and ongoing contract negotiations with the teacher’s union led the board to change their own policy, removing the title of “board member” from the student position and prohibiting Kolendo from participating in discussions. Kolendo’s only chance to speak was a single report at the beginning of meetings.

A crowd of people wave yellow signs
Members of the audience wave yellow signs in support of student representative Ben Kolendo during a Mat-Su school board meeting on Sept. 6, 2023. (Tim Rockey / Alaska Public Media)

In December, Kolendo and then-Wasilla High School student Quinlen Schachle sued the district, arguing that investigating students who had spoken out against the policy change was a violation of students’ free speech. Now, Kolendo is seeking a role on the very board that kept him from speaking up.

“I thought that sitting on the board as student representative would be enough to make a positive change within our district, but I realized it wasn’t,” Kolendo said. “Now I’m here to actually step in and see how much positive change I can make.”

Kolendo was born and raised in Alaska and graduated from Career Tech High School in Wasilla in May. He plans to study political science and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage starting in the fall. Kolendo would be 19 if elected in November — but he argues he brings more experience to the board than other candidates.

“I think the biggest question that I have been getting with my campaign and will be getting is my age, but when you look at my time in this district, I’ve been doing the job that the school board members have been doing for longer than almost any of the people currently sitting up there,” Kolendo said.

He’s running for the seat representing District 1 in the eastern Mat-Su that encompasses Butte and Sutton, areas which have historically voted for conservative candidates for Assembly and school board. In 2020, 76% of voters at five District 1 precincts voted to reelect former President Donald Trump.

Kolendo is running his campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility, increasing parental rights, and returning to a tradition-based curriculum. He’ll register as an Independent candidate, and believes he can represent both sides of the political spectrum if elected.

“I think this is actually the most interesting district because it has some of the most conservative groups, but also some of the most liberal groups,” Kolendo said. “It’s a really big stance of mine that I want to represent both sides. I believe that our school board should be bipartisan, and it should be crossing each side of the political line to what’s best with students.”

Candidate Ben Kolendo discusses his ideas running for Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board in Palmer on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Kolendo’s opponent, Tom Bergey, was originally elected to the school board in 2018 and won reelection in 2021. Bergey described himself as a supporter of parental rights in education and said on his campaign website that he is “the conservative choice for school board.” Bergey did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. One school board member said they have been advised not to comment on Kolendo due to his lawsuit against the district.

Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, is the youngest Mat-Su lawmaker elected in recent history. Sumner won a seat on the Mat-Su Borough Assembly at 34, and says the Mat-Su is a conservative stronghold.

“You know I think it’s almost difficult to beat an incumbent and especially running to their left in the Mat-Su is probably nearly impossible,” Sumner said.

Kolendo argues he’s not running to the left of Bergey, and feels he may be even more conservative in some areas.

“I actually don’t think we differ very much. I think the biggest thing we might differ on is budgetary spending,” Kolendo said. “I think I’m a little more conservative when it comes to budgetary spending.”

On Wednesday, the board voted to eliminate the Student Advisory Board Representative altogether. The student representative had been a part of the school board for over 40 years. Under the new board policy adopted by a 6-1 vote, the superintendent will select students to report to the board. Kolendo feels that student voice is vital.

“As soon as adults are saying ‘that’s not how students feel’ or ‘that is how students feel,’ you’re losing the point entirely,” Kolendo said. “With this new district group that will be run by the superintendent and the school board, I believe even though it will be a facade of student voice, you won’t actually be getting it.”

If elected, Kolendo would be the second-youngest municipal elected official in Alaska history, according to the Alaska Municipal League. Ketchikan residents elected 18-year-old Trevor Shaw to their school board in 2013.

The candidate filing period for Mat-Su School Board officially opens in August, and Election Day is Nov. 5.

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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