Pat Higgins

Age: 68

Family: Patti Higgins, married 44 years

Occupation: HR Consultant

Previous government experience or community involvement: I served on the Anchorage School Board from 2008 to 2018. I have worked for the Municipality of Anchorage and State of Alaska in Human Resources. I am a member of Abbott Loop Community Council and volunteer as a member of Abbott Loop Community Patrol, former president of Friends of the Library, volunteer with Alaska Girl Scouts and Alaska Special Olympics. My wife and I sponsored the first traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Seeds of Change, and the first visit of a U.S. astronaut to visit Anchorage schools. I am also an active blood donor, over 13 gallons.

Highest level of education: B.S. degree from LSU, master’s courses UA

What is the latest book you’ve read? Or, what book do you recommend and why?:

Boy’s Cry-why boys are failing in schools

Why are you running?

I know what a school board can accomplish and I am frustrated with the current board. I know I can help a new board focus on student success and address serious issues.

I was elected to the Anchorage School Board in 2008 and prior to my election the majority of the board believed their job was to approve whatever the superintendent requested. The graduation rate was in the low 60s (percent) and dropout rate approximately 6 1/2 percent. The board was told that the goal was to make slow and steady improvement. I attended a presentation by 30 third graders and I realized if we didn’t make real change that 12 of the 30 students may not graduate. In 2010, I presented 10 goals that changed ASD. While these goals were not supported by administration, the goals were unanimously approved by the full board. It changed the budget and bond development process to be student outcome focused, replaced everyday math that was opposed by staff, parents and students with a curriculum that improved outcomes, established goals to advance all students a full academic year, expanded Career Technology Education (CTE), and implemented new purchasing policies developed by the board’s audit committee that saves ASD $300,000 to $500,000 per year. For nine straight years, the board cut the administration budget to put more money in classrooms

Today, the board believes their job is to take directions from the superintendent and not the public. A new reading program implement by the administration is contributing to a significant decline in academic outcomes in 2019. The public’s concerns are not being heard by the board and a recent survey of teachers found over 70 percent have little or no trust in the superintendent, and close to half have little or no trust in the board. The board has adopted new policies that do not provide adequate oversight of ASD operations. Serious issues raised to the board by the public are being deferred to the superintendent with no board response. The board needs to re-establish its audit committee, to conduct a comprehensive audit of the curriculum and identify opportunities to improve operations by cutting wasteful administrative expenditures.

What is the role of the school board as it relates to the school superintendent and the operation of the district?

This may be the most important issue in this election. The current school board is following the recommendation of the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), an organization run by superintendents. They believe the board should appoint the superintendent and do whatever the superintendent requests. In 2016 the president of CGCS met with the ASD School Board and stated the board was “unethical” when the board made changes in the budget requested by the superintendent. The board in 2016 strongly disagreed.

A representative of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) also visited ASD to meet with the board. They also strongly disagreed with CGCS. The school board is responsible for hiring the superintendent, enacting policies, adopting budgets, establishing clear and measurable expectations, approving curriculum, auditing ASD operations, and engaging the public. The school board gives strategic voice to what the community wants, provides operational guidance to ASD, and ensures accountability for ASD.

Since 2017, the board adopted new policies that do not provide necessary direction to the superintendent and staff operations. In a recent survey, over 72 percent of staff have little or no trust in the current superintendent, and a principal survey results of the superintendent is also reportedly negative. Survey of trust in the board is also negative.

Do you support public money funding education in public schools? (Yes-No) Why?

I support adequate funding for public education. I do not support public funds for private schools because it violates the Alaska Constitution.

The challenge is determining “adequate funding.” When I was on the school board, I supported a study conducted by Picus Oddum. This study used a methodology used by courts in the Lower 48 to establish adequate funding by other states. It used classroom sizes and reviewed administration costs. Classroom size used in the majority of states puts a maximum of one teacher to 15 students in grades K to 3, and one teacher to 25 students in grades 4 to 12. Based on this study, ASD is underfunded by over $115 million. The school board doesn’t determine how much funds it receives from the state, and the municipality contributes the maximum amount allowed under the law.

Do you have children in Anchorage public schools now? How did they handle pandemic virtual learning? If they attended in the past, how was that experience?

I have three grandchildren in school this year and will have six this fall. They enjoyed the limited amount of virtual learning but missed the interaction with classmates. The amount of time they spent on virtual learning was very limited and I believe their academic growth was also limited.

Can the ASD continue to afford so many different schools of choice? Could these many options be a distraction from the mission of excellence for all students?

Yes, because optional and charter schools are not more expensive compared to neighborhood schools. Many of the optional programs are located in neighborhood schools, and charter schools are provided the same funding per student as other schools. Some of these programs are very successful and they all increase parental involvement — a real plus.

What ideas do you have to incentivize the best and brightest teachers to come to this district and do great work? What ideas do you have to encourage teacher longevity?

This is very difficult. Alaska does not have a defined benefit retirement system compared to the Lower 48 school districts, and the state of Alaska is not addressing this issue. Salaries have been too flat too long and are no longer competitive compared to other states. ASD retention rate from Lower 48 applicants is less than 50 percent during the first five years, but it is higher for UA graduates. One area of opportunity to improve recruitment and retention is to improve the relationship of staff with the superintendent and board. When the majority of teachers and principals have little to no trust in the board and superintendent, it undermines morale. One idea is to have a board that listens and communicates with staff, and really appreciates their critical role in preparing our children for success in life.

National studies indicate closed schools and/or prolonged online learning has not been successful for all. What ideas do you have to recover this learning loss?

Online learning does not replace the teacher in the classroom. Recovering from the impact from extended closure of schools will not be easy. One concern I have is the type of online learning provided to students. ASD should have responded during the pandemic by examining different online options that could have made the transition from home back to school better. Summer school is an option that should be considered if financially possible. In 2010 a study by ASD found elementary students advanced 19 percent academically in summer schools, and a majority of high school students wanted to attend summer school to take additional classes.

How will you reach out to the different community constituencies to hear concerns about their students’ education?

When I was on the board, I regularly attend different community councils and PTA’s. I attended special education advisory committee meetings and the Minority Education Advisory Committee, both attended by interested staff and diverse community members. I visited all schools and different school departments, listening to staff and students. I always responded to emails and telephone calls. I will always remember a very special Hmong community meeting. They said the place they valued most was schools and wanted a couch in the Hmong liaison office. I can’t forget it because my reaction to the very spicy food had everyone laughing!

Given the rich diversity of our school district and community, what is the best approach to equitably meet the needs of all students, regardless of socio-economic differences?

First, we need to establish high goals for all students. Efforts in 2016 to reduce goals to reduce the academic achievement gap was prevented by the board and members of the community. Multiple studies by outside organizations during the past 15 years stated some staff and administrators did not believe all students could learn. We must carefully respond to these concerns. I believe we need to make all students feel welcomed and supported.

Second, we need to do more to reach out to these communities. ASD needs to reestablish the Minority Concerns Advisory Committee to provide feedback for areas of improvement. The chair of this committee should provide regular reports to the board. They had some excellent suggestions in the past.

Third, we need to increase diversity of staff and administrators. A diverse staff of educators and administrators help all students feel welcomed and serve as role models.

What ideas do you have to ensure that English Language Learners and students with disabilities have equal learning opportunities in the Anchorage School District?

ASD has some of the most diverse high schools in the entire country, with East High School the most diverse high school in the country and maybe the world. With approximately 100 different first languages in our schools, ASD’s English Language Learning program (ELL) is an important program. However, students who do not speak English have limited support while they learn a new language. One study presented by the National School Board concluded that ELL students are more successful if they have some class time in their native language while learning English. While ASD cannot provide instructors for 100 different languages, I believe one goal should be to increase the involvement of members in different communities in our classrooms and as tutors.