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Unalaska’s 2022 school board candidates forum

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On this year’s ballot for Unalaska’s Municipal Election, there are two school board seats up for grabs. Bob Cummings is running unopposed for reelection for Seat C and David Gibson is running against incumbent Nicole Bice for Seat D.

KUCB held a live forum for the candidates on Sept. 14. with Cummings and Gibson. Bice was unable to attend due to a work conflict.

Take a listen to this year’s forum above and find the transcription below. You can find more information on the Oct. 4 election here.

The school board forum will rebroadcast over KUCB 89.7 FM on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at noon. The City Council Forum will rebroadcast on Friday, Sept. 23 at noon. Both forums will rebroadcast back-to-back on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 4 p.m.

Starting on Oct. 1 we will run the forums every night at 7 p.m. until Election Day.

TRANSCRIPTION:

CUMMINGS: My name is Bob Cummings. I moved here with my family in 2016. I initially came here to take care of my children. And then little over two and a half years ago started working for the city as the city engineer. I have been on the school board, this is now going to be ending my first term. So it's been about three years on the school board at this point. I've learned a lot during that term. And I feel, I just, I wanted to get on the school board because I think this is a great school district and wanted to contribute to maintaining that degree of excellence within the school district.

KUCB: Great. Thank you. David, same questions, same amount of time.

GIBSON: My name is David Gibson. I originally moved here in 2011, with my wife, Emily Gibson, and we, I came out here as a teacher. I taught at the school district here for eight years as a science teacher, mostly a little bit of math. I did a lot of extracurriculars with the kids as well. In 2019, I resigned my position from teaching and became a full time firefighter for the city for a lot of various reasons. And I just want to stay involved in the school. We have two children out here. Now, my oldest is in preschool. And I just want to take an active part in her education, and kind of echo what Bob said a little bit with the school district in general, I think is really good. I just want to see that continue.

KUCB: Great. Thank you both. So now we're gonna move on to the tough questions. I think something that is on everyone's mind right now is the rising cost of living. That of course includes air travel. This is something that came up in school board meetings a few times last year and it has really only gotten worse over the summer in terms of air travel at least. School officials have many times and over several years discussed the difficulties of keeping teachers on the island and even just for recruiting them. How do you view the issue of teacher retention? And what do you think the district could be doing to better support and recruit teaching staff? David, you go ahead and take this one first.

GIBSON: I just think, in general, there's a national teacher shortage. And so that makes it a challenge right off the bat. And then like I said, cost of living makes it a challenge, as well. So I think getting out early and trying to find teachers is a valuable asset. And then also looking at contracts and cost of living and trying to help find ways for housing opportunities for new teachers that come out here is as important, I think it's going to be a continual challenge, because there's obviously a finite amount of money that the school has and can use. But I think it's important to focus on getting teachers out here, and then communicating with those teachers and figuring out what they need to be able to stay out here as well.

KUCB: Thank you. And, Bob, same question.

CUMMINGS: Yes. Well, I think teacher recruitment in trenches is probably one of the most important issues and challenges that we face as a district, I think the what we probably could be doing is, is working with the city, because the cost of travel affects everyone in this community, I think we should be working with the city and our representatives at the state level to somehow find solutions to make air travel out here more economical, I think that will help with the cost of living for teachers, I think, echoing what David was talking about of finding innovative solutions for teacher housing also is a would be a key component to that. I also recently heard about some districts who can pay for sort of tuition certification for teachers that are already on the island. So if we have interested community members who have an interest in becoming a teacher, they're already living here, why don't we sort of grow our own type program, I think that's one option to look into. And at a fundamental level, you know, there's just this only a certain number of dollars that go around. So we have to advocate with our state legislature to increase funding. Around 75% of our budget goes to teacher salaries and benefits. So it's, it's a huge part of our budget, but that's also critical. The quality of teachers that we put in front of our students every day, has to be one of the most important things that we do as districts, and should be a major focus. So I think, whatever we can do, to recruit and retain high quality teachers is, is very important. Thank you.

KUCB: Similarly, as the cost of living increases, the district anticipates enrollment drops, we're kind of already seeing that. That means less money from the state. The city almost always also gives the maximum amount to the school as well. But the budget continues to get tighter, especially as a ticket off the island nears, you know, $1,000 one-way, utilities costs rise, etc. The list goes on and on. This could mean changes for the district, and its students especially. Tell me, what's to be said about how this is affecting the student body? AndI guess what's to be done about it? David, you're going to start us off again.

GIBSON: I think as far as the student body is concerned, obviously, with smaller classes, there could be a potential to have less student offerings, which I hope we don't have to go down that road. Like I said, I've I've been out here for a long time. And I've seen the changes in enrollment kind of go up and down. And we are on a downward trend right now, unfortunately. Hopefully, that will start to increase again. But, you know, I think we'll have to take a hard look at some of those travel opportunities and things like that. For students. I'm a pretty strong proponent of continuing student travel. As I've traveled with a lot of students out here I think it provides a valuable opportunity for them that they don't get otherwise and so I don't want that to go away. But because of funding, it might have to get diminished some. And then I hope, like I said, we continue to look at how to get more funding to be able to do that. Smaller class sizes isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think that is good to have smaller class sizes. But that also makes it more challenging when it comes to funding teachers as well. And so I think that's a kind of a fine balance that we have to continue to look at with the budget, and what we can do with it.

KUCB: Great, thank you. Go ahead, Bob.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, I mean, I would pretty much agree with everything that David just said, I also think that, you know, that there's, as we have a smaller enrollment, just in general, that becomes a less efficient model to deliver education. And so we are gonna be asked to do less with more. I think the the problem with that as we get smaller, one of the things that you tend to lose versus the extra curricular and the other course offerings, foreign language, etc, those type of expanding course, options, I think. I also wholeheartedly agree that travel is important. And it's a part of a well rounded education. And we have been extremely fortunate in this community that we have such great support from our city council, and from the community in general to really, uh, I think we prioritize student travel to a great degree. And I think that's been excellent. And I hopefully can continue that going forward. I think, again, working with, you know, maybe Raven directly, the city, other partners to try to lower costs for student travel in particular might be one avenue to go. So think, you know, with this coming, internet, our high speed internet, maybe the next six months, it seems like it's on the horizon, I think that also will open up, not the same opportunities, not the same opportunities that travel does, but it will, if we can take advantage of that to expand opportunities for our students in different ways. I think that's an alternative. But I don't think there is any substitute for actual physical travel off the island, which I think we need to find solutions for.

KUCB: Thank you. So part of your job is, as a school board member, is to provide accountability. You are elected to represent and reflect the community's concerns, to an extent. Are there areas within the community, though, that you think could be better represented by our district or board? What are those? And how might you better advocate for the community's needs? Bob, we're going to go back to you.

CUMMINGS: I think, in general, if you’ve ever been to a school board meeting… it is not well attended. And so I think we, we, without engagement from the community, it's it's hard for representation. And so I think we, as a board and a district, need to look for ways to engage the community. I mean, I'm not talking about just coming to the city, I mean, school board meetings, I'm talking about engaging with the school with the district, families, in particular, with the district, and we have to find ways to draw in and engage families, there's been numerous studies that as family engagement increases, student achievement increases as well. So there's a lot of reasons to emphasize this. I think one of the communities probably that is underrepresented in our district are the parents of our ESL students who might not be as comfortable, you know, communicating in English with their teachers and administration. And so I think, finding ways around that, I think having a program where we have some incentives or stipends for teachers to do home visits into these homes to draw in these families to create that sort of personal connection. Maybe translators at student conferences, or translation lines available, some way to sort of make it reduce the barriers for that particular population. But I think in general, I think the district as a whole can do a better job of engaging the community in the school.

KUCB: Thank you. David, go ahead.

GIBSON: I was gonna say I kind of echo pretty much everything that Bob said. Being a former teacher out here as well, those are a lot of things that I saw a lot of challenges that I faced as a teacher — is trying to communicate with a lot of our ESL students, parents. You know, I had a lot of students that spoke fairly well, in English and, and wrote, and then when I would try to call home, mom and dad didn't speak any English. And so that's always a challenge. Because, you know, I've, I've gone through parent teacher conferences where I'm talking to the student, and they're translating to mom or dad, and I think most of our kids out here do a pretty good job of actually translating what I'm saying, or what their teachers are saying. But you never really know until it's hard, and then they aren't necessarily able to, to communicate back with the teachers in the school to let us know how they're feeling. And so I think that it is important. I don't, I guess I don't really have a good answer for how to do that. You know, I think having maybe some adult ESL classes and things like that, to help those families would be something that, you know, that hopefully the school might be able to work with more at UHF and things like that could be an avenue. Like, also, Bob said, you know, there's not a lot of involvement or appears to be involvement in school board meetings and things like that. But something that I asked as a past teacher I did really enjoy was the amount of support that the community gives for the school. And so there's, it's kind of like a two fold thing where there's, it doesn't look like they're super involved, maybe. But I think, overall, the community really is involved with the school and how much support and how much emphasis they put on student education. And so I think that's a good thing. But bringing more parents and and, and trying to have that open dialog, I think is an important task that we have to continue trying to do.

KUCB: Thank you. You're listening to KUCB at 9.7 FM. And if you're just tuning in, we're live here in the studio this afternoon, with two of our three school board candidates, Bob Cummings and David Gibson. Bob is running for reelection unopposed this year. And David is in the running for Seat D. Nicole Bice is also running for Seat D but couldn't make it to today's forum. Don't forget, if you have questions, we have someone on the line, you can give us a call at 581 1888. All right, back to the questions.

Bob, you mentioned in your bio, being a part of the school board during COVID. You talk a little bit about the aftermath the pandemic has sort of left in its wake, things like learning loss. Could you tell me how you think the district should move forward? And how do you suggest the schools address the effects of the pandemic?

CUMMINGS: Well, I think the first thing that we need to do as a district is to assess what those effects are. And I don't think we've done that yet. And so I know that Dr. Swint is working on trying to pull that information together. And so I think, based on that assessment, we can then figure out what areas we need to work on. So I think it's, especially in this time, a key thing to focus on, is really figuring out what happened, because we don't figure out what happened. We can't move forward. I mean, we can but not in a very efficient way.

KUCB: Thank you. And, David, I'll pose the same question to you, how do you think the district should or can move forward? And how do you think they can address the effects of the pandemic?

CUMMINGS: You know, as I don't necessarily think there's much that we can do besides move forward. You know, I think it's, like Bob said, we're there, there has to constantly be some sort of assessment that's going on all the time, not just because of COVID, but just in general to figure out where kids are, and then we have to kind of meet them there. And so because of the pandemic and some students being not, or not being able to learn as much, we might have to have our teachers kind of go backwards a little bit, to meet them. And then just that continual reinforcement with teachers and with parents, and students working together to kind of be able to continue the education. But like Bob said, I think we have to do some assessment to figure out where students are, which is, I think the school does a pretty good job normally of finding out where they are and then working with them. That I'm like, there's not much that we can do, I guess, besides continue to try to work with them, unfortunately, at this point in time.

KUCB: Thank you. So this question comes from I'm a listener, and I think, coming out of some COVID discussion, this might be an appropriate time to address it. They say, “Young people everywhere are experiencing a mental health crisis with very high rates of depression, suicide and self harming behavior. What is the school board's role in addressing the mental health crisis among students?” And Bob, you get to go first again.

CUMMINGS: I mean, I, I guess the school board doesn't have a direct role in addressing individual student mental health situations. But I think as a district, the administration needs to provide support for these children. And as part of this assessment that the school does, we do a culture and climate assessment, I think yearly, which is part of this sort of the social environment that children feel, and how safe they feel in school, which I think leads into some of that behavior. But yeah, working with the resources that we have, excuse me, within the school with our counselors, and support staff, to address that, and that's, you know, part of this assessment of what has happened during the pandemic. And it's not just student achievement, it's also how are they, we, how are the kids doing mentally, we heard a lot of that, during the COVID Advisory Committee about the kids were really struggling. I mean, in mentally through that pandemic, and it's, it's an important factor, if children aren't in the right environment, mentally and physically to learn, there's no learning is not going to occur. So without creating that strong foundation, first, there's really, there's, you can put all the educational strategies in front of them, but it's not going to, you're not going to get anywhere. So they get it's a fundamental part of education, creating a safe and secure learning environment. And, and just as we address, I think the district does a good job. I mean, that's one of the great things about this district is I sort of feel like not to borrow another phrase, but we don't leave any child behind, you know, if there's a child who's struggling district comes together, and really finds ways to support that child. And I, I think, historically, this district has done a good job of that. And that's not just academically, but also mentally as well.

KUCB: Thank you. Go ahead, David.

GIBSON: Yeah, I wouldn't say I think it's, it's important to take in take in what that the mental state of our student body is, and to be able to work with them to different programs, whether it's they need counseling, or whatever it is, because it is a challenge. And I think COVID was a challenge, not just for the school district, but for the community in general. And so I think it's important for everyone to be able to kind of pull together and to have those open dialogues. And I think a lot of that comes through teacher contact with students, and making sure that the students are comfortable, and they come into their classrooms. And that they're, they're able to have open dialogues, have, it could be something kind of outside of the box outside what the school has done before, but maybe have a 15 minute check in period in the mornings, with students or small groups of kids with various teachers that they may or may, that hopefully they feel comfortable with, obviously, but that they can kind of just check in and see how everyone's doing. Because I think that's an important part of education as well. Like Bob said, you know, without feeling safe, and fed, and, and all those things, you're not, you're not going to learn, you know, you have to have those, those first things taken care of. And so I think the school board, per se, isn't going to be able to really do much with that as individuals or as a board. But to be able to support our administration, support our students. And being able to openly talk about how they're feeling, how they're doing, I think it is something that we have to do. I think it was one of my last years of teaching out here. There was a program which, forgive me, I can't remember what it was, the name of it, but it was like a two day event that they brought in and we spent a lot of time in the gym and there's the first day it was pretty hokey. There's a lot of games and things that happened. And then the second day kind of really dove into how people were feeling and past experiences. And it was really interesting to see how I kind of broke everyone down to a rudimentary level of these are the things that are happening in my life, type thing. And like I said, I wish I remember the name of the program. Do you remember what that one was?

CUMMINGS: Megan's promise?

GIBSON: Yeah, yeah. That they came out here. And so it'd be, it'd be interesting to see if we could get things like that in the school more. Because it was super eye opening, especially as a teacher. And I think it was really powerful for the students as well, because the teachers were involved in it. And so I think the students were able to see like, Oh, my, my teacher is a human. And they're not just someone that's lecturing me up in the front of the classroom. And so there was a lot of open dialog that came with that.

KUCB: Great, thank you. I've just got a couple more questions for you. This question also comes from one of our listeners, this person wants to know, “If you think the school's sex education and relationship curriculum gives students the information they need to navigate dating and relationships safely and happily? And they would like you to explain. So David, you're gonna start this one off.

CUMMINGS: I guess I'm gonna be completely honest here. With I don't know what the sex education program is in the school right now. I know when I was teaching it, it's a difficult topic to cover. I think it was covered mostly in the health classes there. There was some that was talked about. But it is a challenge. It's a weird area to go into with kids. I think that it's important for parents to be involved in that. And I think it's, there's obviously some things that teachers should be involved with and talking about as well, as far as the science goes behind what's happening to their bodies and choices and things like that, that they're making. But I think there also has to be, like I said, a lot of parent involvement, and work with teachers and administration to get some of that information to the parents, and then allow parents to feel comfortable talking with their kids. But I definitely think there needs to be some in the school, I don't have a good answer or solution for what that needs to look like. But I think if I'm correct, that's still in the health curriculum for the freshmen that are getting it. It's also age dependent on what you're dealing with and how you're dealing with it. But again, I think that goes back to being able to have those open conversations and open dialogue with students.

KUCB: Thank you.

CUMMINGS: Well, I would also have to say that I am not personally familiar, my kids are in fourth and fifth grade. And so I have not gotten there yet. And as a school board member, you know, we as a school board, we review curriculum, on pretty much a seven year rotating cycle. And even then I was involved as part of the English language arts curriculum review committee for K through four. So as a board, we're sort of that's not our main role is, we don't set curriculum, for example. But I think it's from David's point, I think is really important is that I really encourage parents to reach out to their teachers, and start that dialogue and have a partnership and provide input to their teachers administration as to what they'd like to see your how to present it or any concerns that they might have, I think that's really spot on is to really have that. A partnership. And that's just another perfect example of becoming engaged in school. And working, you know, at the school is, it's a partnership, always and not just in sex ed. But in all subjects. It's really a partnership between the family in the home, and the school district to really do the best for our students. And so I think it applies here as well, and probably more importantly, in this particular subject area.

KUCB: Thank you. I've got a final quick follow up to that question. As you say, the board doesn't set curriculum, but there is some curriculum review. There's some discussion about this at school board meetings. So I'm just wondering, are there places in the school's curriculum specifically that you think may be lacking? What are those and what would you like to see more of maybe? David, you can go ahead and start this one.

GIBSON: Um, you know, I think right now, from my experience with the curriculum is we have a pretty well rounded curriculum. In general, there's always things that we can improve on with education with internet coming, hopefully that can build on some of those things. But yeah, I mean, I think our curriculum right now is pretty good. I think if that there are issues that the community has or parents have with the curriculum, like Bob said, where they do a seven year cycle of that curriculum, we've done cycles before in the past, where it's, we've made changes earlier on, because new developments or things like that, or, or new issues have have arisen that it's important for community members, parents, students to ask for those things. I think the school has always done a really good job of changing with the student body and changing also with new teachers coming in and allowing new programs to be started. Because there's been interest in it. And then those things that have not been well attended, or have lost interest have been kind of moved out, and new things have been brought in. And so I don't think there's necessarily something that we need to strictly focus on and change. But just continually looking at those things and, and asking community members, asking parents, asking students what they want to see, I think it's an important part of that.

KUCB: Thanks. Go ahead, Bob.

CUMMINGS: I mean, I think I've heard I haven't heard directly, but uh, there's been previous discussions about different foreign language offerings, art offerings, AP offerings is sort of areas where I think people will maybe like to see greater opportunities. And, again, this is one of the challenges that we have with declining enrollment and increasing costs and flat state funding is that it's really hard to expand these opportunities. But it would be my goal, that as a district, we can provide opportunities that engage every student at their level, and at their interest. I mean, if you have an engaged student, you know, if you can offer, you know, I don't know, there have been sort of some kids taking courses at UAF or UAA, as a way to engage them and provide them opportunities that aren't on island. And I think with the internet, that will only be expanded, but if we can provide opportunities at what they're interested in as a, you know, collateral effect, beyond just that subject matter to all subject matters and increases student achievement across the board for that students. So, I mean, I think there's sort of this buzzword around personalized learning. But I think if that's something that we, I mean, we can strive for is that reaching and finding solutions that can engage our student population, I think that's something that we should strive to do. And we're gonna have to get super creative, and it takes resources to do that. But I think that's what we should strive for, we're not going to be able to accommodate it and offer everything for everyone. That's probably just not possible, but it's something that I think we can strive to do.

KUCB: Thank you. Alright, I think we've covered the bases here. But now I do want to open it up to both of you for your two minute closing statements. And so, Bob, you're gonna start us off.

CUMMINGS: Okay, great, thank you. I don't have anything prepared. But I would first want to say, extreme thank you to this community. In general, they've been super supportive of the district. And that's felt and appreciated. I know we've had some difficult times over the pandemic. And I, I think we had some pretty constructive discussions and I and we, I think, as a community and a school board, and district handled the pandemic relatively well. And that's a testament to our great community that we live in. And thank you to the city council for continuing to support the district at the maximum level that they do every year. And really, we couldn't do this, provide this level of education without that support. And then, beyond that, I just would really encourage parents and community members just to engage with the school in any way you can. If you're a community member who doesn't have a child in school, but there's some opportunity that you think that you could, you know, provide to our students, I would, you know, please talk to administration, talk to some teachers try to see some way that you can get engaged and provide the resources this, we live in an amazing community with such hardworking and diverse industries that there, you just have to think that there's amazing opportunities out there for that our students could benefit from. And so I just yeah, just would really encourage people to, to reach out to the school administration and teachers to become engaged not only to help if they have their own students, but anyone, so thank you.

KUCB: All right. Thank you, David.

GIBSON: So I just want to encourage everyone to go out and vote on October 4. I'm hopeful you vote for me, David Gibson for school board seat D. A strong supporter of education in the Unalaska City School District, I'd bring a vast amount of experience and knowledge to the school board. I have a Bachelors of Science degree in chemistry and a Master's of Arts degree in teaching and education. I was a middle school and high school science teacher at UCSD for eight years from 2011 to 2019. I still hold my state Alaska professional teaching license. During my time working for the school I was involved in numerous extracurricular activities that include athletics and academics such as being a cross country coach and starting a spring Running Club, National Honor Society and tsunami bowl to name a few. Have a good understanding of the ins and outs of being a public school educator. I was the Unalaska Education Association president for several years working with parents, teachers and administrators to better our school. I value the students, academics, as well as extracurriculars. I have a strong ties to Unalaska. My wife and I have chosen to raise our family here in this wonderful community. My wife works for unity as an environmental manager, and I'm currently a firefighter EMT for the Unalaska Fire Department. I have two daughters. My oldest is in her second year of preschool, and our youngest just turned one. I plan on taking an active role in both of their educations and I hope that you let me take an active role in your child's education. Please remember to vote on October 4, and I would greatly appreciate your vote for David Gibson school board.

KUCB: Thank you both so much for joining us today.

CUMMINGS/GIBSON: Thank you for having us. Yes, thank you.

KUCB: Once again, Bob Cummings is running unopposed for reelection for school board Seat C, and David Gibson is in the running for Seat D. Nicole Bice is also running for that seat, but was unable to join our forum today. You'll find all of them on Unalaska's municipal ballot in the October 4 election. You can find out more about how to vote in that election and what else will be on the ballot on our website at kucb.org. And finally, don't forget to tune in to KUCB at 9.7 FM or show up in person to city council chambers on Friday night at six o'clock for our city council candidates forum. This will be the first time in a while I think maybe since 2019 that we've welcomed a live audience to that portion to our website for more information about that as well. I'm Maggie Nelson, and you're listening to KUCB 89.7 FM on Alaska. Thanks for joining us and please stay tuned for your local and marine weather forecasts.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.