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Four run for two city seats

Meet the Candidates

Posted: September 11, 2013 - 5:05pm
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Homer City Council candidates  Photos provided
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Homer City Council candidates

Lower Kenai Peninsula voters won’t have national or state elections to worry about this fall. When we go to the polls on Oct. 1, this time around, as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local.

In the city of Homer election, a slate of four candidates run for two 3-year seats. There also is an initiative asking voters if they want to repeal a plastic bag ban.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough ballot includes four propositions that ask voters to weigh in on property tax exemption, educational capital improvement general obligation bonds and a two-part question on term limits.

Specific to the southern peninsula is an uncontested race for the school board seat representing District 9. 

There also are several service area board seats.

Incumbent council member Bryan Zak is running for re-election to a third term on the Homer City Council. Council member James Dolma, appointed to fill the remainder of former council member Beth Wythe’s seat after she was elected mayor in 2012, has 

chosen not to run for election. With his daughter, Katherine, graduating from high school this year, Dolma said he wanted to spend more time with her before she goes off to college. He and his wife Brenda also want to travel with Katherine next summer.

“I didn’t think I could give the time for it,” Dolma said of serving on the council.

Also running for the council seats are Corbin Arno, Justin Arnold and Gus VanDyke. The top two vote-getters win the election. Arnold also spearheaded the initiative to repeal the plastic bag ban. All are small business owners or managers and political newcomers. 

Homer Voice for Business, a recent business advocacy group formed during the council debate on changing the water-sewer fee rates, has endorsed Arno and VanDyke in the election.

Homer Voice for Business does not intend to give Arno and VanDyke any financial donations or material support, said Josh Garvey, chief financial officer for Land’s End Holdings and a spokesperson for Homer Voice for Business.

“For this campaign, we’ve just encouraged individual members to give directly,” Garvey said. “All we’re doing is endorsing those two candidates.”

If that’s the case, Homer Voice for Business hasn’t done anything that would trigger a registration requirement under Alaska Public Offices Commission laws, said Thomas Lucas, an APOC attorney. If the group offered support such as putting ads in the paper, paying for radio spots or putting up signs, it would have to register before spending any funds. 

“If the endorsement is merely internal amongst their membership, a registration requirement would not be triggered,” Lucas wrote in an e-mail.

Garvey said Homer Voice for Business endorsed Arno and VanDyke because they wanted to see some new faces on the council.

“Bryan Zak is certainly a wonderful guy. These two were the highest we wanted to support,” Garvey said. “Bryan has done a wonderful job in there being a solo representative of business.”

Homer Voice for Business has not taken a position on the plastic bag ban repeal.

Council member Beau Burgess questioned the non-endorsement of Zak by Homer Voice for Business.

“I find it very interesting that after his continued, relentless support of their causes and interests almost across the board, Homer Voice for Business chose not to endorse Mr. Zak,” Burgess said.

Also on the Homer ballot is an initiative to repeal the plastic bag ban. In an ordinance passed last year and effective this year, the city council banned retail stores from providing onion-skin thin plastic shopping bags, commonly called T-shirt bags. Stores could use up inventories, but could not buy new supplies. 

The plastic bag ban does not apply to bags used for produce, meat, spices, dry goods, nails and other items. Stores also can give away thicker plastic bags. A “yes” vote would repeal the ordinance and a “no” vote keep the ordinance.

Incumbent school board member Sunni Hilts is running unopposed for District 9, which represents Chapman, Kachemak Selo, McNeil Canyon, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Razdolna, Susan. B. English and Voznesenka schools.

Since first being elected in 2003, Hilts has been a champion of “children first,” keeping the emphasis on the district’s young people.

“That means having the climate and culture of our schools one that makes children want to learn, want to be there,” said Hilts. “It means that children that may not have all the support they need at home are safe, are fed, are comfortable with the schools they’re going to. And it means that we fight for the funding, we fight for the resources we need for the school district.”  

If passed, the first of four borough propositions would increase the residential real property tax exemption from $20,000 to $50,000. 

Proposition 2 asks voters if the borough shall borrow up to $23 million through the issuance of general obligation bonds to be used for a new Homer High School field and roof replacements at schools across the district, including Homer Middle School, Paul Banks Elementary School and Ninilchik School.

The third proposition is a two-parter. Part A, if passed, would repeal the two-term limit for assembly members. If voters favor repealing that limit, Part B provides for an increase from two to three consecutive terms.

The borough ballot also includes seats on the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area Board, Seldovia Recreational Service Area Board, Kachemak Emergency Service Area Board and the South Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board.

City and borough voters wanting to vote early can do so starting next Monday at the Clerk’s Office, Homer City Hall. Absentee voting in person is 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday through Sept. 30. 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.


Vote: Oct. 1

• Beginning Sept. 16: Absentee voting at Homer City Hall, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday.

• Oct. 1: Municipal Election; polling sites open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. See borough.kenai.ak.us for a list of locations.


Learn More:

Sept. 18: Homer City Council candidates on KBBI’s Coffee Table, 9-10 a.m.

Sept. 19: Homer City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board Q&A, overview of one city ballot initiative and three borough ballot propositions, Homer News.

Sept. 24: Homer City Council candidate forum sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, facilitated by KBBI News Director Aaron Selbig, 5:30 p.m., Kachemak Community Center; email questions for the candidates to membership@homeralaska.org. 

Sept. 25: Overview of election issues, ballot measures  and voting procedures, KBBI’s Coffee Table, 9-10 a.m.

Sept. 26: Homer City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough School board candidate columns, where to vote, Homer News.

Oct. 1: Election. 

 

Profiles of Candidates for homer City Council


Corbin Arno

Age: 32

Occupation: Construction, excavator, Arno’s Construction

Spouse: Chelsey, three children

Alaska resident: Lifelong, born and raised in Homer

Education: “School of life” 

Political and governmental experience: None

Business and professional positions: None

Service organization memberships: Snomads, organizing 120 snowmachine races; Homer Voice for Business, Cub Scout leader

Contact: 299-0015 or corbinwaynearno@gmail.com

 

Arno: Wants ‘to be voice for the people’

With Gus VanDyke, Corbin Arno is one of two candidates backed by Homer Voice for Business for Homer City Council. Arno said he’s running for Homer City Council because he feels the current council doesn’t listen to citizens and is unfriendly to business.

“None of them are listening to what people are saying,” Arno said. “Instead of complaining about what’s going on in the city, I’m going to do something about it.”

Arno, 32, is a second-generation Alaskan, the grandson of Pastor Ray Arno, founder of Alaska Bible Institute in Homer. He was born and raised in Homer and attended Christian Community School before getting a general equivalency high school diploma. He said he graduated from “the school of life.” 

At age 13 he started learning to run heavy equipment with his father, Mike Arno, and now helps run the family excavating business, Arno’s Construction. He’s been working 12-hour days this summer on projects like the Kachemak Emergency Services Diamond Ridge Fire Station, the Crittenden Drive and Waddell Street paving, and the downtown and Spit bathrooms.

“I’m not going to complain too much,” he said of this year’s heavy construction schedule. “Some years you don’t work enough.”

That work experience shows in his viewpoint, Arno said.

“I know what hard work produces,” he said. “A job worth doing is a job worth doing right. That’s kind of how I got at life. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. That’s the way I’m looking at this city council seat.”

One of the problems Arno sees with city government is waste and unsustainable spending. He cited the $950,000 bathroom projects as an example. Steiner’s North Star Construction is building two bathrooms on Pioneer Avenue and two on the Homer Spit using cruise ship passenger tax revenues.

“A million dollars for four bathrooms is, I think, insane,” Arno said.

One issue is how the city will maintain the bathrooms, he said.

“What they’re not thinking about is the maintenance costs,” Arno said. “You can’t tell me you’re not going to have people sleeping in those things, have graffiti on them.”

He also objected to proposed capital improvement projects like a new public safety facility and a shooting range.

“They don’t have enough money to hire somebody, and yet they want to build a $15 million police station and fire station?” he said.

The city of Homer has imposed regulations on businesses and citizens that create an unfriendly business climate, he said. He cited the sign ordinance, the Bridge Creek watershed zoning and the plastic bag ban as examples.

“It’s going out of control. We’re not California. We don’t want to be like California,” Arno said. “Keep California rules in California. That’s what I see here.”

Homer needs to be friendlier to businesses and keep taxes down, Arno said.

“You’re taxed upon taxed upon taxed. It’s insane. You’re taking more and more dollars out of people’s paychecks,” he said. “My goal for Homer is for it to be an affordable and prosperous place. It’s becoming unaffordable. With government limitations, it’s becoming harder and harder to do business.”

Homer does have a strong community that’s willing to pull together for each other, he said. The Homer Playground Project at Karen Hornaday Park is a good example.

“The community pulled together as a whole,” he said. “That’s what I see this town as. I don’t think the government needs to step in and do that.”

His work and business experience would help him give an insight on what it takes to be prosperous in Homer, Arno said. If he and VanDyke get elected, they can bring that business experience to the council, he said.

“It will be beneficial for us in making decisions on what goes on there,” Arno said. “I’m here to be a voice of the people. I’m going to listen and I’m going to act upon what people say,” Arno said.

Arno admitted to two prior criminal convictions, for driving under the influence charges in 2006 and 2011. Fortunately, no one was injured in those incidents, and he’s learned from the convictions, he said.

“It took two to do the wake-up call,” Arno said. “I’m trying to keep myself on the straight and narrow.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

 

Justin T. Arnold

Age: 28

Occupation: Commercial fisherman, owner F/V Just In Time; contractor and carpenter; rental property owner

Spouse: Unmarried

Alaska resident: Lifelong, born and raised in Homer

Education: one semester, Emory Riddle Aeronautical University

Political and governmental experience: Organized and successfully filed petition to place on the ballot an initiative to repeal the Homer plastic bag ban

Business and professional positions: None

Service organization memberships: Homer Elks Club, National Rifle Association

Contact: 907-244-1933 or  f.v_just_in_time@hotmail.com

 

Arnold: Learned ropes in initiative drive

Political newcomer Justin Arnold is waging two political campaigns this election: running for one of two seats on the Homer City Council and supporting an initiative to repeal a ban on thin plastic shopping bags. That initiative is how Arnold, 28, got into Homer politics.

Fed up with the plastic bag ban, Arnold spearheaded the effort to collect signatures to put the repeal initiative on the October ballot. He admitted to initially being ignorant of the city repeal process. When he wanted to learn about doing so, he Googled it. To find out the rules, he also read the entire Alaska Constitution.

“That’s how I got it,” he said. “I read the whole thing.”

Arnold wrote up an initiative, consulted with City Clerk Jo Johnson on the process and wording, enlisted people to collect signatures and got the bag ban repeal on the ballot. He called the initiative process “the purest form of democracy.”

“‘I don’t believe in this,’” he said is how the process starts. “‘Do you want to sign on and we’ll vote on it, too?’ There is no purer form than that. It should be utilized more.”

Arnold said he eventually might have gotten into politics, but it was the bag ban that pushed him to it.

“The government telling us which one we have to use like a nanny. I have a problem with that,” he said. “I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, that made me think I need to stand up for others’ voices to be heard.”

Born and raised in Homer and Anchor Point, Arnold graduated from Homer High School in 2003. He said he traces his Alaska roots back to the early families of Ninilchik. His parents are Julie Swisher, a city worker, and Lloyd Moore, a former Homer Advisory Planning Commissioner who also served on the Water-Sewer Rate Task Force. He credits his grandmother, Snooks Moore, with inspiring him to be politically active.

“She was very politically active in her day,” he said. “If you want to complain, you’d better stand up for what you believe,” he said she would tell him.

Arnold was reluctant to talk much about his family ties, saying lots of people lean on their family connections and that’s something he doesn’t want to do. That independence runs through his experience. He’s been self-employed since age 18, when he bought his commercial fishing boat, the F/V Just In Time, a boat he saved money to buy and rebuilt. By 22 he was fishing on his own. He now fishes the Bristol Bay red salmon fishery.

Off season, Arnold has a small, one-man construction company. He also owns a triplex and lives in one unit while renting out the other two units.

After high school, Arnold took one semester at Emory Riddle Aeronautical University in Anchorage, but quit when he said he realized he’d make more money commercial fishing. His favorite class in college was economics.

“It was just as easy to learn through self-education as conventional educational experience,” Arnold said. Holding up his iPhone, he added, “We have all the information in the entire human race in our hand. Sometimes what we use it for is kind of funny.”

His opposition to the plastic bag ban comes from a libertarian leaning political philosophy, although he said he hates the label “libertarian” because it’s become misconstrued. On his voter registration he is undeclared.

“I like to say I’m so far right I’m left,” he said. “They all want the same thing: stay out of my business. I think it’s a philosophy we all can relate to. It’s seems to be a philosophy lost at all levels of our government.”

While collecting signatures for the bag ban repeal, Arnold said he talked to probably a thousand people. If people didn’t want to sign the initiative, he’d ask them why. A lot of people supported the bag ban repeal and some encouraged him to run for council.

“They literally were saying ‘thank you,’” he said. “In the high double digits they were saying, ‘Are you interested in running?’”

Arnold said he thinks he has an inquisitive mind that would serve him well in politics.

“I spend a lot of time trying to learn new things and do new things,” he said. “Puzzles, figuring it out. I have to know. That’s my strength in life. For politics, that works well.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

 

 

Gus Van Dyke

Age: 60

Occupation: Mechanic and owner of Scrugg’s Automotive

Spouse: Neline; five children from two marriages

Alaska resident: 21 years

Education: Two years college

Political and governmental experience: None 

Business and professional positions: None

Service organization memberships: Kachemak Bay Lions, Fish and Game Advisory Committee, South Peninsula Sportsmen’s Association

Contact: gusvandyke@yahoo.com


VanDyke: Promises to be different voice 

Like fellow Homer Voice for Business member and Homer City Council candidate Corbin Arno, Gus VanDyke has received the group’s endorsement in the Homer City Council race. Owner of Scruggs Automotive, VanDyke said that if he’s elected he’ll use his business experience on the council.

“The city will die if it doesn’t have good business principles. I think it’s trying to grow too fast, too soon,” VanDyke said. “I think it’s time they have some voices in there that are the opposite of what you hear.”

VanDyke, 60, grew up in a farming family in Forest Grove, Ore.

“I remember being out in the fields plowing when I was 8,” he said. “It was one of those things. You did what you needed to do.”

After graduating from high school, VanDyke got married and worked at various jobs. He decided to move up to Alaska with his second wife, Neline. They have five children between the two of them, all grown.

“My wife and I vacationed up here in April 1992 and went back to our home. The day we walked back into our jobs, we quit,” he said.

They loaded up a shipping container and moved north.

“Once we got up here, we started exploring the rest of the state,” VanDyke said. “When we came over the hill and looked over Kachemak Bay, we looked at each other and said, ‘I don’t know how, but we’re going to find a way.’”

VanDyke fishes and hunts, as can be seen by two trophy mounts of moose antlers and an elk head on his shop wall. He also served on the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Board.

After working as a salesman for MarkAir and later Evergreen Helicopters, VanDyke met Mike Scruggs, owner of Scruggs Automotive. Scruggs offered him a job as manager. 

Eventually VanDyke bought the business from Scruggs.

“I run this place, I don’t want to say mean-and-lean, I run it so my employees are well taken care of,” VanDyke said.

The city council needs people like him who understand how to meet a payroll, balance a budget and pay the bills, he said.

“I just felt that it was time we had a different voice on the council,” VanDyke said. “Everything that I could see coming out of the council — I didn’t see real sound business decisions being made.”

For example, VanDyke cited the water-sewer rates, the plastic bag ban and the sign ordinance as bad council decisions.

“So many things have come out of the council, I can’t figure out how did that ever come out and how did they ever pass it?” he said.

Another decision VanDyke said he didn’t understand was putting into the Port and Harbor enterprise fund the $576,000 in port tariff fees paid by the jack-up rig Endeavour-Spirit of Independence during its stay in Homer. 

Under city code, all revenues from port tariff fees go into the maintenance and operation of the harbor. The city council passed an ordinance dedicating those funds to the Port and Harbor Enterprise Fund’s depreciation reserve. 

That money should have been used to fund other departments, VanDyke said. In the water-sewer rate debate, Homer Voice for Business had suggested using that money to offer some rate relief.

“The port’s a great asset and it’s well run, and I think they have some good people running the port, but I think if they’ve got one asset that’s doing a great job and sustaining itself, it should be run like a business,” VanDyke said. “That money should be used wherever it could be used.”

VanDyke also questioned how the city will maintain four new bathrooms being built downtown and on the Spit that cost $950,000 total.

“Where’s the money going to come from to repair or maintain it?” he asked. “The government thinking is, ‘Well, just tax something else. We’ll find the money.’”

He also disagreed with how the city paid for the natural gas distribution line build out. VanDyke, whose business is on seven connected lots on Ocean Drive, will pay about $3,300 a lot. 

“Natural gas for a community like this will be a good thing, because it will bring overall costs down,” he said. “The way they’re paying for the infrastructure is wrong.”

If elected, VanDyke said he would only be one voice and can’t guarantee he could make a difference alone.

“All I can promise is that I’d be a different voice trying to persuade the rest of them this is not the right way to go,” he said.

However, if he and Arno get elected, that’s a start, he said. Two more seats are up for election in 2014, and if more business-minded people get elected, that could begin to make a difference, VanDyke said.

“We might be able to get the city back on track, and make it lean,” he said. “I’m going to need everybody’s help, not just their votes, but in knowing what their opinions are and getting that in front of the council and the commission’s to change the way our city’s run.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.


Bryan Zak

Age: 57

Occupation: Assistant state director, southwest region, Small Business Development Center; U.S. Air Force, retired

Spouse: Karen

Alaska resident: 15 years

Education: Bachelor of arts in business administration, Pepperdine University; master of public administration in counseling, Eastern Washington University

Political and governmental experience: city of Homer council member, 2008-present; city of Homer Planning Commission, 2006-2008; 

Business and professional positions: Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Examiner, 2010-2012; assistant district governor, Rotary District 5010, 2010-2013; Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Board of Directors, 2010-2013

Service organization memberships: Homer United Methodist Church; Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies board of directors; Kachemak Bay Rotary Club; Homer Elks Club; board of directors, Homer Senior Center; American Legion

Contact: 907-223-6681 or bryanzak@aol.com


Zak: Looking for common-sense solutions 

If there were a contest for the most unusual way someone first came to Alaska, incumbent city council member Bryan Zak would win it hands down. 

While many prospective Alaskans first arrive by commercial airplane, ferry and car, Zak, 57, came to Alaska by a B-52 bomber. A retired U.S. Air Force major, Zak visited Alaska in 1984 for a military exercise out of Elmendorf Air Force Base. He had a few days off and drove down to Homer, where he stayed at Gert Seekins’ B&B.

“I fell in love with the view. I went halibut fishing the next day, and that was it,” he said. “I knew I’d always come back to Homer.”

Born in Las Vegas and raised in Redmond, Calif., Zak was an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts. After graduating from Pepperdine University with a bachelor of arts in business administration, he joined the Air Force, serving from 1979 to 1998 as a navigator, electronics warfare officer and defensive systems officer with the Strategic Air Command. He flew on B-52 and later B-1 bombers. He’d always tried to get stationed in Alaska, but the SAC didn’t have bases here. Zak had postings in Texas, Washington, Alabama and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. 

He met his wife, Karen, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. They lived in Reston, Va., before coming to Alaska. Zak had wanted to move to Alaska and when he saw a job he thought Karen might fit, submitted her resume without telling her.

They moved to Anchorage in 1998 and bought a condo there. The Realtor they bought the condo through offered him a job as a property manager for Hoffman Commercial.

While in Anchorage, Zak bought property on the Anchor River near Black Water Bend and later his current home, Alaska Adventure Cabins, at the top of Baycrest Hill. The Zaks live in a home on the property, and have added cabins and land over the past 14 years. His work in property management enabled him to qualify for a Realtor’s license. He owns Zak Realty as well as the cabins, and also works as assistant state director, southwest region, for the Small Business Development Center.

Before being elected in 2008 to fill out a two-year term on the council, Zak served on the Homer Advisory Planning Commission. He was re-elected to a full three-year term in 2010 and now seeks a third term. Zak also ran for mayor in 2012, losing to Mayor Beth Wythe.

On the city council, Zak has often been a lone dissenting vote. In the recent revisions to the water and sewer rates, Zak tried unsuccessfully to create a citizen water-sewer commission. He also tried to introduce proposed amendments suggested by Homer Voice for Business, but those also failed. Ironically, the Homer Voice for Business threw its support to two other candidates, political newcomers Corbin Arno and Gus VanDyke.

Conscious of sometimes being on the outside in votes, Zak said that’s one reason he’s running again: to keep speaking for people who might feel they’re not being listened to, particularly business owners.

“I feel like I do listen to the people who come to the meetings and do take time to express their concerns,” Zak said.

That’s a concern Zak said he has for all citizens — that sometimes they don’t feel the council cares about their interests or truly listens to what they say.

“We have a strong community. I think they’re active,” he said of people. “We’ve got to make sure they stay active and that citizens don’t feel like the council listens to them.”

On the contentious water-sewer rates, Zak said he felt like the burden of the rates fell on the biggest users. The challenge is that the system is relatively small but also expensive.

“There has to be a solution, and the solution has to be not looking at rates,” he said. “It has to be ‘How can we lower costs?’”

Doing so could help everyone, he said.

“I’m taking the sensible approach. It doesn’t have to divide the city every year, the big users and the little users. I think there’s a common-sense solution we can find,” he said. “That’s why I’m running. I think there are common-sense solutions.”

One change Zak would like to see is more involvement by commissions and boards at meetings. The agenda always includes commission reports, but it’s rare a commissioner representative attends and has something to say. Some commissions have council members on them.

“One thing the city council could do a better job of is contacting their committee chairs,” Zak said. “We should be looking to get more public input from our commissions and being aware of what they’re working on.”

Though he’s often alone in his votes, Zak said in general he gets along well with other council members.

“Really, I have nothing negative to say about anything the current city council does,” he said. “They’re working hard. I’m working hard along with them. Sometimes I might step out there and bring alternative ideas.”

Zak admitted to a conviction for disorderly conduct in the Lower 48 for playing music too loud, but has no other criminal convictions.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong @homernews.com.



Profile of Candidate for school board

Sunni Hilts

Age: 76

Occupation: Homemaker

Spouse: Rod

Children: Five children: Della, Robin, David, Peter and Laurel; two grandchildren: Dustin and Darin

Alaska residency: 50 years, 1963 to present

Education: Some college, continuing professional development

Political and governmental experience: Seldovia Planning and Zoning chair, 1998-present; Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board, 2003-present

Business and professional positions: Association of Alaska School Boards, president elect; teacher-substitute, Noatak and Seldovia; owner, Flowers by Sunni — Florist and Arts

Service organization memberships: Seldovia Chamber of Commerce, Seldovia Council on the Arts

Contact: ehhilts@gmail.com


Hilts: Running to keep making a difference

First elected to represent District 9 on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board in 2003, Sunni Hilts is running for re-election “because I still have the opportunity to make a difference,” said the Seldovia resident.

“We have to think bigger than we’ve ever thought before in the school district about the education of our children,” said Hilts. “Education is a big concept.”

What does she mean by that?

“It’s about giving children and young people the tools to be successful in their lives, to contribute to our culture, our economy, our neighborhoods, our state, our world,” said Hilts. “It starts at birth, and the school district’s part is to encourage and make resources available, whatever is needed to get children from the beginning to be familiar with the world around them.”

District 9 is one of the most diverse areas within the district. It includes Chapman School, with grades K-8 in Anchor Point; McNeil Canyon Elementary School with its kindergarten-sixth graders; three schools near the head of Kachemak Bay that have predominantly Russian Old Believer students — Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo schools, all K-12 — Susan B. English, a K-12 school in Seldovia; and the K-12 schools in Port Graham and Nanwalek, with mostly Alaska Native students. Four of the schools — Kachemak Selo, Susan B. English, Port Graham and Nanwalek — are off the road system. 

Hilts laughed about her personal experiences while representing such a diverse area. 

There was the time she was dumped off a four-wheeler and landed in a mud puddle while visiting one out-of-the-way school. There were occasions when she found herself needing to make a call, but in areas without cell phone coverage. With air transportation sometimes the only mode of travel to get from one community to the next, Hilts brags she’s only been weathered out of one meeting in her decade of service, “but I have been weathered out of home dozens of times,” she said.

She recognizes District 9’s wide-ranging differences create challenges when it comes to providing quality education.

“We don’t have economy of scale. We don’t have the ability to come together and collaborate the way we wish we could do. We don’t have the ability to even communicate face to face with different neighborhoods, but what we do have is a strong sense of community in each of those schools,” said Hilts. 

“Yes, we have diversity, but that’s also our strength.”

Rather than bemoan the differences, Hilts said they are cause for celebration.

“We don’t try to make Russian Old Believers into Soldotna High School kind of students. At the same time, we want to make sure (the students) have every opportunity the kids in Kenai have. It’s a balancing act all the time,” she said. 

Part of that balancing act is reflected in what influences are welcomed by District 9 communities.

“In Seldovia, we’re trying to bring in the world, the good things of the world, and yet, like all small places, we’re here because we want to keep a certain identity that is just ours alone,” she said.

Even at McNeil Canyon and Chapman, Hilts said she has seen diverse student bodies and been encouraged by the schools “meeting those challenges head on and doing a great job of it.”

Representing District 9 schools is “an extraordinary opportunity to look at the cultures, look at their strengths, their love of children, the hard work and skills that come in, the solidarity of community,” said Hilts.

Among her accomplishments, Hilts noted continuing to bring attention to children being Alaska’s top propriety.

“I’m also really excited about the fact that I encouraged Russian Old Believer villagers to come out and use their voice and become influential in the school district,” she said. 

Hilts has seen educational opportunities expand for Nanwalek and Port Graham schools, which now offer education through high school, and she pointed to increasing partnerships between the district, Project GRAD and local businesses and organizations to “make more opportunities to enrich our kids.”

“The other thing I’m proud of is getting the Native Youth Leadership program going,” said Hilts of another collaborative effort involving the district, Project GRAD and local communities. 

During the past year Hilts has been president elect of the Association of Alaska School Boards and is in line to become president at AASB’s statewide conference in November. It has offered another venue for her to remind others that “as much as we need to be political, to advocate and sometimes be confrontational about things happening in schools across the nation, the main thing is we have to keep focused on children,” she said.

Of running unopposed, Hilts said she was “totally shocked.” However, she also takes that as a good sign.

“I guess it’s just that (voters) know I’m still passionate about what I’m doing and that I’ll do the vest best I can for every school,” she said.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsy@homernews.com.




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