Three school board seats are on Wrangell’s October 4 municipal ballot this year. It’s an uncontested race with only three candidates running for the three seats. One candidate is an incumbent, having served two terms already. The other two are newcomers.
KSTK’s Sage Smiley held a forum with the candidates – current school board president David Wilson and residents Esther Ashton and Elizabeth Roundtree – to ask what motivates them to run for office and how they believe the school board can help solve the district’s biggest issues.
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the school board candidates – Elizabeth Roundtree – was unable to attend the initial forum. She was interviewed at a later date and asked the same questions, and her recorded answers were included in the forum.
KSTK (Sage Smiley): Thank you so much for taking some time to do a school board candidate forum with me today. I’m hoping we can start out with you just introducing yourself, and maybe what experience you have in any local government positions, whatever those might be.
ESTHER ASHTON: Hi, my name is Esther Ashton. My Tlingit name is Aaltséen. I am the Tribal Administrator for the Wrangell Cooperative Association. I’m happy to be running for school board – I am currently serving with the school as the chair of the Indian Education Committee and had served on parent committees before that.
ELIZABETH ROUNDTREE: My name is Elizabeth Roundtree, I’m a mother of two girls, a sixth-grader and a fifth-grader. We have lived in Wrangell for five years now. And I am also the local girl scout leader. And I am on the Wrangell Chamber [of Commerce] board as well. And I work at IGA in the office, so that’s where you find me.
DAVID WILSON: My name is David Wilson, I have been serving on the school board now for five years, going into my sixth year. I have served on the Parks and Rec board for two terms in the past, been on the Little League board, coached here locally, worked with a lot of kids, in a lot of different capacities in our community as well as been involved in other community positions. I love the kids, I love our community, and I just like giving back. I’m originally from the Chicago area, but we’ve been here in Wrangell now for 20– this is our 23rd year. Before we moved here, my wife and I hadn’t lived any place for more than four or five years, so that we’re here for 23 years must mean that we love it.
KSTK: Definitely. So what motivates you to run for school board? What was it that made you say, ‘All right, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’ And then Mr. Wilson, what made you want to run for re-election?
ROUNDTREE: I just am very – I’m one of those moms that’s very into my kids’ education. So being on the school board, to me, is a great idea just to stay on top of what the school is offering my kids and the other children in the community all around, like in all the different categories. I’m just that mom that checks PowerSchool daily, maybe five, six times a day, because I’m a little overbearing.
ASHTON: So I have a daughter in the eighth grade and a son in the 12th grade, which I really just can’t believe I have a senior. But to some extent I had been involved in the schools and just wanted to deepen that involvement, and our youth are just so important. They’re really our future. So to be able to come and serve in this capacity seemed like a next step to me. I also wanted to be able to strengthen the collaboration between the Tribe and the school system. We have wonderful collaborative relationships with the city and the Forest Service, and want to strengthen that collaboration with the schools. Right now there are so many pots of funding out there that the Tribe has access to that potentially the schools might not have access to. So having some partnerships there to help get some more resources into the schools. We received some funding to replace all the street signs with street signs that are in English and in Tlingit, and our hope is that we’re able to partner with the school shop and purchase equipment so that the students can learn how to make DOT-specified street signs, and it will be an opportunity for students to come in and potentially learn a new trade, there could be potential for new business in town. And all that funding and equipment can be retained by the school system. So that partnership and collaboration is one that we’re looking at, but I’m really excited about the potential there. The other one is we got money to carve the first totem in Wrangell in 38 years, and so we’re also going to be collaborating with the high school shop on that so that the students can come down, they can learn traditional carving methods, and we – I talked with the principal about getting the elementary school and the middle school students there so that they can see the whole process of carving the totem so it can be an educational experience for the entire school system to see the whole process. And then obviously, involvement with the totem raising. So constantly looking at ideas where we can help infuse culture and collaborate with the schools. So I just think that’s so important. So that’s one of the things that we’ve been working on that I wanted to mention.
WILSON: Fantastic. That’s exciting.
ASHTON: I’m so excited about it. I can’t wait to get going with these programs. I would also love to be able to put a little bit more culture in the curriculum. Since we are on the land of the Shtax’héen Kwáan. And there are some opportunities there. Our youth are just really important to me and, and would like to just have more collaboration. I think together, we’re all stronger.
WILSON: As for me, why I want to run for re-election is, as I said, I’ve been on the board for five years. There’s many things that I think that we’ve started that I want to continue. We have a new administration this year, all new: two new principals, we’d gotten a new superintendent last year. I am just interested in being here as we continue to grow with the new administration. I think we’ve got new goals, we’re going to be working on a new strategic plan soon, and I was part of the last strategic plan, when we planned it five years ago, and I want to continue to see through what I’ve already been a part of as we started it. I think there’s still always going to be room for improvement no matter where we are. I too want to see more growth in partnerships with the community. I was excited when Esther threw in her hat because I saw that as a real opportunity to see that growth with the Tribal partnership, because I think that could be a very strong partnership, and I’m excited about that. So I am grateful that she’s coming on board, and I see that as a real opportunity for our school district, for our schools, for our youth, and for our children. I think it’s going to be great. The funding is an issue, you know, it’s always gonna be an issue, I don’t care where you are, funding is going to be tough in today’s world. So that’s something that we’re always going to be working on. We started last year to really look at our curriculum, this year, we’re going to be looking really hard at the curriculum, and I want to be a part of that. I’m excited about strengthening the curriculum of our district. So I guess a lot of it is that I just want to be a part of what’s been started, and I want to see through as much as I can. That’s why I’m running again.
KSTK: That makes sense. And the end of that answer you gave segues pretty well into what my next question was, about motivating issues, either specific things that you make you want to be involved with the school board, or things that you think that the school board is doing a good job of or should be more involved in, in the school district. I know that it’s a broad place, there’s of course going to be a lot of issues – there’s finances and curriculum and administration and a whole number of other things: sports and travel – and all of this within the umbrella of how COVID has changed everything, especially schooling. But what do you think the school board should be most focusing on as you move forward through this next school year?
WILSON: Okay, well, we’ve got a lot of, as you know, that this last year, we saw a lot of issues with our, with our finances. So I think we were fortunate when Mr. Burr came on board that he found some of our challenges right off, and through the year, he worked very hard with that. We got a new business manager that has worked very, very hard. We now have the [new] financial software that they have started implementing. So I think that the finances are looking better than they have. But that’s still going to be a challenge because the money’s not coming in unless we can find new sources for it. I know we’re going to be looking at more grants. The COVID money that we did get, I don’t see that we’re going to be getting a whole lot more, that that money is going away, that was just short-term funding. So we have funding challenges that we have to address. We did get accredited last year K-12. We’re working on getting our curriculum for K-12. We took steps with that last year. Now we’ve got a lot of follow-up to get it going even further. One of the things that Mr. Burr brought [up] that he came from a district where you could get online, and you could go to the school district site, and you could see what the curriculum was, for the different grades and different classes and such. That’s something that I see as a goal that I would like us to have, so that when people are thinking about moving to Wrangell, and they want to know about our school system, they can get on the school website, and they could see a snapshot of what the curriculum is here, and they could see what positive aspects they are to the school system here so that they would know and feel comfortable moving here for the education of their students, their children. So I think that’s something else that we’re going to be looking at and we’re working on. We’ve been fortunate to be able to retain our teachers that are here for the long-term, we don’t always retain new teachers that come in. And so that’s something else that we’re – as we get new people, we’ve got two new principals, [and] I want to see how we can make them feel at home here and make them feel that this is their home. I want to make this a long-term thing for them, as well as Mr. Burr, that they become a part of our community, not just short snapshot, but become long-term. And those are challenges I see. The school board’s ultimate responsibility is the education of our children. But to do that, we have to have the policy, the funding, and we have to have the curriculum, we have to have the teachers and staff and the programs. And so we’re looking at all that. And we’re going to continue to grow that as much as we can.
ROUNDTREE: So that one to me would be the hiring, the employment. We’re lacking severely – from what I understand – substitutes and paras, which I don’t know why, but it’d be something that I’d be curious to look into and figure out why because it’s really hard to run a school without substitutes and paraprofessionals. They’d first have to figure out why, and then hopefully, be able to address the concerns, or issues, whatever. I don’t know if it’s pay, I don’t know if it’s benefits, I don’t know if it’s the hours. I know I was a para for a year when we first moved here. And it is a lot of work. So it’d be nice to figure out exactly why other people don’t want to do it. For me, it was just that I prefer being in an office doing paperwork. So maybe we’re looking at the wrong audience. I don’t know. But to figure out why and then address it and hopefully be able to bring in people that actually would love to be there with the kids.
ASHTON: Well, first of all, I’d like to just say thank you to Mr. Wilson for the welcoming sentiments, I’m really happy to be running for school board, and that makes me feel really good to hear that welcome. A lot of the same thoughts about what needs to be looked at, the budget are absolutely being one of them. I am in support of Proposition 1, which is the bond for the school systems. I think that, like Mr. Wilson had said, the longevity of the staff, making sure that there’s retention of those new teachers there. I am interested in the curriculum – when I was contacted asking which of the committees I’d be interested in, I said ‘Definitely, I would love to participate in the curriculum committee.’ And yeah, I think that I think that some places that we could look at would be: strengthening communication with the community. and just making sure that that communication is out there on what exactly is happening with the schools. I absolutely love the idea of having the curriculum on the website to encourage those people to come back and prevent out-migration of people as well. And definitely looking at, like I had said, those collaborative relationships I think is going to be really important moving forward in the future.
KSTK: So the last question I usually ask candidates is why someone should vote for you. And in this case, school board candidates are running unopposed. So if you want to answer why someone should vote for you, you can absolutely do that. Or my alternate question is if there’s anything else you would add: other issues that we haven’t spoken about or just some final saying you would want to make about your candidacy for school board.
WILSON: I think I would hope that they would vote for me, because I’ve already shown that for the last five years that I’ve stood by my principles, I’m not just a yes person, I will speak out. I’m not going to just rubber stamp things as we sit in board meetings. I will ask the questions, and sometimes they’re tough questions that we need to ask, but I think that they need to be asked. I make myself available to people in the community. When somebody comes up to me in the community, and they want to ask me questions – I’m just one of five, so I can’t really address a lot of things, but I can listen, and I can make sure that those things are brought to the attention of those that are in the administration so that they can be brought up at to their attention, and then possibly the board meetings. But I feel like I’ve worked very hard. I study the issues, I listen. I am an advocate for our children. I’m an advocate for the teachers and the staff. I’ve been to many trainings up in Anchorage and Juneau, and I have lobbied with the legislature, and have experience in being able to talk with people about the issues that are pressing for us, I’m willing to continue to do that. And I love to be able to serve in this capacity. So I’m asking people to vote for me, because I think I’m trying to do a very good job. And I’m gonna continue to do as good as I can. And I will continue to work as hard as I can. If I could just also say that; I’ve had six children graduate from Wrangell High School, and a foster daughter, and now have – Esther said she can’t believe she has a senior. Well, in that senior class, I’ve got a granddaughter, so I can’t believe I’ve got grandchildren that old yet and I’ve got some grandchildren here in Wrangell that are going through the school system, so we have a lot invested, not just personally, but I know everybody in this town that has children have a lot invested in this community. And everything we can do as a community, working together is what is important for us all, so I want to get as much community involvement as we possibly can. That’s why I will listen. But that’s why we will always do everything we can to reach out. Since I’ve been on the school board, we have worked and worked and worked to get more community involvement, and sending out more surveys, inviting more and more the public to our meetings. When the pandemic hit us, and we started doing Zoom meetings, we thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be really hard.’ But you know, we have had more people start to attend our meetings, because they can do it by Zoom than we had it when we ever had people attending in-person. We do want to get back to in-person meetings, but as we were looking at it this year, we hit another spike. So we’re trying to keep everybody – I mean, we’ve already had so many teachers and staff miss school already this year because of COVID. So we want to do business in-person. We are a community. I have lived here and Wrangell longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. This is home. So I want all of us to work together, and I invite us all to work together, and please I reach out to the community, please become involved with the schools. Reach out as much as you can, volunteer in the schools, do it as much as you can at home with your children. Grandparents: work with your children, your grandchildren, become involved. I would like to make sure that as somebody that’s sitting on board right now that I also put in my plug, that on [September] 28 they are having a Town Hall meeting [6:30 p.m. at the Nolan Center] about the bond issues, and I invite all the community to please come. It’s an important issue here in our community. We need to do as much as we can to support the school system. This bond issue that’s coming up, this is the maintaining of the school buildings. Because the funding has been so tight, it’s been really hard to do some of the maintenance that’s needed, and so it’s really important that we listen hard and pass this bond issue so that we can get the funding we need to make the improvements to the buildings we can we have so that they last and that they’re safe for our children to come to school and meet in.
ROUNDTREE: I’m passionate, especially about my kids and other children in the community. And I have a background in business management, so when it comes to budgetary things, I know numbers. Numbers just click in my head, it just happens. So I’d be really good on the budget committee if I can get placed on that one. But like I said, I’m just really passionate, when I pick something I go overboard.
ASHTON: I would hope that people would vote for me because I have experience with leadership. I’m the Tribal Administrator for the Wrangell Cooperative Association, which is a local Tribal government, and I’m just very passionate about making Wrangell the very best place to live that it can be, and that includes an extremely solid education for our children, which means that we all need to put in that hard work to make sure that that that happens. I feel like I’m accessible, people can come and talk with me. There are many instances under which my passion for the community is evident, through all the relationships and the relationship building that has occurred since 2017 as I’ve served as a Tribal Administrator. And Wrangell is all of our home and we’re just all in this together, so [I’m] just wanting to come in here and provide that service in the best way possible.
KSTK: Perfect. Thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it a lot.
ROUNDTREE: Of course, thank you.
WILSON: Thank you.
ASHTON: Have a good weekend.
Get in touch with KSTK at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 874-2345.