Maintaining Nonpartisan Local Control

Lon Garrison, AASB Executive Director

October is an important time for most of Alaska’s local governments and school boards because it is when our local elections are held. Back in early 2021, I wrote the following article about the importance of protecting local control through nonpartisan elections. I think it is an appropriate reminder of what is at stake as we go to the polls soon.

Alaska’s model of school governance is most likely one of the purest forms of representative democracy that exists.  Any qualified citizen1 of a municipality, borough, or regional education attendance, no matter their political leanings or affiliations, profession, ethnicity, religion, gender, or level of education, may run for the office of school board member.  The elections are nonpartisan, meaning each school board member’s seat is not aligned with a political affiliation.  There are no recognized political majorities or minorities on school boards.  Thus, any qualified resident1 of the community has the opportunity to be a representative voice for governing the local educational system.  This was the specific intent of the founding legislature and the Alaska Constitution.

At statehood, Alaska had a dual system of education.  Municipalities and boroughs provided a system of public schools, while in the rest of Alaska, the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided education to rural communities and Alaska Native populations.   A statewide system of locally controlled schools was not fully realized until adequate public funds became available to the state due to the North Slope oil resources.  Even then, the development of a state system of education through local governance has been a challenging experience, fraught with a multitude of inequities.  But perhaps one of the best outcomes of our current system is that local leaders and school boards have the opportunity to voice their needs, even if that has meant suing the very system they are a part of to ensure equity of opportunity for every child they are educating.  That struggle continues to this very day.

For more than a decade, we have seen increasing pressure by political forces and state or federal lawmakers to diminish local control of school governance.  There always seems to be this notion that somebody has the one right answer.  The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly demonstrated that that is not the case.  Now more than ever, we know the importance of finding local solutions.  It is not easy work.  The pandemic has shown us there is no one “right answer” for students and families.  But, working at the local level, through local school boards, the chance for finding the several best answers is far more likely.  No one knows your communities and the needs of your students better than you do.

So, this brings me to my point.  In order to maintain and protect local control, school boards have to govern with the mindset that working together as local, nonpartisan citizens in the single pursuit of educating children is the primary objective. Don’t become distracted by the politics of our divisive times.  Maintain the effort and the advocacy to obtain the resources and tools each school needs to educate students.  Be protective and jealous of the local responsibility you carry as a school board member, for if you ever give it up, it will never be regained.  The staff at AASB often reflect upon a phrase that helps us understand our purpose – are we talking about big people problems or little people problems?  It is pretty simple and yet so hard to do sometimes.

“The mission of the Association of Alaska School Boards is to advocate for children and youth by assisting school boards in providing quality public education, focused on student achievement, through effective local governance.”

1AASB Board Bylaw 9210 – An individual with the following qualifications is eligible to be a member of the School Board: 1. is a citizen of the United States; 2. is 18 years of age or older; 3. is a registered voter in the State of Alaska; 4. has been a resident of the school district for 30 days immediately preceding the election (or appointment); and 5. is not disqualified from voting due to: a. conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude, assuming voting rights have not been restored; or b. a court finding of incompetency, unless the disability no longer exists.