MINI-SESSION SUMMARY: Advocacy in a Rural Setting

Marie Greene, Northwest Arctic School District

Marie Greene began by pointing out that all board members know that when taking on the responsibility of serving our youth and school children that advocacy is a key part of the job. 

Throughout the years the Northwest Arctic Borough leadership has learned and improved their role in advocating, lobbying and educating State Legislators, the Governor, the administration. We continue to use the same process to influence on policy and governance.

Our region is very fortunate to have the regional organizations work together under the NW Arctic leadership team to serve the population within the school district. The leadership team is made up of the president and the chair of the NANA, Maniilaq, NWAB, and NWABSD boards, as well as the school district superintendent. Together they represent us and address our priorities within the region. She said this process has worked out very well.

Each regional organization determines their priorities for the year, usually no more than three or four. The leadership team then meets to discuss and reach consensus on annual State and Federal priorities for the region. Over the years the leadership team has spent a lot of time advocating in Juneau and in Washington DC. 

At the NWABSD level, the board works with the Superintendent after reviewing updates to the strategic plan, in-region surveys, input from parents, advisory school councils including principals, teachers and students. Bills that have been introduced are reviewed, and pre-session meetings are conducted with lobbyists and political consultants to get a feel for potential critical focus areas that the Governor and state legislators may have for the upcoming legislative session.

In January each year, the board determine their priorities. For this year, the district’s priorities are: 

  • Ensure adequate funding for Alaska’s public education system and public schools.
  • Ensure adequate broadband capacity and affordable internet access to all Alaska students and families.
  • Ensure the preservation of the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund and continue full funding for the PCE. 

The week of February 8, 9 & 10, school board president Margaret Hansen appointed a lobbying committee. The committee held 15-20 minute Zoom meetings with legislators to advocate for the district’s priorities, answer their questions, and invite them to visit our district. It is an advantage to have legislators’ attention even for 15 minutes. It is critical to build relationships with our lawmakers, the Governor, and the Administration, not only to advocate for our priorities, but also to educate them about the communities that we serve and highlighting their challenges.

Ms. Greene gave the example of the coastal village of Kivalina that has struggled  with major erosion challenges, especially after fall storms. After this being a priority over the years, the completion of a bridge and a road to a new location for the school became a reality. The new school site is about eight miles above the coastal village. After many years of building relationships with lawmakers by the regional and local leadership, the new school will be completed in the summer of 2022.

She offered some tips:

It’s real important to stay in touch with legislators throughout the year. One of the things the leadership does in our region, especially during the summer months, is take advantage of the availability of our lawmakers. 

Over the years, the regional leadership have teamed up with their lobbyists to invite lawmakers to visit the region during the summer months for tours of the regional organizations, and traveling to a couple of villages, especially that have major challenges or needs. To give legislators a sense of the culture and the people during visits to villages, we allow local leadership to tell their story and their challenges, especially regarding the high cost of living, water and sewer challenges, and overcrowded schools. 

There is more of an impact when we have local leadership in villages tell their story. We take advantage of that when we invite legislators to our region and travel with them to the villages.  

We may want to consider using Anchorage’s “Legislative Buddy” system in our region to continue to improve on our process. It’s really important that we continue to play a role in advocating for our youth and school children.

Norm Wooten summarized the commonalities he observed between the rural and urban approaches to advocacy that Deena Mitchell from ASD and Marie Greene from NWABSD articulated in their presentations:

  • Both districts depended on partnerships. They did not work in isolation, but instead worked with partners throughout their districts.
  • Their strategic plans and board goals were the starting points and played a big part in creating their advocacy agendas.
  • They were informed on various pieces of legislation, and were prepared when they met with their legislators. 
  • Both  had a statewide perspective on education issues. their focus wasn’t strictly about their own individual districts, but about all Alaska kids.