Skagway School went through some major changes this year. A spike in enrollment gave the district extra funding to hire more teachers, expand programs and implement single-grade elementary classrooms. There are two open seats on the board that will make decisions about where the district goes from here. Three candidates are vying for the two school board positions.
There’s one thing all three candidates agree on: Skagway School District is doing great.
“Dr. Coughran, the superintendent, has got a really good grip on what’s going on at that school,” said Skagway business owner and school board member Mark Smith. “In the last couple years since he’s been in charge, it’s been going great. He’s introduced new programs, more teachers, we got some funding this year because we got some more attendance.”
Smith was appointed to a vacant spot on the board a year ago and wants to continue his service. Smith said his vision for the school in 10 years is very similar to how it looks now.
Darren Belisle has a similar perspective.
“Skagway School has a name in the state right now as being one of the better schools,” he said.
Belisle is a manager for Alaska Power and Telephone and he’s been on the school board since 2002.
The only newcomer out of the three candidates is Jaime Bricker. Bricker works for White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad and is a lifelong Skagway resident.
“I think the current superintendent and board and staff have a vision of their own that is very solid,” she said. “And it’s evident in where they’ve taken the school from 10 years ago to where it is today.”
How the school district could improve is a more difficult question for the candidates. Smith said sport facilities like the softball field could do with an upgrade. Both Bricker and Belisle say the school could do more to encourage community involvement.
Belisle also thinks the district should prioritize helping students who aren’t on the college track.
“My main focus with the school board has been we can’t forget the kids who aren’t going to go to college,” he said. “And I’ve been pushing to get a [vocational education] program going in Skagway School for a number of years and we’re been working with the municipality for the last couple of years to try and build a voc-ed building at the school.”
Belisle said that’s the main reason he wants to stay on the school board another term – to see that project through.
One of the major decisions the board made in the past year was to switch from combined to single-grade classrooms in grades K-6. An increase in enrollment and funding prompted the change. Belisle and Smith say voting for the switch was an easy decision.
“You’ve got less students per teacher, so obviously you’re gonna get more attention per student,” Smith said.
When asked if she supported the move to single-grade classrooms, Bricker said she could see benefits to both options. She said her sixth grade son is still adjusting to the smaller-size classroom.
“He’s been so used to having friends and peers from lower grade levels and higher grade levels in the classroom that he misses them. But he’s also said that it’s nice to have such intimate, one-on-one interaction with teachers.
Bricker said overall, the change was ‘promising.’
If the enrollment trend were to reverse, the school board would have to figure out what programs and teachers to retain with less money to spend. Belisle remembers having to make hard decisions when that happened several years ago.
“The past – I hope it doesn’t rear its ugly head again. But you’ve got to go through and see what programs are helping the most amount of students,” Belisle said.
None of the candidates had specific areas they thought should be cut first if there was a budget shortfall.
“We get a lot of help from the city of Skagway,” Smith said. “So I think we’ll be alright even if the numbers do fall.”
Smith said the school is going in a good direction, and he doesn’t think there’s anything to worry about. He said he wants to continue serving on the school board to ‘give back to the community.’
Belisle wants to continue work on the voc-ed building. He said he brings years of experience to a ‘fairly young’ board.
And Bricker said she brings insight as a parent and a graduate of Skagway High School herself.
“It feels like a full circle connection for me,” Bricker said.
The municipal election takes place Oct. 4.
Jaime Bricker full interview:
Darren Belisle full interview:
Mark Smith full interview: