Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Leaving Juneau


April 17, 2018 ECHO Magazine

Leaving Juneau

My work for the Alaska Legislature ended in mid-April after 100 days.

Reflections upon what I had witnessed in Juneau over this time began while aboard the Alaska Marine Highway vessel M/V Columbia as we plied the waters toward Haines. As a certified Alaska teacher I have long been amazed at how Public Education funding is handled as a political hot potato.
My wife, Cat is back from cancer treatment Outside, our 5th wheel camper is packed, and we are heading home to Eagle River, after my participation as staff for Eagle River Rep. Lora Reinbold, in the biggest sporting event in Alaska.
Iditarod doesn’t even come close to the drama of the legislature in session.
As with Iditarod, the worst things can happen at the end; when weary dogs give in to political expedience (or necessity) over previously principled standards of the trail. Bills dormant for more than a year—or increased opportunities for spending—can (and did!) spring to life and be jammed through over Good Friday when minority caucus Christians had gone home for a planned break.
Leaving Juneau
To bad you trusted them.
Having only a slim majority caucus means some legislator’s votes bought during previous wrangling in committees, and on the House floor, reveal what is possible and what is not likely–but possible with the right maneuver. Good intentions mean nothing. The only thing that matters by the end of this taxing ordeal are the numbers needed to pass legislation: 21 in the House and 11 in the Senate.
Dump proposed laws on the Senate and watch what happens next.
Cat and I are leaving the arena at a time of raw power–the last hours of play–when head fakes can turn into head-butts–and everything is done with an understanding that it will have to be defended to the voters before November.  Most Alaskan voters don’t live in Juneau and will have to learn about how the game was played by second-hand reporting, copious research, or unintended consequences.
Welcome to Haines!
As we pull up to the dock on this dreary Southeast Alaska day I’m happy. This isn’t Juneau.
You can drive to Haines; we have done it many times, and the Chilkat Valley is one of the most beautiful places on planet earth. Haines doesn’t have the deep gold rush roots that Skagway has but it is quaint. This is where Cat and I came for our honeymoon in 1990 and this is where I taught 6th grade during the 2006-07 school year. You learn a lot about a small community by working at its school.
The schools in rural Alaska communities are hubs for learning, for community activities, and for jobs.  A nine-month gig at the school gets a local family through winter and leaves plenty of time for hunting, fishing and summertime activities. As a newly-minted k-8 teacher, I was one of some 21 applicants invited to interview for this position. After a heartfelt telephonic interview I turned to Cat and said “that was fun but I won’t be offered THAT job!”
I was wrong. The next day Superintendent Charlie Jones called and offered me the job—on the condition I would be there and start teaching 23 students in 11 days. Again, I told Cat that didn’t seem possible.
Leaving Juneau
Again, she was open to possibilities.
We packed a 42-ft moving van with enough stuff to fill three one-car garages, loaded our new truck, and drove the 777 miles to Haines. My classroom was lovingly prepared for students, and I was ready to teach Day One.
It didn’t take too long too recognize that while I was the candidate who interviewed best for the Haines 6th grade teaching position, locals had favored candidates other than somebody from Anchorage. This was a Haines job; certified teachers resided in Haines. I was the first choice.
The other known variable in this equation was the class itself; over the course of my year in the venerable old Haines Elementary School—the last occupancy before it was replaced by a new $14 million school—I had two separate individuals approach me and say: “Mr. Liston, I have been watching this group of students since kindergarten and I pray for you every day!”
But I was resolute; a good teacher deals positively with every student he or she encounters. This is a wonderful time in every child’s development. My students would gain a full year of productive instruction and behavior issues would not hamper my efforts because I was myself one of those most obnoxious 6th graders in my time. My hero then was Huckleberry Finn!
The Public Education Elephant in the Room
So far this legislature has passed the fewest bills ever but some would say the stakes for what could be coming have never been higher.
In mid-March the House Majority managed to pass a bill to change how the state’s public school trust fund is managed to provide MORE funding for public education. The bill was proposed by Juneau School Crossing guard turned legislator, Rep. Justin Parish. Its passage March 19, with 21Y – 18N and 1 excused, moved it to the Senate amid fervor about ending the annual “Pink Slip Circus,” wherein teachers are threatened with layoff as economic blackmail for increased education funding. On April 23 this bill was moved out of Senate Finance to the Rules Committee for scheduling to the Floor. to check on its status go to:
Grandstanding for early education funding also prevailed in HB 287, “An Act making appropriations for public education and transportation of students; and providing for an effective date” which, when passed out of the house February 7 turned out to be all show. It only funded student transportation across the sate and for Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school!
“Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, when asked said he thinks House leaders were “knowingly misleading” in saying that the bill would fund all schools early.
I don’t want you to think that the Senate doesn’t have a desire to early fund education, because we do, Kelly said. We’re just very disappointed that in a discussion about early funding that three weeks were completely wasted in the House.”
As an Alaskan teacher, I regret that nobody is talking about academic accountability; parents who succeeded in public education have students who succeed in public education. Performance be damned by the rest. By now everyone knows Alaska pays among the most per student among all of the states and we have the worst test scores among all of the states. I became personally aware of the dimension of our broken education system as an Adult Basic Education instructor 10-1/2 years in Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley. I helped students pass a nationally normed 12th grade test so they could get into a career.
Over the decades I have learned–first as a public education advocate in Juneau and since 2003 as a classroom teacher–how our system has become a conduit for state money regardless of outcomes. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations; falling hardest on disadvantaged people or minorities who are not required to meet the same standard of behavior or achievement as expected elsewhere. On the other hand, when prepared academically these students who quit, were kicked out or failed public education are not afraid of tests.
In one small example I witnessed education economic priorities in Haines:  Every year the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) declares the period in which student enrollment will be measured for establishing State funding levels to each of the more than 50 communities with a school board and superintendent. When the “count day” was announced in Haines, parents were told their children must not miss that day of school.
For rural Alaska, education funding is manna from heaven.
When we went to Haines in 2016 Cathy had just received disability social security retirement after nearly 30 years of banking.  A health event in 2003 had taken her out of her job as a manager and trouble-shooter for Northrim Bank’s 10 branches. Being a detail person who knew how to balance a bank branch day-to-day, Cat was looking forward to this new adventure as wife of a teacher.
Leaving Juneau
Once in Haines we found a hotel and set up housekeeping. As in the past Cathy cooked, cleaned and made my lunches. I made my lesson plans and worked out my classroom management plan. She decided she could take over grading, which meant using an answer sheet to correct papers, and assigning a numerical grades.
Something else I learned here was that the most important person in any school is the principal’s secretary. In fact, the school secretary at Haines had a boy in my class AND she managed the school-wide database for grades. Report Cards would be issued directly based on this computer system. My mathematically gifted wife dutifully graded my student’s papers and entered them into the grading system.
We are a great team!
Then the almost unbelievable happened. A week before Thanksgiving break Superintendent Jones called me into his office. There, he closed the door and looked me in the eye: “Donn, you probably know by now that there are students in your class who have parents on the school board, on the local assembly, and you even have parents who work in this school.”
Of course I couldn’t disagree with that.
“And, he continued, you have been doing a good job of putting your grades into the grading system. We appreciate that,” he affirmed, before becoming deadly serious. “So let me be clear in what I am about to say: If the grades you have now posted appear on the first report cards for your class, this town will lynch you. You will need to fix them.”
When I returned home and told her what she had to do, Cathy was shocked but I wasn’t.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

We were Born to be Wild! 


Born to Be Wild 1969

The 50th year since my high school graduation has almost passed and I have changed.

I look back with mixed emotions on where I was then, where Alaska was at in context with the rest of the country, and where we have come as a state having tremendous oil wealth.
Our class song was “Born to be Wild,” by Steppenwolf. That was the theme song from the 1969 classic movie “Easy Rider” with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson.
From the song:
Get your motor runnin’ Head out on the highway Lookin’ for adventure And whatever comes our way Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen Take the world in a love embrace Fire all of your guns at once And explode into space
Nationally 1969 was a year of social and political drama.
January 20, Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States in the face of a groundswell of social unrest from Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. On June 8 President Nixon and South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu met at Midway Island where Nixon announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by September. On September 14 the US Selective Service held the First Draft Lottery, changing the way men were drafted into the military. Although the war was winding down, on October 15 hundreds of thousands of people took part in “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” demonstrations across the United States.
We had those demonstrations in Anchorage, too. I marched and played my 12-string guitar in the bitter cold on the streets of Anchorage and at the Sydney Lawrence Auditorium. Many young men of my generation joined the military or were drafted to fight in this conflict. I opposed the war on principle but never had to face the prospect of being drafted because I went to college and I got a high lottery number.
January 28, a “blowout” on Union Oil’s “Platform A” spilled 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil into a channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County in Southern California. On February 5 the oil closed Santa Barbara’s harbor and inspired Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to organize the first “Earth Day” in 1970.
This movement for environmental purity would backdrop the coming discussion about drilling for oil on Alaska’s North Slope and building a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
On July 16 the Apollo 11 rocket with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off toward the first landing on the Moon where it did land on July 20. An estimated 500 million people worldwide watched in awe. A second Apollo 12 spacecraft, November 19 with astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean landed at Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”), becoming the third and fourth humans to walk on the Moon before returning safely and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean November 24.
We watched this event in real time while most other news reports had traditionally been delayed while newsreels were flown up from Seattle.
August 15–August 18, The Woodstock Festival was held in upstate New York, featuring some of the top rock musicians of the era. A two-tape VCR of this event was played in many homes around Alaska. On December 6 In contrast, the Altamont Free Concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. Hosted by The Rolling Stones, it was an attempt at a “Woodstock West” production and is best known for the uproar of violence that occurred. It is viewed by many as the “end of the sixties.”
In May of 1969 graduates of East Anchorage High school heard U.S. Senator Mike Gravel give our commencement address. He had beat out Ernest Gruening in the 1968 election. Sen. Gravel tried to end the draft and famously put the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971. He played a crucial role in getting Congressional approval for the Trans-Alaska pipeline in 1973. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1974, but gradually alienated most of his Alaskan constituencies and his bid for a third term was defeated in the 1980 primary election.
The most significant thing that happened in 1969 was the September 10 Alaska Department of Natural Resources oil lease sale for North Slope lands. Gov. Wally Hickel had moved on to serve as Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior and Lt. Gov. Keith Miller was on hand at Sydney Lawrence Auditorium to open the bidding and turn the proceedings over to DNR Commissioner Tom Kelly. In his book “Prudhoe Bay Governor” Miller states: “By the end of the day the major oil companies, and some minor ones, bid just over 900 million dollars for the right to drill and produce on those lands owned by the State of Alaska.”
This was a harbinger of things to come. Alaska had been purchased from Russia for $7.2 million, and that is the same value of the oil filling the first tanker out of Valdez. Hundreds have since filled up and taken our bounty to market.
Again, from the song:
Like a true nature’s childWe were born, born to be wildWe can climb so highI never wanna die!

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