Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Pierce’s comments heat up education debate

Apr 3, 2019

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce during a Facebook Live video in early March asking peninsula residents to "embrace" Gov. Dunleavy's proposed cuts to K-12 education.
Credit Kenai Peninsula Borough

Updated: 9:31 a.m. 4/4/19

There’s a war of words over education funding on the Kenai Peninsula. Critics of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to K-12 education have been sounding the alarm over the threat of school closures. But the borough mayor is taking on the governor’s critics.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce recently used an appearance on KSRM AM in Soldotna to take on the governor’s critics.

“Stand down. Let’s wait and see what the governor’s budget ultimate budget looks like at the end of the day because there is a lot of uncertainty,” Pierce told the station. “We don’t know, so how can you spend money that you don’t know that you will or won’t have?”

His tone was similar in an email to Democratic House Rep. Zack Fields in which the mayor said, “Giving teachers More money is bad public policy.” The email ricocheted around social media.

The mayor’s appeal for critics to keep quiet has apparently backfired. At Tuesday’s assembly meeting parents, teachers and school administrators turned out in force to deliver more than 90 minutes of testimony.

Soldotna Middle School teacher Matt Fisher accused the mayor of being out of touch.

“I have eight years of college education, I have at least two jobs to support my family and my kids still qualify for free and reduced lunch,” He told assembly members. “I’ve also recently learned according to the mayor’s recent email, I am ‘bad public policy.’”

The borough mayor’s opinion is important because he has veto power over the assembly’s budget decisions, which has the final say over the school district’s budget.

Last year it appropriated nearly $50 million, but still $2.5 million shy of the cap allowed by state law.

Parents and teachers recently appealed to the borough assembly to boost its contribution to help off-set projected cuts in state funding.

Chapman School in Anchor Point is one of many schools on the Kenai Peninsula that faces closure under the governor’s proposed spending plan. On Tuesday, Principal Conrad Woodhead took Mayor Pierce to task for his recent statements about education funding.

“Those of us who support funding the future are called out on social media when we rally for education with our children, as a family, or we’re told to ‘stand down,’” Woodhead said, eluding to Pierce’s comments last week. “No one has the right to tell me how I choose to instill the value of public education in my children.”

Anchor Point parent Casey Eberle also testified that the borough mayor goes too far trying to make his points.

“He motivated me to be here today because I was feeling pretty down in the dumps,” Eberle said. “After the school board meeting last month when I was getting in my truck, he came, he grabbed me by the arm, pulled me close, got in my face, mentioned some things to me trying to intimidate me into stop talking. He will find that I’m not easily intimidated, if at all.”

Pierce wasn’t present Tuesday to defend himself. His office said he's out of town on vacation. However, Pierce later commented on KBBI’s story via Facebook disputing Everly’s claim made during Tuesday’s assembly meeting and reiterated his comments that the borough can’t afford full education funding during the state’s fiscal crisis.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will pick up its discussion on school funding again when it meets in Seward on April 16.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect Mayor Pierce's response to this piece on social media.