In one week, Anchorage voters will head to the polls to weigh in on the 2017 municipal elections. This year, 28 candidates are vying for six seats on the Assembly and two for School Board. The offices are critical, and the turnout is dismal; 61 percent of registered voters cast ballots in last years presidential election whereas less than 25 percent weighed in last April.
The dismal turnout belies the importance of local races; the most accessible and consequential positions affecting the daily lives of Anchorage residents.
That fact is not lost on Tasha Hotch, who filed her candidacy for School Board seat C, being vacated by Pat Higgins due to term limits. Hotch is squaring off against Dave Donley, a former Republican lawmaker who served in the State House and Senate in the 1980s- and ‘90s, and James Smallwood, owner of local insurance agency BenefitMi.
Two other candidates, Alisha Hilde and Christopher Jamison, are also in the race.
The turnout is endemic of a larger problem of disenfranchisement within the municipality, Hotch told me, and her goal is to change that. Most people don’t even know who serves on the school board or how to get in touch with them, she added, and members exacerbate that by not reaching out to parents and students alike.
“It really is about bridging that communication gap,” Hotch told me earlier this month. “I’ve always thought that we don’t have enough community engagement.”
Hotch was born and raised in Klukwan, Alaska, a small village of 139 located 22 miles from Haines. She moved to Anchorage in 1999 and was immediately startled by the difference in attitudes as it relates to education.
“Since I grew up in a very small village, our community was centered around the school,” the candidate explained. “So, when someone’s doing something at the school, you guys need to go. It didn’t matter if you had kids or not. The expectation was that you were all going to show up and support what was happening.”
But when she came to Anchorage — specifically in Mountain View — that was not her experience, characterizing it as a “very disinviting environment” where parents were largely not engaged. Often, Hotch added, the disconnect stemmed from people not knowing how to get involved.
A single mom, Hotch succesfully ran for Parent Teacher Association president after her son enrolled at William Tyson Elementary (he is currently in Sixth Grade at Clark). She immediately began work trying to connect parents with classrooms and school board members with the schools. But getting the school board more connected proved to be difficult, she said. Hotch’s first attempt was to invite members to monthly meetings with teachers, staff, parents, and students. She was unsuccessful.
“My emails went unresponded to for three-and-a-half years. One school board member showed up to one event before we had left the school. To me, that just hurts my feelings,” Hotch lamented. “How dare you, when you act too scared to come in here or you’re too busy to respond and say you have another commitment. Our parents need to know that someone else cares.”
Hotch has dedicated herself to educational causes in the time since. She currently serves as the education chair of both the Anchorage Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska (ATTHIA) and the Mountain View Community Council, as well as secretary for Neighborworks Alaska. She also volunteers with the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club, the Alaska Native Professional Association (ANPA), and the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. She has also volunteered for the Special Olympics of Alaska, Habitat for Humanity, Challenge Alaska, the Boys and Girls Club Athletics Program, Step-Up AK, and the Johnson O’Malley Program (JOM) Parent Committee. Hotch previously served as a court appointed special advocate (CASA), a position that works with the foster care system.
“I bring with me a lot of my Alaska Native values. Community-based; education-based,” Hotch told me. “You start in your home and then you expand out. The whole model I moved to Anchorage with was, I take my family, I take care of my community, and then you go outwards.”
She said that the relationships she’s built through her work and volunteerism has readied her for school board.
“I’m not really a politician. I’m more of a hands-on person.”
And Anchorage’s schools need a more hands-on approach, she said. That means more parents getting involved; devoting time in the classrooms. Hotch looked to an approach taken by many charter schools, which ask parents to sign a waiver committing to a certain amount of volunteer time every month.
“It’s not like you would have to do a whole day or your kid can’t come into school. That’s not the idea,” she cautioned. “The idea is that it’s on my brain because I commit to doing it.”
And she does.
“I’m very confident walking around and asking kids how they’re doing,” Hotch said, adding with a laugh: “And, to my credit, I understand most of the work that they’re working on.”
Parent participation is a two-way street, though, she added. Schools need to do a better job putting volunteers to meaningful use with the students. She recalled one instance when she took a day off to volunteer, only to be sent to a back room to sharpen pencils. Hotch accepted the task gladly, but believes a concentration on such menial tasks could deter other volunteers who feel as though they have been handed busy work.
Like Smallwood, Hotch opposes recent attempts to open up state funding for private and religious schools. She also believes that the seats on the board should be modeled more after the Assembly, where seats represent geographical areas. Currently, school board seats represent the entire municipality. Hotch says that tying seats to smaller geographical areas would make school board members more accountable and constituents more connected to their representatives. Though the suggestion to reverse that setup pops up every few years, the proposals have been unsuccessful.
I asked, if elected, what would success look like.
“More community input. More people feeling like they can approach the people that they’ve elected into office,” Hotch replied. “I think, right now, there really is this perception that we don’t do that. And I think people should feel very comfortable doing that. Any time we’ve had a new superintendent, the first thing I do is I call and I schedule an appointment to go meet with them.”
Finally I asked, “Why you?”
“I would make the argument that everything that I’ve done in the schools, I’ve utilized my paid time off of work, or unpaid time off of work, to go do them, which really shows I have a vested interest,” she concluded. “Because people usually go on vacations!”