Should Mike Dunleavy Be Elected to the Mat-Su Borough School Board?

By Susan B. Andrews and John Creed


KOTZEBUE-A recent letter to the editor in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper claims that Mike Dunleavy, a candidate for school board of the Mat-Su Borough School District in the Oct. 6 municipal election, is "an advocate for teachers."

Palmer Alaska

Hardworking Bush teachers in good standing who felt pushed out of their jobs on Mr. Dunleavy's watch likely would reject the notion that this man supports teachers. Or how about the teacher who got fired after blowing the whistle on his village principal for breaching the confidentiality of the state high school exit exam? Also on Dunleavy's watch.

And those who watched in horror as Dunleavy slid thousands of extra dollars into his own pocket as a Bush schools superintendent while his district's classified wages had long been frozen likely won't be endorsing his candidacy anytime soon. Dunleavy was superintendent of schools for two years earlier this decade at the Kotzebue-based Northwest Arctic Borough School District, which serves 11 Inupiat Eskimo communities in a region the size of the state of Indiana. His brief tenure was his choice, because less than eight moths after signing a lucrative three-year contract, Dunleavy announced his resignation.

The Inupiat have a name for someone who quits: "qiviter."

Inupiaq Willie Hensley of Kotzebue defined the term last summer in The New York Times. He explained that it's not a word you want applied to you: "It means to quit or give up when the going gets rough. In traditional times, and that was very recent, if you gave up as a leader you were jeopardizing yourself and everyone around you. It takes a lot of effort to maintain life in the bitter cold of the Arctic."

After Dunleavy left Kotzebue, he moved to the warmer climes of the Mat-Su Valley, where today he's running for a seat on the local school board and touting his administrator experience in Kotzebue. But many of us who lived through Dunleavy's years in Kotzebue recall with sadness really how fiercely this individual fought local people as they struggled-and ultimately prevailed after he left-for real change in regional public education. So now we offer another perspective on a man who's been running hard for school board in the Mat-Su Valley as a step on the ladder of elective office in Alaska.

Turmoil in the Bush

The Northwest Arctic Borough School District endured some tumultuous years beginning some seven or eight years ago. Big trouble erupted in early 2002 when Northwest Arctic's administration, without warning, shuttered its village school in Kivalina. Dunleavy was second in command then but about to become schools chief just a few months later.

Alaska's broadcast and print outlets saturated the media with the Kivalina school closing story during the three weeks the village school's doors remained locked through most of March 2002.

(About six months after the closure, the state Board of Education would issue tightened guidelines that now require increased community involvement and advanced notice for school closings except in emergencies. The Anchorage Press ran a lengthy follow-up story of the Kivalina school closing about six months after it happened:  http://2as08.109.242.142/archives/archives/document672e.html )..

As the Kivalina story gripped much of Alaska, simultaneously down the windswept Arctic coast in Kotzebue, another clash over public education was flying under the statewide radar. Ironically, the Kotzebue battle would prove a much bigger and long-lasting watershed event. It involved teacher retention, an entrenched regional school board that seemed only to pretend it wanted to retain teachers, and a top-down administration, including Dunleavy, that was willing to destabilize Kotzebue Middle/High School by withholding contracts that ultimately would trigger a teacher exodus of more than 60 percent in one year.

And out of the prolonged conflict, the community organized and would continue to push back for years.

Months later in early 2003, an Anchorage Press cover story, "Hard Habit to Break," surveyed Kotzebue's teacher-retention issue. The article appeared about six months after Dunleavy was appointed Northwest Arctic superintendent:

For years Dunleavy had been moving up the ranks from elementary school administration to various Northwest Arctic central office titles, including assistant superintendent. When he finally made superintendent, however, he lasted just two years. After one year as superintendent, Dunleavy then signed a lucrative three-year contract. But then he eschewed it less than eight months later. Had Dunleavy stayed through the final day of his contract, he would have remained superintendent until mid-2006. It was not to be.

Why so soon an exit? Some wondered why a schools chief would so hastily walk away from an agreement with generous benefits that, according to regional board minutes of Aug. 26, 2003, included $5,000-a-year pay hikes. About the only explanation Dunleavy himself offered was the typical one: He wanted to spend more time with his family.

During his very first year as superintendent, Dunleavy made an unusual request of the school board. In April 2003, or less than 10 months into his first year at the helm, he requested that the board increase his existing 12-month contract by an extra 24 working days, or nearly five weeks. He claimed he'd been working a lot of nights and weekends and should be paid for it. (Is it even possible to "extend" a 12-month contract?) In any event, the request amounted to more than $11,000 above and beyond Dunleavy's existing $125,000 salary, according to school board minutes.

The deal left some local residents scratching their heads. They wondered how a salaried top employee could pull that off when classroom teachers routinely work nights and weekends with no claim to any "overtime" pay.

Frozen Classified

About the same time that Dunleavy was convincing the board to pour more money into his own pocket, he remained hard-nosed against the school district's classified workers even as their wages had remained frozen for years. "I think classified workers have been getting slighted for a long time," Rosie Erickson said at the time. She was a negotiator for the district's classified and contract workers and an instructor at the district-operated Alaska Technical Center (ATC), a postsecondary institution.

Despite his own healthy pay hikes, Dunleavy claimed the district could not afford more than modest worker raises even after years of actually losing ground. Classified negotiators argued that the mostly Alaska Native classified workforce had many members with extended years of school district service. They said these cooks, janitors, teacher aides, maintenance people (including plumbers, electricians and mechanics), secretaries, ATC instructors, and others were worth more than the two percent annual raises Dunleavy had been offering hourly workers, particularly when wages had remained frozen for so long. And Dunleavy was offering an even skimpier one percent pay hike to contract workers such as ATC instructors.

Classified workers felt grossly un-appreciated, Erickson said, particularly after central office administrators had, in previous years and with the then-superintendent's support, won higher salary boosts from the school board. In addition, most directors in the central administration at the time, for example, were commanding salaries above the $90,000-a-year range, a far cry from most classified worker income.

In addition, Erickson said, "percentages" can mislead when comparing wages among employee groups because "10 percent on $30,000 a year is $3,000, but 10 percent on $130,000 is $13,000. There's a big difference." "We don't live on percentages," she said. "We live on dollars. We all have the same basic needs."

Employing Non-Certified Teaching Personnel

Dunleavy and the Northwest Arctic administration also caught the attention of state officials when the Department of Education and Early Development discovered the district employing several non-certified teachers. (This did not sit well with some local residents after so many legitimately certified district teachers had felt forced out of their positions for no apparent reason.) One teacher's temporary certificate had long expired, but the district kept offering her a teaching contract, including one that might have granted her tenure on the first day of the following school year.

Funny Business in Buckland

Also while Dunleavy was superintendent, a cheating scandal tied to the state high school exit exam erupted in Buckland, an outlying village. The wrongdoer was Eddie Peters, who was Buckland's principal for seven years. By January 2005, the Professional Teaching Practices Commission (PTPC) had yanked Peters' administrator certificate for a year for breaching the confidentiality of the state exit exam in Buckland.

A Buckland teacher had objected early on to Peters' actions and informed the central office, including Dunleavy, who dispatched his assistant superintendent, Robert Boyle, to Buckland. At some point the PTPC launched an investigation, which found sufficient misconduct to take away Peters' administrator credentials.

Dunleavy had moved Peters to a different job in another village (assistant principal in Selawik). During the summer before the PTPC ruling, according to state records, Peters had obtained a Type "Q" teaching certificate, a temporary credential used primarily for new out-of-state teachers. But Peters got one, according to state records. All this raises the question of Northwest Arctic going through so much trouble to keep Peters employed while letting go the teacher who came forward about a principal who cracks the state exit exam to increase test scores. Then the teacher who exposed the problem gets fired.

In the end, the teacher sued the district for wrongful termination and won an out-of-court financial settlement.

Superintendent Search

Although Dunleavy was cutting out of Northwest Arctic two years before his original three-year contract ended, he still continued to participate in the choosing of his replacement. Outgoing superintendents often keep a respectful distance from the process of selecting their successor to prevent even the perception of a conflict of interest.

To take his place, Dunleavy wanted Robert Boyle, an ally and confidante. (The two had worked together previously before Northwest Arctic in another Bush district.) The superintendent selection committee consisted primarily of advisory school council members drawn from among Northwest Arctic's 11 school sites. The committee did not even include Boyle on its list of recommended candidates for superintendent. Nevertheless, Boyle's name was back in the mix at the regional board level.

At one point, a number of Northwest Arctic central office administrators backed another candidate, Dr. Norman Eck, who had legitimately made the selection committee's list of finalists. Eck's qualifications included many years with the district, such as five years as school principal in Selawik, an outlying village.

After elongated wrangling by the regional board in executive session, Boyle landed the school chief's job. In the aftermath, Eck left the central office to become principal at Kotzebue Middle/High School.

A Controversial Move

One of Boyle's first acts setting up his administration in mid-2004 was to tap Carl Chamblee, an elementary school principal, for assistant superintendent. Since Boyle was relatively new to the region, he was still relying on advice from Dunleavy, who had lived in Kotzebue for years.

The Chamblee move triggered a firestorm of protest. A Dunleavy ally and protégé, Chamblee had been central to the contentious teacher-retention crisis at Kotzebue Middle/High School two years before. Local Chamblee critics questioned his sudden rise to assistant superintendent. The promotion to the district's second-in-command slot troubled community members and members of the Kotzebue Advisory School Council. The locally elected body had been interacting with Chamblee as principal at regular meetings and informally for some time.

In a letter in June of 2004 to the regional school board, ASC members Paul Nolton, John Rae and Margie Ubben opposed the Chamblee promotion. The letter described "a continual state of frustration and disappointment" with Chamblee as an administrator.

"The Kotzebue ASC has worked the most closely with him in recent years, so we believe we have valuable and important input to render about his attitude and effectiveness as a professional educator and communicator," the letter stated. "The Kotzebue ASC wants to be on record opposing any new position that Mr. Chamblee might be appointed to."

Boyle stuck with Chamblee.

Dunleavy's legacy through Boyle and Chamblee would prove rocky and tenuous over the next 18 months.

Free Speech Versus Speech Codes

For example, by spring 2005 Chamblee and Boyle had brought before the regional board a proposed by-law "BB 9012," which was soon dubbed a "speech code." The proposed board policy would have restricted teachers, other district employees, and the general public from communicating directly with regional board members. All board communication would have been filtered only through either the superintendent or school board president (who at the time lived in Noatak, an outlying village). On first reading, the regional board had passed the measure with just two votes opposing.

But as word spread, people began to speak out. Advisory school councils in Kotzebue and Noatak denounced the measure. In April of 2005 advisory school councils in Kotzebue and Noatak asked the regional board to reject BB 9012, pointing to its potential to violate free speech and also curb citizens' and district employees' access to regional board members. The Noatak ASC, which included members Paula Mills, Alice Adams, Doris VanAmburg, Ron Moo and Gretchen Booth, sent a letter to fellow Noatak resident Larry Jones, the regional board president.

"Board members are elected by the people and we, the people, need an open link that fosters and encourages an open dialogue between our elected officials and the public," the letter stated. "Our concern is that BB 9012 is intended to stifle an open dialogue between our elected officials and their constituents."

The Kotzebue ASC, which included Eric Swisher, John Rae, Cheryl Edenshaw, Paul Nolton, Marge Ubben, Daisy Lambert and Paul Hansen, also passed a resolution against the speech code for its assault on the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees free speech. "The public's right to communicate with its elected officials must be without the aura of threat or infringement to the right of freedom of speech," the resolution stated, adding that "9012" also ignited "much negative public concern" against the district and its elected bodies.

After the public uproar, the regional school board gutted the administration's proposal.

Three years earlier, during the local teacher-retention crisis during which some felt free speech rights were being trampled, the regional board was asked to approve and circulate a memo to district employees and the public that in part read, "As an educational institution within a free and open democratic society, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District embraces the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

"This sets a good example as we educate our young people. We invite the free discussion of differing points of view, and not just those that are politically prudent, politically correct, or acceptable only to one group or another. Ideas must be freely shared without fear of retaliation. Ideas are welcome always from students, staff, faculty, parents, community members and others in the Northwest Arctic school community through as many communications channels as possible. "

"This philosophy is the very foundation on which this school district operates. We embrace the concept of freedom of speech, because this creates the very foundation upon which we educate our children to become free and active citizens, which best allows our regional society to progress."

The board, whose make-up voters would begin changing dramatically starting with the very next election in 2002, rejected the invitation to circulate the memo in 2002. During a board meeting that spring, Dunleavy was tapped to speak to the public for the board on refusing the memo. Reinforcement of free speech values already spelled out in the First Amendment was not necessary, he said.

One More Wave Election

Real change that would take more than three years to arrive was now imminent as the fall 2005 local elections approached. That year voters realigned Northwest Arctic's regional board enough to trigger a major shake-up of the central administration. All three candidates promising change and who had trounced entrenched incumbents following the 2002 teacher-retention crisis were up for re-election in 2005. Sandy Shroyer-Beaver, Eugene Smith and Margaret Hansen were again backed by Kids First, a local grassroots group. And they again won decisive victories in 2005.

Marcy Fairbanks, a Dunleavy supporter and long-time board member who had been instrumental in Boyle becoming superintendent, had declined to run for re-election in 2005. Kids First candidate Daisy Lambert of Kotzebue won that seat. With Fairbanks and other former Dunleavy supporters mostly gone now, the newly configured board elected Shroyer-Beaver as its next president.

The Dunleavy legacy was about to collapse.

The board moved quickly after the fall 2005 election. Within weeks, Boyle resigned as superintendent. He wanted it effective the following June 2006, or about seven months down the road. But the board asked Boyle to leave the job immediately. He was placed on administrative leave for the rest of his one-year contract. Then the board hired Norm Eck, the Kotzebue secondary principal, as the new superintendent.

Once at the helm, Eck transferred Chamblee from assistant superintendent to director of assessment.

Among the more immediate housecleaning chores, the new school chief ordered a shutdown and audit of a computer software program that had cost the district at least $250,000 but was almost universally panned by teachers and administrators alike as virtually inoperable.

The incoming superintendent also promised more open communication and better cooperation within the district and with parents and local citizens.

Local Teacher

The Dunleavy legacy was ended not only by the new administration but was also marked somewhat symbolically by the return of a successful teacher who'd been a casualty of the 2002 Kotzebue teacher-retention crisis. Walt Maslen, a science teacher and wrestling coach, had essentially been forced out of his job during the Kotzebue Middle/High School teacher exodus of 2002. Unlike most of the others who had lost their teaching positions in 2002, Maslen remained in Kotzebue with his family, which included three school-age children.

In the interim, Maslen had taken a job in health education at Maniilaq Association, the region's health and social services organization. There he tackled tobacco control issues, conducted health education workshops in regional schools, organized village softball leagues and cross-country skiing programs, and set up other healthy alternatives to tobacco use, alcohol abuse, and a sedentary lifestyle. After less than three years at Maniilaq, Maslen received a prestigious Alaska Health Achievement Award from the Alaska Public Health Association in November 2005 at the annual Alaska Health Summit in Anchorage.

But an even bigger prize was on its way.

Soon after Eck became Northwest Arctic superintendent in late 2005, Maslen was offered a middle school science position, the only "reinstated" teacher of all the ones that had been forced out three-and-a-half years before. A few days later, when it was announced in front of Kotzebue Middle School eighth graders that Mr. Maslen would be returning to their classroom, the students gave him a standing ovation.

"I'm a teacher," said Maslen. "That's what I do."

The local Arctic Sounder and Alaska's three largest newspapers noted the dramatic change underway at Northwest Arctic schools:

Where Are They Now?

Walt Maslen had been an assistant wrestling coach until 2002 with head coach Fred McKenney at the Kotzebue Middle/High School, where the pair had built an impressive local wrestling program. McKenney eventually moved to Palmer's Colony High School in the Mat-Su Borough, where after five years he led his young charges to three state wrestling championships. After Maslen got his job back at Kotzebue Middle School in 2005, he continued teaching there until 2009 before transferring to a school district on Alaska's road system.

Today Robert Boyle has been a superintendent of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District for several years. Carl Chamblee also left Kotzebue and no longer works in central administration. Today he is principal at Meadow Lakes Elementary School in Wasilla.

Almost four years later, Norm Eck remains superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. In 2008, Eck was named Superintendent of the Year by the Alaska Association of School Administrators.

And this fall, Mike Dunleavy is running for school board in the Mat-Su Borough, where voters will decide on Oct. 6 whether this so-called "advocate for teachers" is worthy of their support.

Susan B. Andrews and John Creed are humanities/journalism professors at Chukchi College, a Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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