ER resident runs for School Board

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - 23:00

Dean Williams scurries around the kitchen of his house at the end of Hiland Road, baking up German pancakes. Mountains loom outside the windows as he mixes egg and milk, flour and a small bit of sugar.

“Wait until you see how this puffs up,” he says, sliding the cast iron pan into the oven.

Williams is running against Pat Higgins for Seat C of the Anchorage School District School Board.

Higgins’ seat expires in April of this year. Currently, no one from the Chugiak-Eagle River area serves on the School Board.

Williams hopes to change that.

“When you’re in a budget crisis, people can go for the most vulnerable and those with the least political clout,” he says. “Eagle River and Chugiak need to be aware that there’s a certain mentality of some who may want to capitalize on the fact that they’re not represented.”

Williams came up to Alaska in 1980 with three bags and $300. He worked multiple jobs in Fairbanks (“Because they all paid so badly,” he said) and a year later landed a State of Alaska job in Anchorage as a youth counselor.

Since then, he’s worked as superintendent of a juvenile detention facility in Nome and the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. He’s also served on the Tri-Borough Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Committee, the Alaska Juvenile Justine Advisory Committee and the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, to name a few.

He didn’t anticipate running for School Board.

“But in terms of everything that’s happened in my work career, everything has honestly led me to this place to make this run,” he says, opening the oven and checking on the pancake.

Williams and his wife, Virgialee, have been married for seven years.

“It’s our second chance, a do-over for both of us,” he says. “We were both resigned that we’re just going to have to be single. As soon as we stopped looking, we found each other.”

It has, he says, been the best seven years of his life.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says.

Another motivating factor behind his School Board bid is his mother, who was a teacher for 37 years.

“I saw her impact upon kids,” he says. “To get a bachelor’s degree back in those days for a woman, she had to be driven. And me, I’ve always been a bit of a pusher in trying to identify what can be done better.”

When Anchorage experienced gang problems in 2005, Williams helped develop the Step Up program, a school for kids who have fallen through the safety net.

Now in its fifth year, the program targets what Williams calls mischievous kids, the ones who have been in trouble multiple times and have been kicked out of school but never charged in the juvenile justice system.

“We knew that these kids were most likely to become gang involved, to become adult prisoners and have a higher teen pregnancy rate and drain the system,” he says.

Step Up works to ensure that teens graduate from high school.

Right now, Williams says, 20-25 percent, of school-aged children in Anchorage don’t get their diplomas.

“Why should the rest of us, the 75 percent, care about the 25 percent who aren’t making it?” he asks.

Because they’re more likely to drain our social system and end up in jail, he answers.

“You can’t even get a job in Walmart without a high school diploma,” he says.


Alternative messages

Williams would like to see alternative measures of success within the schools. Not everyone is on track for college, he explained, and we need to figure out how to target those who aren’t and help them find successful careers and vocations.

He feels that this is especially true among minority populations.

“You have to foster a cultural attitude where you are reaching out not only to those who are the loudest in the room but those in the background too,” he says.

If you’re African American, you’re more than twice as likely to be expelled as a Caucasian, and it’s even worse for Alaska Natives, he says.

“You have to work hard to say yes, I want you who I normally don’t hear from and I want to know where you’re at.”

By the time Williams pulls the German pancake from the oven, he’s talking about his days at McLaughlin Youth Center. The pancake is puffed golden brown and he holds it up and marvels. Then, he deftly slices two pieces and tells how he cut 31 beds from McLaughlin.

“No one wants to see positions cut,” he says. “But sometimes there’s no choice.”

Many of the staff believed he was making a mistake.

“I listened to them and I kept myself open to the fact that I might be wrong. But in the end, I did the right thing. That unit had been in existence for 30 years and people thought I was selling their dog. It was very emotional.”

No one lost their job in that scenario, he says. Everyone was reshuffled.

“Sometimes in a financial or personal crisis there are opportunities that don’t exist until it happens,” he explains. “You think, this is it, it’s the end of the world because I lost something. In the end, though, you realize that wow, that was painful but I’m in a better place.”

He correlates this to the Anchorage School District’s current budget crunch.

“You have to do something different,” he says. “You have to logically and strategically make cuts.”

One of his ideas is looking at program returns and zeroing in on expenses.

“The immediate crisis is that you’re going to have to cut positions, at least at first. The accumulative effect for the next five years, it’s going to be ugly,” he said.

Yet, Williams thinks he can offer something a little different. He’s dealt with such difficulties before. He has the experience, and the drive.

Running for School Board, he admits, is both fascinating and crazy.

“There are certain things about my faith that matter a great deal to me and one of those is not puffing yourself up,” he said. “Anybody can say any words they want and a lot of time they mean nothing by it. How do I balance this desire to walk with humility and still promote who I am?”

He shakes his head, laughs wryly.

“I want to win, but I think I’m doing the right thing just by running and addressing the issues that need to be addressed.”

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