Legislator apologizes after criticizing letters from high school students

Homer High School senior Jesse Roach asks Rep. Sarah Vance to oppose cuts to education at a recent town hall.
Homer High School senior Jesse Roach asks Rep. Sarah Vance to oppose cuts to education at a recent town hall. (Photo by Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

A freshman House lawmaker took to social media to criticize local high schoolers who had written her office over proposed education cuts. Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance has since apologized and taken down the video on her Facebook page.

Vance posted a 7-minute video (full audio here) reading letters she’d received from Homer High School students. The school’s student council coordinated the letter-writing campaign.

In the video, Vance complained that many students didn’t apparently address her by her proper title.

“None of them have addressed me as Representative or Rep. Vance, not a one,” she said.

Many of the messages urged Vance to oppose Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to K-12 education.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has warned the governor’s budget would force it to eliminate sports and extracurricular activities. Vance said she sympathized with after-school programs.

“But I contend that perhaps we need to focus on academia. Do I want sports and extracurriculars? Absolutely,” she added. “But if our children are having trouble as high schoolers communicating well with their leaders, then we are missing something, if all they see is the value of a school is sports and extracurriculars.”

Homer’s high schoolers were not pleased with Vance’s response. Backlash on social media snowballed, and Vance apologized in a new video and removed the original video on Sunday.

Homer High School senior Avram Salzmann is student body president and one of the organizers of the letter-writing campaign, paid for by the student council.

“Until she’ll understand the message we’re sending, I’m not ready to accept any kind of apology, nor am I looking for an apology. I’m looking for understanding,” he said.

Salzmann said the council wanted students to write to both Vance and Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens, no matter their opinion on the budget.

“Because we think that being involved is the whole point of our organization. So however we can support students doing that, that’s what we want to do,” he explained.

While Salzmann notes that his comments do not represent everyone on the student council, he said students had a simple message for Vance.

“I think that a healthy balance of extracurriculars, sports and academics are what create the best kind of people,” he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District projects it would lose at least $22 million under the governor’s proposed budget.

District spokeswoman Pegge Erkeneff said that would force the closure of swimming pools, theaters and potentially a half-dozen schools on the Kenai Peninsula, including Chapman Elementary School, McNeil Canyon Elementary School, Moose Pass Elementary School, Nikiski Middle/High School, Seward Middle School and Soldotna Prep School.

“It would dramatically change the face of education, and we don’t want that to happen,” Erkeneff said. “With this list, we’re still $5 million shy of reaching the $22.4 million.”

The school board has scheduled a budget workshop on March 21, and it has until April 1 to forward its budget proposal to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty involved. That’s because both deadlines are well before the Legislature is expected to pass a state budget.

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