ANCHORAGE -

An Anchorage School Board candidate is facing a backlash from a local aid group after linking the Anchorage School District’s budget woes to foreign refugees and students with special needs.

Don Smith, a former Anchorage Assembly member who also served on the board from 2012 to 2013, appeared on Alaska Public Media’s “Running” show Wednesday night. About nine minutes into a 15-minute interview with moderator Daysha Eaton posted on YouTube, Smith took a sudden tack when Eaton asked him what factors he credited for a recent rise in ASD’s graduation rate and a fall in its dropout rate.

“There’s lots of problems that have been caused by agencies like the State Department, that have somehow convinced Alaskans or Anchorage residents to admit two families a month from places like Africa and Indonesia to come in here totally unable to speak English, and give us the responsibility to try to educate these kids in the school system,” Smith said.

Smith went on to connect the district’s issues with a rise in its diversity, since what he described as “about 98 percent white students” at Anchorage High School when he was a student there.

“Today we’re 48 percent white, 52 percent other and that clearly is causing problems -- I mean, I think our numbers are dropping because we’re importing all these people that aren’t up to the standards that we had set for the school,” Smith said. “Consequently it’s drawn us downward, not upward.”

When Eaton asked Smith to readdress her initial question, Smith said the district might be in a “lucky period.”

“I watch my grandkids at Kincaid Elementary, I felt they sat on their fingers for a big part of the day while they were in school because they were having to take care of problems -- kids that were special needs students, and people that were here from another country and couldn’t speak very well English,” Smith said.

“What would you propose as a solution?” Eaton asked.

“There is no solution -- we can’t tell all these people to go back to Africa or go back to Indonesia or wherever they’ve been imported from,” Smith said. “I don’t think that Catholic Social Services is planning to reduce the number of families they bring in here every month.”

Eaton again asked Smith for a proposed solution, but he said that the city is “stuck between a rock and a hard place” by unnamed officials.

“I think that state government or someone in municipal government has agreed to allow us to be a refugee city,” Smith said. “We’ve got thousands and thousands of people who’ve come here totally unprepared.”

Smith also had pointed words on a follow-up question from Eaton about the district’s efforts to assist students arriving for school with inadequate food and clothing.

“In some ways I think that they are overreacting,” Smith said. “I mean, you take a school in northeast Anchorage that’s got 52 percent minority, or kids that are not part of the community a few years ago. And so their attitude is, ‘Well, we’ve just got to give everybody a free lunch because we don’t want to embarrass those kids that are truly having to have a free lunch,’ so all kids get a free lunch.”

Reached for comment Thursday night, Smith says he believes in offering help to people who need help, but stands behind his statements on refugees entering the district. With ASD facing a $23 million budget shortfall, he says about $25 million is being spent on bringing about 150 foreign students a year to Anchorage, leaving taxpayers on the hook for their needs.

“These people are coming here expecting to find a place to live, a place -- a way to find food so that they can feed their families, and of course they’re expecting to be educated,” Smith said. “And the State of Alaska, through the generosity of the people of Alaska, are putting up 15 or 17 thousand dollars a year in order to help fund the cost of these kids in the Anchorage School District.”

The state Legislature is still considering an increase in its base student allocation, the amount the state pays to each school district annually to educate every student. While ASD officials and school board president Tam Agosti-Gisler have both called for that increase, saying it would help alleviate the district’s shortfall, Smith says even if BSA does rise it won’t alleviate the underlying problem.

“If you are going to bring four or five families to Anchorage a year, I guess I could live with that,” Smith said. “But why do we have to bring 150 or 200 (students) and do it year after year after year, and then we have to provide the same services to those that we give to people who live here and pay taxes and try to make it a nice community? We end up being the welfare supporters of the world in Anchorage; that’s going on in other countries, and I think that's just asinine.”

Kameron Perez-Verdia, Smith’s opponent for School Board Seat D, sharply countered his views Thursday.

“I don't agree with his comments, and I think they are offensive,” Perez-Verdia said. “And it’s important, I think, people understand that someone who is going to serve on the school board needs to be somebody who we can trust, needs to be somebody that can make fair decisions that doesn't come with ideologies or agendas but is really someone who can look at both sides of an issue and make a fair decision based on what works for all of our children.”

When asked about Smith’s opinion that instruction for students with language or special needs is holding back other students, Perez-Verdia denied both the opinion and its underlying premise.

“I don't agree that students who are special needs or who speak a different language are holding our school back,” Perez-Verdia said. “All students bring different needs and all of those different needs bring challenges to our schools, to make sure we're meeting those needs.”

Perez-Verdia says he also considers the district’s diversity a strength rather than a liability.

“Diversity of our school, diversity of ability, diversity of language, diversity of culture, are all things that I think bring a richness and improve the environment of our school,” Perez-Verdia said.

Susan Bomalaski, Catholic Social Services’ executive director, says the group has invited Smith to visit its program after hearing his comments Wednesday.

“I was pretty distressed that someone that's running for a position like the school board appeared to have misinformation about the refugee population here in Anchorage, and that there is a lot more to it than that,” Bomalaski said.

According to Bomalaski, the students Smith refers to are part of CSS’ Refugee Resettlement Program, which the group operates as a designated resettlement agency with the State of Alaska. About 80 to 100 people arrive in Alaska annually, under a federal agreement.

“Within six months 80 percent of those families are employed, so they are already giving back into the system,” Bomalaski said. “There are some federal funds that come with refugees early on to help them get settled -- that first month’s rent, get a place to stay -- but those funds very quickly go away, and they are expected to be employed.”

In Bomalaski’s view, it’s more important to focus on what refugees give to Anchorage rather than what they take from it.

“I think the point to that that Mr. Smith is missing, is that instead of looking at people who come here from elsewhere as bringing down the system, it should be the opposite way -- that these individuals bring a richness and diversity to this city that wouldn't exist otherwise,” Bomalaski said.

ASD spokesperson Heidi Embley declined to comment on the “Running” interview Thursday, beyond noting that Smith’s race is one of several issues affecting the district on the April 1 ballot.

“We encourage people to make an informed decision on Election Day,” Embley said.

Channel 2’s Austin Baird and Amberia Hill contributed information to this story.