Since board members vote for their officers in secret ballot, it’s not known how broad her support was, but member Jeff Friedman said he’s glad the board opted not to give the job to a senior member, who might be more resistant to change.
“Anything can happen,” Friedman said. “I like the idea of putting someone in there who doesn’t know some of the reasons of why we said in the past we can’t do stuff. Instead, she’s just going to go and say, ‘How can we do it?’”
Friedman says Guess’ reputation as a lawmaker, adept at working across party lines, is a real asset to the board.
Sen. Johnny Ellis agrees.
“She had many fans across the aisle on the Republican side,” Ellis said. “Gretchen comes from a business perspective.”
Guess has worn many hats. During the Knowles administration, she was a researcher for Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway. She’s also worked as an education consultant for the Rand Corporation.
Guess is an economist by training and was a senior analyst for Alaska Communication Services. Currently, she works for Providence Hospital as a strategic planner.
Even so, Ellis says, the reaction at the capitol among his colleagues was one of shock that the board chose a newly elected member as their leader. “Everyone else around me said, ‘Oh my goodness. Gretchen just got elected, and they made her the head of the school board.” But Ellis says he was not surprised. “Gretchen was not a show horse. She was a work horse. That’s political terminology for someone who really isn’t out for the glory.”
Among some of her legislative accomplishments:
As a freshman representative she brokered a compromise between two powerful Republicans over the high school qualification exam. She also co-sponsored a bill on limiting the session to 90 days with two Republicans, Fairbanks Rep. Jay Ramras and Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner.
Guess says by nature, she tends to get along with people. “I look for win-wins,” a practice she hopes to continue on the school board. One of her top priorities will be to help the board do a better job of communicating with the public. She says the recent failure of school bonds points to a breakdown in community trust.
“We can say all the facts and figures, but if folks still don’t have confidence in us, then we need to address that, and I think the board is ready to do that as a whole,” Guess said.
Guess says the board has already decided to create a budget and finance committee to bring more clarity to the issues.
For Guess, public service is a family tradition. Her mother was a teacher and started Anchorage’s first “Romper Room” TV show.
Her father, Gene Guess, also served in the Legislature -- and during his last two years in office, was House Speaker. One of the ironies: school board member Don Smith, a Republican, served in the Legislature with her father, a Democrat, yet they worked alongside each other – a tradition Guess says she hopes to continue on the school board.
“At the end of the day,” says Guess, “If we put kids first and the classrooms first, and everyone learning, we’re going to be much better for it.”