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Cuts in Funds to Rural Alaska Districts Called Political

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A move to cut more than $1 million from the budgets of nine small rural school districts has touched off a bitter partisan battle in the Alaska legislature.

Critics say the Republican-backed reductions were aimed at schools in the districts of two Democratic senators.

"It's vindictiveness,'' said Sen. Fred Zharoff of Kodiak, one of the two Democrats apparently targeted by the Republicans, who hold slim majorities in both chambers.

"What it boils down to is a political decision,'' Senator Zharoff charged. "They are trying to hold a hammer over two rural legislators.''

The episode began this month in the Senate, where Republicans voted to cut $1 million from the education budget for "single site'' districts--small rural systems with only one elementary school and one secondary school.

The districts have usually been given funding beyond the basic state education formula because of their low tax base and their higher per-pupil costs.

The Senate cut funding for only nine of the state's 21 single-site districts. All nine were in the Senate districts of either Senator Zharoff or Sen. Georgianna Lincoln of Rampart.

Observers said they suspect Senator Lincoln was singled out for retribution because she is a former Republican who switched parties. Senator Zharoff is said to have angered some Republican lawmakers with his handling of their bills as chairman of the finance committee in the last session.

"I am pretty sure it's punishment for those two legislators,'' said Greg Giles, a spokesman for the Association of Alaska School Boards. "It was pretty blatantly political.''

Mr. Giles noted that most of the districts whose funding was cut have a majority enrollment of Native Alaskan students.

Used to Gravy?

Republicans have denied any political motivation for cutting funding of the nine rural districts.

"Over the years, they've been used to getting a bonus, gravy,'' Sen. Tim Kelly of Anchorage said this month on the Senate floor.

After an acrimonious session on March 16, the House voted to go along with the cuts. The budget has been sent to Gov. Walter J. Hickel, a former Republican who was elected in 1990 as an independent.

One school district affected by the cuts will be Hoonah, which is located on an island 60 miles west of Juneau. The district faces a loss of $160,000 out of a budget of $2 million.

"We would have to reduce staff and supplies and make other cuts,'' said Superintendent John Anttonen. "There doesn't seem to be a particularly logical reason for the elimination of [funding for] the nine districts.''

The rural districts are now pinning their hopes on a separate House bill to restore the funding.

Mr. Anttonen said he planned to testify in favor of the bill before the legislature by audio hookup late last week.

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