Alaska Legislators OK Bond Plan For School Construction
Alaska lawmakers last week passed the largest school construction plan in the state's history, but it didn't satisfy Gov. Tony Knowles and others who say the bill will do too little to address the state's pressing facilities needs.
The bill calls for spending $198 million in bond funds over the next decade to pay for construction, maintenance, and facilities-related debt service in school districts across Alaska—from urban Anchorage to the farthest reaches of the bush.
Gov. Knowles, a Democrat, had not decided late last week whether to sign the bill, and has another two weeks to make up his mind. But one of his top aides called the plan passed by the Republican-controlled legislature "inadequate."
"It leaves gaping holes, almost literally, for many school districts," said Bob King, a spokesman for Gov. Knowles.
Speaker of the House Brian Porter, meanwhile, called the bill a "strong first step in an ongoing process" of financing school construction, while acknowledging that it "does not address all the critical concerns of the state." Rep. Porter, a Republican, said the package was a balanced plan and would help spur future legislatures to address needed projects.
Lawmakers approved the bill in response to a state supreme court decision last September that the legislature discriminates against many rural and Native American children by failing to provide adequate school buildings.
The court decision highlighted the tug of war between Alaska's urban and rural school systems. Anchorage and other more urban districts have had the financial ability to borrow money more easily for school construction, and voters have been more likely to approve bond issues in recent years. Rural schools are more dependent on the state and are unable to raise substantial money for improvements.
Alaskans, taxed at far lower rates than much of the nation, are reluctant to pay higher taxes, forcing many Republican lawmakers to support tighter spending, even during mostly strong economic times for the state. A citizen movement by petition may even force a statewide vote to cap local taxes.
Gov. Knowles called in his State of the State Address in January for $550 million to be spent on school construction, both as a response to the court decision and to address nearly 100 construction projects ranked by the state as most urgently needed, most of which were in rural areas.
But the bill passed last week would provide money for only 10 of those projects, according to the governor's office. The governor sees that as failing to address the problem—especially in rural schools—as ordered by the court.
Mr. King said the governor also has concerns about the plan because it goes out of its way to aid urban districts, especially Anchorage, which would be reimbursed for much of the cost of building projects that voters there approved last year.
"I hate to portray this as a rural-urban issue," Mr. King said. "Just as we're addressing needs in Anchorage and elsewhere, there are a number of other projects that are equally compelling. They need to be funded as well."
Republican lawmakers countered that $112 million of the bond funds would go to rural schools, compared with $86 million for urban schools' facilities needs. Funding for the bond plan would be drawn in part from Alaska's share of the multistate legal settlement with the nation's tobacco companies.
The leader of the state's association of superintendents and principals said administrators are torn between supporting a plan they see as inadequate and the risk of gaining nothing at all if a veto forces the issue to stall. The legislature is barred by law from passing bond bills two years in a row, those familiar with the process say.
"The problem is that the maintenance and construction needs of this state are much higher. That need has been reflected in the governor's call for funding," said Darroll Hargraves, the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, based in Juneau.
"Our best estimates are that the construction and long-term needs in this state in public schools would reach $700 million or $800 million," he said.
Besides cutting the governor's proposal nearly in half, lawmakers' reluctance to pay for more rural projects flies in the face of the court decision, Mr. Hargraves said.
Staff Writer John Gehring contributed to this report.
Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 25