Judge Finds Flaws in Alaska's Funding Of School Facilities

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The same judge who ruled 18 months ago that Alaska discriminates against its rural, Native Alaskan schoolchildren by failing to provide adequate school buildings handed down a similar ruling last week—except this time, he warned the legislature to fix the problem, or face the court's own solution.

Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled March 27 that the way Alaska pays for its school facilities is unfair to rural communities, in which Native Alaskan groups usually predominate.

"The present dual funding system is constitutionally flawed in form, and application," Judge Reese wrote in his ruling. "This court does have the power to require remedial action ... but would do so only with great reluctance."

The judge placed responsibility for changes in the system in the hands of state legislators. In recent years, the lawmakers have paid for some rural construction projects, but generally have bypassed a state priority list that identifies what officials consider the most desperately needed projects.

Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a $93 million school construction plan that included several rural projects, while also reimbursing the 50,000-student Anchorage district for some of its projects.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, had proposed a $510 million plan. This year, he has asked for $127 million worth of projects and for a statewide task force that would recommend a permanent system for dealing with school construction needs.

Last week's ruling supported Mr. Knowles' position, said Bob King, the governor's press secretary.

"The legislature has the opportunity to address all of the court's concerns by following the plan endorsed by the governor," Mr. King said. "I know legislators sometimes have the temptation to cherry-pick from that list. That only invites the type of court cases brought by Willie Kasayulie."

Willie and Sophie Kasayulie are parents from the remote, 400-student Yupiit school district, roughly 400 mountainous miles west of Anchorage. Their names appeared on a lawsuit filed five years ago on behalf of rural school districts.

John A. Davis, the president of the group of rural school districts that brought the suit, said the ruling concludes what rural educators have believed for years: The rest of Alaska doesn't fully understand the needs of schools in Native Alaskan villages.

"My overall goal is to see that every child has a reasonably adequate school facility. 'Reasonable' is one that doesn't have a leaky roof, that meets regular fire and safety codes," said Mr. Davis, who is the superintendent of the 1,200-student Bering Strait school district, which reaches across 50,000 square miles nearly to the tip of Russia.

He leads Citizens for Educational Advancement of Alaskan Schoolchildren, or CEAAC, the group of rural and smaller districts that brought the lawsuit.

Tough Choices

Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Republican and the vice chairwoman of the House committee that oversees education, said the state depends largely on oil revenue to build its budget, and sometimes must make tough financial decisions.

Still, she has proposed adjusting the state's school finance formula to help rural districts pay for a variety of needs. Her husband is the superintendent of the 500-student Wrangell schools on an island 100 miles southeast of Juneau, the state capital, and she says the schools' needs are legitimate.

"Republicans don't normally say, 'Give money, give money, give money,'" said Ms. Wilson. "In Wrangell, we've got a [school] wall that's ready to cave in, ... and that's minor compared [with some schools]."

Judge Reese's order says the state must find ways to provide better school facilities, not only to avoid a court-ordered solution, but also for the good of the state.

"The rural funding is political, and has been arbitrary, inadequate, and racially discriminatory. Education, health, and safety of our youth have suffered. The dignity of our own fellow citizens has suffered," he wrote. "As we spend the money available, we cannot spend it on urban, mostly non-Native children first, and then say there is not enough to go around."

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Page 23

Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Judge Finds Flaws in Alaska's Funding Of School Facilities
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