Alaska has agreed to pay for the replacement or repair of schools in five remote villages, signaling an end to a 14-year-old lawsuit that forced the state to revamp the way it guarantees funding for school construction in rural areas.
Although the settlement is confined to five school projects, the effect of the lawsuit itself has been far-reaching, according to those who led the effort. It triggered the opening of state coffers for more than $1.2 billion in school facilities projects in villages over the past decade and led state lawmakers to pass a measure last year that establishes a new, permanent mechanism for state funding of rural school construction projects.
In a move announced this month, the parties in the case have all signed off on an agreement : Alaska’s commissioner of education, Mike Hanley; its attorney general, John J. Burns; the 12 plaintiffs, who are parents and school superintendents in Alaskan villages; and Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children, a rural superintendents’ advocacy group that brought the case. But the agreement still must be approved by Gov. Sean Parnell and by the superior court judge on the case.
The settlement directs the governor to include in his proposed budgets for fiscal 2013, 2014, and 2015 funding to repair or replace one school each in the villages of Emmonak, Koliganek, Nightmute, Kwethluk, and Kivalina, all in southern or western Alaska. Those five projects carry a combined estimated price tag of $146 million. The settlement gives the plaintiffs the right to reopen the case if the legislature doesn’t approve the projects.
When the lawsuit, Kasayulie v. State of Alaska, was filed in 1997, “we had schools where water was pouring in, where doors wouldn’t close so snow was blowing down the hallways. Kids were going to class in arctic parkas and boots,” said Charles Wohlforth, executive director of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children. “Because of this case, many of those problems have been addressed now. [The settlement] takes care of the end of the backlog.”
In the original lawsuit, the parents and superintendents argued that remote and unincorporated areas of Alaska had no systematic access to state funding for school construction projects because they lacked a taxable base, and often, governance structures that could issue bonds.
By contrast, schools in cities and towns had taxable property and could issue bonds and benefit from a state bond-reimbursement program. That program, in place since 1977, reimburses cities that issue bonds for school construction by paying them 70 percent of the value of the bonds when they come due for repayment to bondholders, said Elizabeth Nudelman, Alaska’s director of school finance and facilities.
Unable to generate resources or participate in the reimbursement program, remote villages with dilapidated schools found themselves “at the mercy and whims” of state lawmakers when they needed to pay for capital projects, said Mr. Wohlforth.
In 1999, Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled the state’s approach to school facilities funding unconstitutional, saying it had a “dual” system that discriminated against rural areas, which are populated mostly by native Alaskan people. He reaffirmed that ruling in 2001 when the defendants sought reconsideration. (“Judge Finds Flaws in Alaska’s Funding Of School Facilities,” April 4, 2001.)
In the face of those rulings, the state established a list of high-priority school construction projects, and the legislature began funding them. In the previous decade, Mr. Wohlforth said, no facilities projects in rural areas had been funded.
Last year, lawmakers passed a measure guaranteeing the state will provide for rural districts about one-quarter of the amount it reimburses cities that benefit from the bond-reimbursement program.
“Our schools used to be in terrible shape. There was asbestos in there. There were lots of other problems,” said Rob Picou, the superintendent of the 80,000-square-mile, 1,650-student Bering Strait district, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “But there is still plenty of need in rural Alaska. So the fact that the government has established a rubric by which to fund rural education will have a huge impact.”
Mr. Wohlforth said that “fresh faces” and a new approach to negotiations made the settlement possible. Chief among the new faces was Gov. Parnell, a Republican. He was lieutenant governor to Gov. Sarah Palin, replaced her when she resigned in 2009, and was elected to a full term in 2010. The other new player was Mr. Hanley, a former Anchorage elementary school teacher and principal who stepped into the state chief’s job in February, after being appointed by the state board of education and approved by Mr. Parnell.
In contrast to earlier years, when conversations about the Kasayulie case were characterized by “teams of 10 lawyers and consultants on either side of the table,” this past year has been marked by impromptu, personal phone calls from Mr. Hanley, said Mr. Wohlforth. State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, the Democrat who co-chairs the Senate’s Finance Committee, told local reporters that Gov. Parnell would hop on small planes with him to visit the villages in need of school repair.
“It’s been a refreshing change in the long context of an urban versus rural conflict,” Mr. Wohlforth said. “It’s a new atmosphere of trust and respect.”
Separately, the 7-year-old Moore v. State of Alaska case, which challenges the way the state pays for interventions in low-performing schools, is in settlement discussions, Mr. Wohlforth said. (“Alaska School Aid System Challenged in Court,” Sept. 8, 2004.)
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Rural Schools Win Out As Long-Running Suit Gets Settled in Alaska