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Feb. 14, 2002 Alaska Newspapers Inc. encourages passage of school bond package

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Legislators should support a school construction proposal introduced by Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

Senate Bill No. 257 would allow the state to issue $352 million in general obligation bonds to fund construction and maintenance in schools across the state.

The cost is significant and the state's financial condition is uncertain, but better education is everyone's responsibility. Graduation rates are inversely linked to poverty, suicide and joblessness, common maladies in many parts of rural Alaska. As graduation rates rise, those social ills decline and the quality of living across the state is better because of it.

Plus, we have no choice.

''We're acting on a moral obligation, a policy imperative, and now a legal mandate from the Kasayulie case,'' Hoffman said.

Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled last year that lawmakers have repeatedly ignored rural school projects in favor of urban schools. He ordered the state to fix the problem.

Legislators took steps to cure the disparity last year, building three new schools. That's a start, but it still leaves 57 schools in need of construction and another 115 in need of major maintenance, according to the state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Better conditions than that sparked riots during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but the problems are easily ignored in Alaska's small remote villages.

Students are in danger at the school in Nulato because leaking pipes are eroding the floor. Akiachak School had standing water in its crawl spaces and a pond beneath the school last year. Hooper Bay School was 162 percent over capacity. It's built next to a tank farm and sewage processing facility.

Problems like these must be addressed. SB 257 does that. Half the bond package would pay for building the first 19 schools on the DOE construction list. The rest of the money would eliminate the major maintenance list entirely.

The bill is cosponsored by five Democratic senators, but passage is hardly assured. With the Legislature facing a nearly $1 billion deficit -- and considering controversial new taxes -- increased debt is about as popular as the flu.

But Alaskans will support extra costs if they make sense. A poll last year by the Republican majority showed nearly 70 percent voter support for a $500 million school bond package. SB 257 would cost us far less than that.

There's no question what must be done. As Hoffman says, improving education is our legal mandate. More importantly, it's our moral obligation. ------



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