A delegation of parents had planned to be in Juneau today to meet with legislators about the financial woes of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
But late last week a legal glitch grounded their travel arrangements, leaving them and the district pondering their next move. Instead, a hastily reorganized contingent of eight district employees and elected officials left Tuesday night for the state Capitol.
The district had arranged for the borough to pay for plane tickets for 11 parents and two students to accompany six district and borough officials.
But last week borough assembly member Paul Fischer brought up the question of the legality of the payments on his radio show, "Sound Off." Fischer is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said, "I wish Paul had called me first."
Bagley said he agreed with Fischer that the assembly had said nothing about paying for parents. At first he thought there might be a way to move the funding around to both get the tickets and avoid a conflict.
"We were going to have them go," he said.
When he and Borough Attorney Colette Thompson checked the record, they verified that the original $10,000 the borough assembly authorized for the trip was for district and borough employees or elected officials. Assembly members said nothing about parents.
Moreover, when Thompson delved into the matter further, she discovered that state law bans such a payment unless the parents and students register with the state as official lobbyists. She listened to a tape of the assembly meeting, researched statutes and contacted the Alaska Public Office Commission.
"According to APOC, if the borough or the school district pays them to go to Juneau, that makes them lobbyists," Bagley said. "If they are going down on their own, it's perfectly fine."
Bagley credited the attorney with recognizing the problem with the original plan.
"If Colette had not gotten involved in this, (the trip) probably would have happened. Maybe," he said.
Schools Superintendent Donna Peterson said she had unrelated qualms about the trip after three school board members returned from Juneau last week.
They made the rounds of lawmakers' offices along with other members of the Alaska Association of School Boards. Their report suggested that it might be too early in the session to get the best advantage of sending such a large group and the parents, she said.
When Bagley called her into his office to explain the legal problems, that was "the nail in the coffin," she said.
"With all of those things working together, the decision was made not to do it," she said.
Peterson called each of the travelers individually to give them the news and invited them to a meeting Monday in her office to discuss the situation, education legislation and future plans.
At this point, the parents are considering options for making the trip at a later date. Their choices are: register as lobbyists with the state, find other funding sources to pay for the tickets or not go at all.
The original intent of the trip was to have the citizens witness to the need for more school funding and respond to critics in Juneau who accuse educators of asking for school dollars out of self-interest.
School board vice president Deborah Germano, one of those who visited Juneau with the AASB, expressed frustration with the change of plans.
"We want parents to be our cheerleaders and spokespeople. We don't want to put them in the middle of a bunch of political garbage," she said.
She called the ban on using public funding for private citizens to go to Juneau flawed. Alaska should do whatever it can to encourage public access and participation in Juneau. Such laws are being flouted in other parts of the state, she said.
"The law says what it says, and we can't dispute that," she said. "But I see it as a technicality."
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