Rural schools court ruling gets subdued reaction in Legislature

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2001

JUNEAU -- A judge's opinion that the Legislature violates the state constitution and federal civil rights law by discriminating against rural schools in allocating construction money may have little immediate effect, the co-chairman of the House Finance Committee said Wednesday.

''I'm not certain that it changes much of anything at this time,'' said Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage. ''This latest opinion just reinforces his earlier opinion.''

The problem remains the same, Mulder said. ''There's not enough money.''

Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled Tuesday in the Kasayulie case, named for the first plaintiffs listed in a suit filed against the state, that the Legislature has provided inadequate school facilities in rural areas. Reese said lawmakers passed over projects ranked highest on the Department of Education's lists for repair and replacement, many in districts with predominantly Native populations, in favor of urban schools.

Mulder said urban schools also could have filed suit to protest inadequate schools. ''They could have had an equally valid case,'' Mulder said.

In his nine years in the Legislature, Mulder said, legislators have approved three major schools construction packages and are working on a fourth.

''Have we been responsive and responsible? Yes.'' Mulder said. ''Has it solved the problem? No. We have done what we could with the amount of resources we have.''

Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, said the ruling should be a wake-up call for the Legislature. The Department of Education ranks 59 schools in need of major renovation.

''Only five are in urban areas,'' Lincoln said.

Some rural schools are 50, 60 or 70 years old. Children cannot adequately learn when they see snow blowing between the floor and the wall of their schools, she said.

Mulder said Judge Reese assumed that the process for putting schools on the major maintenance or new construction lists -- outlined in statute -- is fair and accepted by all school districts. It's not, Mulder said, and Railbelt schools rarely bother applying.

''They feel that the deck is stacked against them,'' he said.

Mulder said he would like to see schools divided into three categories with equal pots of money.

In one category, he said, would be the ''2,000-pound gorilla,'' the Anchorage School District. Another would contain communities that pick up 30 percent of the cost of their schools. A third would include rural school districts that pay 10, 5 or 2 percent of the costs. Schools within the categories would compete.

''That way all the school districts would feel they were evaluated fairly,'' Mulder said.

Lincoln said she supports Gov. Tony Knowles' plan: spending $127 million next year to build the first four schools on the construction list and to fix the first 46 projects on the major maintenance list with bonds backed by tobacco settlement money. Knowles also wants to replace or repair every school on both lists within five years.

Despite a warning from Judge Reese that he would issue specific orders if the Legislature failed to act, including telling the state how much to spend on school construction, Mulder said legislators will continue paying for rural and urban schools in the context of the state's entire needs.

''Education isn't our only constitutional responsibility,'' Mulder said.

''Our job is to produce an overall budget where all those needs are balanced,'' he said. ''I think we've done a pretty good job of balancing those needs.''

Knowles' press secretary, Bob King, said the Legislature has the ability to deal quickly with the court's concerns.

''The Legislature can satisfy the concerns of the court in this matter simply by moving forward on the school construction projects that the governor has put forward,'' King said.

Collin Middleton, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said Reese choose the ''appropriate middle ground'' by giving legislators a chance to come up with a fair funding mechanism and an interim plan while they're figuring it out.

''We're happy to meet with the Legislature any time to solve the issue that Judge Reese has now twice pointed out,'' he said.

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