House, Senate consider school bonds

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state House and Senate are considering separate $269.5 million bond packages to repair or build Alaska schools but some rural legislators say the measures don't go far enough.

Senate Bill 310 calls for fixing or building schools with money raised by general obligation bonds, which need the approval of voters and are paid off over time through the revenue taken in by state government.

House Bill 281 proposes using revenue bonds guaranteed with income expected from Alaska's share of the settlement with tobacco companies.

Sen. Al Adams, D-Kotzebue, said he is less concerned with how bonds are paid than what they pay for. The bills call for building only five rural schools on the state Department of Education's priority list.

''We would like 40,'' he said.

The bills call for building new schools at Pilot Station, Chevak, Kotlik, Elim and Manokotak. But it also proposes repairs for projects throughout the state, from roof repair in Juneau to carpet replacement at six schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Adams said building all the needed rural schools would cost about $350 million and would address the concerns expressed in a lawsuit that accused the state of providing inadequate schools in the Bush.

For years, the Legislature has approved money for school construction without following a list compiled by the state Department of Education that ranks schools by need. A judge ruled that practice violated the state constitution and federal civil rights law because it bypassed expensive school construction projects in predominantly Native areas.

Adams said the bond bills do not address enough schools on the list.

''We've only taken the top five and then skipped around,'' Adams said. ''That's why we're still opposing it.''

In January, Gov. Tony Knowles held a press conference in Togiak to propose spending $510 million over the next three years, including $360 million in revenue bonds, to clear most of the Department of Education's priority list. The other $150 million was proposed to reimburse communities that issue their own bonds for school construction.

The plan would have replaced 40 of the 69 most rural schools on the list and completed 86 projects on the maintenance list. The plan called for the state to make 70 percent of bond payments for projects in urban districts.

Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, acknowledged that the bond proposals would not resolve all the concerns expressed in the lawsuit.

''I think you could make a strong statement that we have made a good first step,'' said Mulder, R-Anchorage.

He said majority lawmakers question whether the judge was given enough information on how the Legislature has picked school projects.

Mulder said the House version, using tobacco money, could get money to schools quicker -- three to four months in some cases.

''We wouldn't totally miss the building season,'' Mulder said.

General obligation bonds would need voter approval in November.

The revenue bonds would also assure that Alaska receives settlement money even if tobacco companies are bankrupted by other lawsuits, Mulder said, because that risk would be shifted to bondholders.

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