"We are done waiting"

Borough prepares to sue over education funding

Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is preparing to sue the state of Alaska and ask the courts to rectify years of inadequate state funding to borough schools, Mayor John Williams announced Monday.

“We have been pressing the state of Alaska for years to address the significant under-funding of local education to no avail,” he said in a prepared statement, noting that state lawmakers, despite assurances, have failed to address the issue yet again.

“We are done waiting for them to take action.”

Williams said he would seek approval for the suit at the Tuesday’s meeting of the borough assembly. In the meantime, his administration has been instructed to begin the formal process of filing suit.

“The Kenai Peninsula Borough encompasses nearly 25,000 square miles and has 44 schools, several of which are in remote and isolated locations, and we are expected to fund and operate these schools as if they were in downtown Anchorage. It is an unacceptable situation that we have waited long enough for relief from. The only option left to us, based on the apparent lack of response from the state Legislature, is the courts.”

Williams pointed to the state’s area cost differential (ACD), a factor in the Foundation Funding Formula through which schools are allotted state funding. The system uses the urban Anchorage School District as the base, giving it a cost differential multiplier of 1.00, and rates more rural districts with higher factors.

Since 2001, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has had an ACD rating of just 1.004, a multiplier just four-thousandths of a point higher than Anchorage’s. The borough has objected to this low cost differential factor ever since it was established.

The area cost differential is meant to address regional financial issues, such as the added costs associated with delivering education in remote locations such as Port Graham, Tyonek, Seldovia and Nanwalek that are accessible only by boat or plane. The borough’s ACD fails to accomplish that.

A recent analysis of the cost differential done by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) said the borough was being seriously under-funded and should have a cost differential factor of 1.171, a factor that would have resulted in an additional $70 million in state appropriations since 2001.

Lawmakers have promised to fix the cost differential inequities for several years, and though per-student appropriations have been adjusted upward over the past two years, no adjustment to the area cost differential has been adopted.

“We were hopeful earlier this year that this situation was finally going to be addressed by the state of Alaska through adjusting the ACD, given the $1.6 billion budget surplus and the brighter outlook for future state revenues,” Williams said. “But it again appears no changes will be made by the state to the ACD.”

Williams said he was not pleased to have to resort to the courts, but is preparing to because it appears state lawmakers have left the borough little choice.

“The future of our school system and our children must be protected,” he said.

Williams said if the assembly approves the action, he would move immediately to file suit.

Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said between now and Tuesday, her office will gather and evaluate available facts, look at other lawsuits of a similar nature in Alaska and in other states, and pull together a report for the assembly.

Lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools have been filed in 45 of the 50 states, including Alaska.

According to a Web site devoted to a Columbia University project called the Campaign for Educational Equity, which tracks court cases across the country, in 1997 a group of Alaska plaintiffs filed suit (Kasayulie v. State) arguing the state’s method of funding education capital projects violated the Alaska Constitution and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. They won a partial summary judgment in which a Superior Court judge held that Alaska had a “dual, arbitrary, unconstitutional, and racially discriminatory system for funding school facilities.”

In 2001, the court rejected a state motion to reopen the case. Following that decision, the state appropriated more funding for construction and renovation of rural schools.

In 2004, another suit (Moore v. State) alleged the state’s education funding system was inadequate and inequitable, which resulted in high teacher turnover, an inability to offer certain classes, and at some schools a lack of money to fund needed positions, libraries, textbooks and supplies. Last August, a state Superior Court denied a state motion to dismiss the case. That case is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Anchorage Superior Court.

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