School finance lawsuit put off

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2006

Suing the state over its alleged failure to fund peninsula schools adequately and fairly seems like a worthy idea, members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly agreed Tuesday in Seward, but timing could be critical.

Assembly President Ron Long, of Seward, said the suit proposed last month by Mayor John Williams was discussed during the Policy and Procedures Committee meeting prior to the regular meeting Tuesday night. That night, the assembly voted to postpone formal action on the mayor’s request for a nod of approval for a suit until the May 16 meeting in Soldotna.

“In the meantime,” Long said, “we’ve urged the administration to get more information (about how a suit might proceed) and report back to us. Hopefully, we’ll have something back on that, and maybe there will be some action in the last few days of the legislative session that may help us make a better decision.”

State lawmakers are set to adjourn the regular session on May 9, though they are expected to remain in Juneau for a special session on oil-tax reform issues.

Mayor Williams announced April 24 that he had instructed his administration to begin preparing to sue the state of Alaska and ask the courts to rectify years of inadequate state funding to borough schools.

“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.”

Long said Wednesday that it appeared assembly members liked the idea of challenging the state on the schools funding issue.

“I think everyone recognizes that the kids have been inadequately funded for a long time. The courts may be the last best avenue, but timing is critical,” he said. “There was no consensus on the timing. Some wanted to go forward right away to send a message to the Legislature. Some wanted to wait in hopes of not sending the wrong message.”

Depending upon how the mayor’s suit is pursued, it may require finding a primary plaintiff other than the borough itself. Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said Wednesday that an equal protection claim would require a person to serve as plaintiff. The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that a school district, as an entity, cannot sue on equal protection grounds, only persons can, and the school district is not a person.

However, the borough is looking at other avenues, Thompson said. One option would be to pursue a claim of a lack of adequate state funding for education based on Article 7 of the Alaska Constitution, which requires the state to establish and maintain a system of schools.

A 2004 suit, Moore v. State, already headed for a court date in Anchorage Superior Court in October, has both persons and entities, including several school districts and NEA-Alaska as co-plaintiffs.

The assembly also voted to postpone action on a proposal to raise the borough’s motor fuel tax rates until May 16. The proposal would boost the amounts paid biennially by vehicle owners. If adopted as is, the ordinance would go into effect in January.

Vehicle taxes depend on vehicle size. The revised rates would affect all categories. For example, over the course of a decade, the increases would cost the owner of a new passenger vehicle or pickup truck $175 more, an average of $17.50 more per year. The owner of a new 18,000-pound commercial truck, on the other hand, would pay $1,262 more over the same 10-year period, for an average of $126.20 more per year.

In other action, the assembly added still another hearing, this one on Aug. 1, for the proposed rewrite of the borough’s materials site code. The changes could have important effects on gravel pit operations. The assembly has hashed over issues surrounding gravel pits and their impact on surrounding water supplies for more than a year.

The assembly also passed a resolution approving a move by the administration to begin charging service areas and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administrative fees for work performed on their behalf by the central government. Until now, the central government has retained interest earned on an internal investment pool of service area and other funds as compensation for intergovernmental services.

However, a review of that procedure determined that the cost of providing the services was more than was gained in interest earnings.

The resolution permits the central government to begin charging certain rates for services. Interest earned in the investment pool account will no longer be retained by the central government, but will be held and available to the service areas.

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