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Borough proceeding cautiously while school funding addressed

Mayor: lawsuit not dropped

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is not abandoning plans to sue the state of Alaska over inequitable funding for peninsula schools, the borough administration confirmed Tuesday.

“There seems to be some mixed signals as to the borough’s position,” Borough Mayor John Williams said Tuesday in response to an editorial appearing in Tuesday’s Anchorage Daily News.

That editorial said the borough had been persuaded not to file suit because of the Legislature’s decision to partially fund the University of Alaska’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) funding recommendations, and because of the formation of the Joint Legislative Education Funding Task Force, which begins meeting this week.

“By no means have we dropped the lawsuit idea,” Williams said.

Earlier this year, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved hiring two law firms that would work together on a two-pronged approach to encourage the state to increase funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Jermain, Dunnagan & Owens is preparing a lawsuit to be filed if Legislative efforts fail, and Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh was hired to lobby state lawmakers.

Borough officials are optimistic that the new task force will arrive at favorable recommendations by the end of summer and a special session will convene that would lead to a revamp of the state’s Foundation Formula, specifically a factor known as the area cost differential, which compares the borough with the base urban area of Anchorage.

Anchorage is given a cost factor of 1.0. The borough’s cost factor is 1.004, far two low, district officials say, to adequately cover costs. The inequitable cost factor has underfunded the borough by perhaps as much as $100 million over the past decade, the borough has said.

Lobbying efforts seeking legislative relief have not worked so far, though lawmakers in the past few years have made single-year appropriations that increased funding over the formula. Much of the new money, however, has gone to cover rising fuel, insurance and retirement system costs, not to classroom instruction.

Despite the latest moves by the state, the borough is not prepared to abandon preparations for a lawsuit, the mayor said.

“We are not backing away,” he said. “We are just taking the slow approach to see what the special session brings and whether a plan is devised to take care of problems with the funding of our schools.”

Williams said the law firm working on the suit continues that effort, reviewing documentation and assorted education studies, and looking for a special group of parents to serve as plaintiffs. The school district and borough cannot file suit the state on their own, according to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Williams said the borough is especially seeking people who grew up in the KPBSD system and who may have children in borough schools now, because they would have first-hand appreciation for how things have changed.

Williams also took issue with a sentence in the Anchorage Daily News’ editorial that seemed to imply the borough was spending money on the suit that would be better spent on schools instead of paying lawyers.

“We are not spending any money that would otherwise go to children,” Williams said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has consistently funded schools to the limit set by state and federal law, often referred to as “the cap.” To exceed the cap would break the law, Williams said.

“This lawsuit by the borough is on behalf of the children. It has nothing to do with school district funds,” he said.

Williams’ chief of staff, Tim Navarre, said a story appearing in the Anchorage Daily News on Monday accurately reflected the borough’s feelings regarding the suit when it quoted Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Ron Long saying he was “cautiously optimistic” the borough could avoid having to go to court. But that’s not the same thing as giving up the suit idea altogether.

“We are optimistic,” Navarre said. “But these (recent legislative appropriations) are one-time fixes. The editorial misrepresented our position. Sure there is some hope and movement, but nothing has changed other than a little more funding under ISER. That is not a permanent fix.”

Now it comes down to the task force, he said.

“We are hopeful, but we are not backing away from a possible lawsuit,” he said.

Long said the two statements in the editorial were factually incorrect. Until the administration asks and the assembly approves withdrawing lawsuit funding there can be no change in the borough’s position, he said.

As to the $100,000 the assembly has appropriated toward preparing a lawsuit and lobbying the Legislature, that money could never have gone to the schools because of the cap.

“It could be used to fund other things, including other lawsuits, but not schools,” Long said.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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