Mayor backs school funding lawsuit

Assembly will decide whether to throw support, money in with existing plaintiffs

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2006

Mayor John Williams is looking for state money to fund education. Now he’s also looking for money to sue the state over its lack of education funding.

Williams is preparing to ask the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to approve contributing up to $400,000 to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the state of Alaska over inadequate education funding.

A measure appropriating the money will be introduced at the Tuesday assembly meeting, along with a request for a quick public hearing Sept. 5 so the money can be made available to plaintiffs before the suit, Moore et al v. State of Alaska, goes to trial in Anchorage Superior Court on Oct. 2.

That civil action, filed in 2004, alleged the state’s education funding system was inadequate and inequitable, resulting in high teacher turnover, an inability to offer certain classes and a lack of money to fund needed positions, libraries, textbooks and supplies at some schools.

Mayor Williams announced April 24 that his administration was considering filing suit against the state in an effort to rectify what he called years of inadequate funding to borough schools. According to the mayor, local schools have been under-funded to the tune of $70 million since 2001.

Noting that years of promises by state lawmakers to fix the state’s outdated Foundation Formula program and address inequities in its area cost-differential factor had resulted in nothing save Band-Aid appropriations, Williams said, “We are done waiting for them to take action.”

In May, the assembly unanimously authorized the administration to investigate the pros and cons of filing a civil action. The cost of such a lawsuit, however, could be substantial. Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said in May that unconfirmed reports suggested that Moore v. State had already cost between $1 million and $2 million.

A less-expensive option is to join, or at least financially back, the Moore v. State lawsuit.

Williams told the assembly in a memo that if the ordinance is enacted, the borough would enter into an agreement with the suing parties that would enable the borough to contribute up to $400,000 and participate in lawsuit strategy and negotiations following trial regarding possible remedies or appeals, depending on the trial’s outcome.

“Should the assembly choose not to participate in this case, then the administration intends to proceed with developing a different plan of action for the assembly to consider,” Williams told the assembly in his memo.

Plaintiffs in the Moore v. State action already have completed a significant amount of work, thus making it advantageous for the borough to participate, the mayor said.

“The parties have been working on that case for over four years,” he said. “Arguably, joining the Moore suit at this stage could save the borough from starting a new action that may result in a significantly later decision than will be rendered in the Moore case, even allowing for appeals.”

The Moore plaintiffs consist of a group of parents, school districts, National Education Association-Alaska Inc., and others. They seek a declaration by the court that current funding levels and the system employed to determine that funding fails to provide Alaska’s children with the adequate education required by the Alaska Constitution. In that declaration, plaintiffs want the court to define the parameters of a constitutionally adequate education and a court order that the state fund education accordingly.

The measure is Ordinance 2006-19-18.

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